An internationally recognised university that every top student would long to be part of — that is Lehlohonolo Mofokeng’s vision for the University of the Free State (UFS).
“I envisage a university that is not seen as a racism hot spot but the competitive learning environment that it is,” the first-year BEd student told the Mail & Guardian.
Since the notorious Reitz residence video hit the headlines nearly two years ago, followed more recently by another student-initiation video, some have taken to referring to UFS as the “Film Institute of the Free State”.
But this week, the university embarked on a new initiative which marks a decisive break with its controversial past.
Seventy-one first-year students from all the UFS campuses, selected for an innovative mentoring initiative called the Student Leadership Development Programme, flew to the United States on Thursday to visit selected campuses.
They will spend the next two weeks at New York University, Appalachian State University, Cornell University, Binghamton University, University of Minnesota, College of the Holy Cross, University of Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke and Cleveland State University.
In groups of eight to 10, the students will attend programmes tailored for them based on their personality profiles and leadership experience. The programmes focus on leadership and diversity and the students will join social dialogue forums and explore everyday student life on campus.
They will mentor first-year students next year, developing leadership programmes for them and running volunteer programmes in residences and on campus in general.
The students know that when they return from the US they will need to roll up their sleeves and get down to work.
“With this opportunity comes a lot of responsibility,” Tshepiso Motlolometsi, a BSc student studying behaviour genetics, told the M&G.
They all share a powerful desire to contribute to transformation at UFS.
Hermann van Heerden, a BEd student who has been confined to a wheelchair all his life, said travelling to the US would broaden his horizons and help him contribute positively to the university, and Lerato Tala, who is studying accounting, said she wanted to get out of her comfort zone and learn new things.
Nandi Bester, studying for a BA in political transformation and governance, believes that transformation takes time, so she wants to gain all the insight she can from her trip to help with integration at UFS.
“I love UFS and I will do everything I can to help make the university a better place for everyone, a place in which colour is not seen,” she said.
BCom student Sibusiso Tshabalala said transformation was not merely a matter of correcting the ratios of white and black students but depended on “a total overhaul and transformation of our mindset as students. The programme will prove that, if there is mutual respect and a shared vision, transformation is possible on our campus”.
The group had a shared vision, said William Clayton, a student of political transformation and governance, and all believed in the university and its potential to be transformed.
Medical student Zine Steenkamp believes the programme shows that the UFS is committed to positive transformation.
“It’s an active step forward in providing young people and possible future leaders with the right tools to address sensitive issues,” she said.
While in the United States, the 71 UFS students will share their impressions of the universities that host them and the places they visit. Their diaries will go live on M&G Education Online over the next two weeks. Find them here