The three pillars of scholarly success

Investing in the future of South Africa requires building strong educational foundations that last

Investing in the future of South Africa requires building strong educational foundations that last

The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is committed to improving the lives of children living in urban poverty around the world. The foundation launched Dell Young Leaders in 2010 — a bursary programme with a difference. This programme provides students with systemic support as they move from high school through their university studies to finding employment after they graduate. Dell Young Leaders looks after each student across three very distinctive areas of their life and, by doing so, changes the outcomes of their education.

“The programme was created by the foundation to increase the number of disadvantaged South Africans achieving their career goals and moving into high-demand professions such as medicine, engineering, and business,” explains programme director Thashlin Govender. “We are committed to building a new pipeline for talent, providing students with the support they need to get through university and into their careers.”

To date, the Dell Young Leaders initiative has had extraordinary results. The persistence rate is 97.4% and the employment rate is 99.6% — exceptional percentages when research has found that the drop-out rate is around 37.3% on average. The persistence rate is, of course, the ability of the student to adhere to their chosen educational journey: getting through the hurdles of the first year, a tough period of adjustment, and achieving their full academic potential, with a degree at the end.

The academic path they have chosen is not a good fit and they are unable to cope with the subjects, the career or the transition from school to university. The programme helps students to overcome this by providing them with guidance around the right academic path, based on their specific interests and skills. This ensures that students choose the right studies from the outset and this makes it far more likely that they will complete their degrees.

Of course, this is not the only issue causing the high levels of student drop-out rates. A 2010 government report found that a lack of academic support for students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme was why so many of them — 48% — dropped out or didn’t complete their studies. These students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and face complex personal, social and educational issues that have a very real effect on their studies. The Dell Young Leaders programme sets out to partner with students and provides them with the financial, academic and psycho-social support they need so they can achieve their goals.

“It is a relationship-based support model so we can ensure that our students get where they need to go,” says Govender. “We are privileged to partner with young people who have overcome significant adverse backgrounds, who have worked incredibly hard to get into the best universities, and we give them the strength they need through our staff, other students and our alumni.”

The foundation advocates for the students on campus by recognising their unique needs and challenges. Many come from rural areas and aren’t used to navigating large university campuses. Some have little to no funds to help them with food or toiletries. The organisation makes provision to support the students in these situations and gives them the basics that they need to be successful.

“We have found that the trauma of leaving home can really affect the students,” says Govender. “There are even students who go through high school without ever being diagnosed with mental health issues, and these can kick in when they reach university. We give them the support infrastructure they need to deal with this.”

The psycho-social element of the programme is crucial in this regard. Not only does it give students a space in which they can recognise and assess their concerns, but it provides them with an understanding environment, which allows them to accept their feelings and remain focused on their education.

“There is an aspect that few people consider,” says Govender. “Often students come from a home environment that is so adverse that when they get to university and have three meals a day, a warm bed and electricity, it really affects them. They know that their siblings are back at home without any of these facilities and they start to question themselves. They have struggled long and hard to stop to be here, but it is hard to stay and be successful when they know that there is no food on the table back home. We help them to adjust and show them how to make full use of the opportunity they have been given.”

The programme believes that its success is defined by the success of its students and its ability to help them through incredibly adverse conditions, conditions that few people realise have such a profound impact on their lives and studies.

Dell Young Learners is not just focused on academia; it also helps the students to find employment once they have completed their studies. They connect employers looking for talent with young graduates who don’t have a network that they can leverage to build upon their success. These students don’t come from middle class families who can pull strings in their networks to find employment for their children. Instead they start with nothing. Dell Young Learners takes on this role, connecting the employer and the student to ensure the best possible connections.

“We also help the students to get to their job interviews and give them advice on how to do interviews,” adds Govender. “We have worked with organisations such as Uber to give them vouchers so they can get to the job interview. And we have helped them build relationships with other alumni and mentors so they can grow their own networks.”

The organisation has shown remarkable success in taking young people through the system and onto successful careers and lives. In 2019, the goal is to continue with this work, focusing on supporting students holistically so they remain in the system and focused on their education.

“We will keep on giving our students a complete ecosystem across financial, academic and psycho-social support,” concludes Govender. “We will also be leveraging our alumni, asking them to share their valuable experiences with students, while building stronger partnerships with corporates, non-profits and government. Ultimately, we want to keep on giving our students the best possible start in life.”