By Sam van Heerden
The Community Engagement Division (RUCE) of Rhodes University plays an important role in the wider Makhanda through its various projects. But the lasting impact it has on its volunteers is less well known. To kick off RUCE’s Community Engagement Week for 2022, past winners of the Student Volunteer of the Year award took part in a panel discussion. Looking back on their volunteer experience, they reflected on how it contributed to their personal and professional development.
“I am a more responsible citizen through community engagement,” said Sanele Ngubo, Student Volunteer of the Year 2017. “It has helped me understand that I am not alone. ‘a society where my contribution is also directly attributed to my connection to society.
2020 Student Volunteer Award winner Claire McCann agreed, “A lot of our education takes place beyond the classroom,” she explained. McCann was inspired by the innovations and interventions of community partners such as GADRA Matric School, Makhanda’s leading educational NGO. Once one of the worst performing districts, Makhanda’s matric hit rates have steadily increased with the help of GADRA. “My connections within community engagement provided me with a space of hope and space for us to re-imagine what we wanted Makhanda and the rest of South Africa to look like,” she said. declared.
Sometimes it takes time to find the courage to take action and change things. You become a leader through learning, and the panel reflected on how volunteering provides many opportunities for this. “After landing my first leadership role [as a student volunteer leader]I became open to becoming someone who could get things done,” said 2018 winner Sesona Yedwa. “It instilled a sense of confidence.
But former volunteers have also learned that leadership requires teamwork. Many winners highlighted the indispensable value of working under the mentorship of RUCE staff members and partner sites, through whom they observed first-hand the qualities of ethical leadership. “I learned that leadership is not for me,” Ngubo explained. “What’s important is how you can serve and work with the community. People usually know what needs to be done or what they want to do, they just lack confidence. Leadership is about listening to understand. “
RUCE also provides space for volunteers to make mistakes and grow. “When I first heard about community engagement, I thought it was like charity work,” said 2021 winner Luyanda Hadebe, who was part of the annual extended orientation program that introduced the early years to community engagement. “But we’ve learned that community engagement is about working together with the community.”
Hadebe’s volunteer experience not only changed her view of community involvement, but prompted her to change careers from business to education.
Reflection is continuously encouraged as part of the RUCE volunteer program. “I learned that being a leader doesn’t mean you have to know everything,” explained 2019 winner Mandilakhe Valela. He suggested that ethical leadership is something that volunteers take with them into the world of work. “You know that whatever you do professionally, it doesn’t take away from the fact that you’re part of the community,” he said.
From leadership and teamwork skills to communication, panelists agreed that they fostered many employable qualities through community engagement. “In addition to general organization and planning, communication is something that I have developed through community engagement,” explained another 2019 winner, Sam Ncula. “I was part of the 9/10ths project, and we needed to have regular communication with our mentees. That was one of the biggest factors I brought into the workspace.”
Given that community engagement nurtures these vital ethical and professional qualities, RUCE coordinator Anna Talbot asked the panel what universities can do to better foster these relevant attributes of graduates. “Universities need to direct students’ interests outward,” Ngubo explained. One idea was to embed community engagement into the curriculum early in a student’s career through service learning. This involves applying what is learned in the classroom to the larger community context so that students can reflect on the impact and use of their knowledge.
“Any department can use service-learning as a point of reflection. We can learn a lot from the voices of the community, and it’s important to recognize that value,” McCann said. Valela added that it can help encourage young people to become “students of life”.
The world today is full of challenges for graduates, from youth unemployment to economic and political instability on the local and global stages. The roundtable demonstrated that community engagement helps develop responsible citizens and principled leaders with the confidence, self-reflection and skills to stand out in their profession and in the wider community.