What the Commonwealth Scholarship means to the 2016 awardees
The 2016 Class of new South Africa’s scholars awarded Commonwealth Scholarships for 2016 enrolled from September to October, on a range of Masters and Doctoral studies at institutions in the United Kingdom (UK). These institutions, rated amongst the world’s top 100, include the University of Bath, the University of Cambridge, the University of Kent, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the University of Manchester, and Oxford University, just to name a few. At the time of writing this piece, 25 out of the 37 nominees for 2016 had accepted their awards and held this opportunity in high regard.
The Scholarship brings closer the realisation of a dream to optimise renewable energy in SA
For Arthur Ndumiso Moya, born and bred in Alexandra, North of Johannesburg, the pursuit of a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Materials at Oxford University is an exciting journey. Moya completed his undergraduate degree in Chemistry, Geology and Advanced Earth Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), an Honours degree in Applied Chemistry, and a Master’s degree in Materials Chemistry at the same institution. An employee of Eskom – at the time of receiving this award, Moya is passionate about renewable energy. In particular, he is curious about characterising energy-related materials using high-end electron microscopy.
Moya sees his journey at Oxford as an unfolding dream, guided by a vision. Once qualified, he hopes to optimise the use of solar materials in renewable energy in South Africa, and also to influence national policy (i.e. the National Development Plan) in this regard.
Back home, he did voluntary work, mostly with homeless people in the Johannesburg CBD. “I brought them food and talked a lot on philosophical issues. These were people perpetually exposed to the harshest elements, and who resorted to drugs to cope with their circumstances.” Before his enrolment at Oxford, he and his close colleagues at Eskom had been trying to design affordable, waterproof sleeping bags to help the homeless to survive harsh winter weather conditions.
By the time he left South Africa, Moya had published findings of two studies in Wiley Publishers’ Polymer Composites Journal, and Taylor and Francis’ Analytical Letters journal. In the former, he and his colleagues had published on the effects of carbon nano-fibres made from fly-ash on the mechanical properties of reinforced polyester hybrid composites. In the latter they shared findings on optimising temperature conditions for the extraction and monitoring of pharmaceuticals from wastewater. In addition, he had also published a popular article on 31 July 2015 in the Mail&Guardian, titled ‘Nano-fibres could solve energy woes’. At the time of this interview, he was planning to submit two more articles on his MSc research to peer-reviewed journals.
Lowton to use her time to mentor, inspire, and empower young people in South Africa
Zubeida Lowton, who is now at the University of Westminster to pursue a PhD in Politics and International Relations, is from the Southern suburbs of Johannesburg. Her research project at Westminster will explore the sustainability and liveability of a socially and spatially fragmented city, using Johannesburg, South Africa as a case study. She obtained her National Diploma and Bachelor of Technology in Town and Regional Planning at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in 2012 and 2013, respectively. She also graduated with a Master of Arts in International Planning and Sustainable Development (Urban Resilience Pathway) at the University of Westminster in 2014.
A proven high-achiever throughout her studies, Lowton received many accolades from primary school, all the way to post-graduate level. At UJ, she won the Dean’s Award (in Engineering and the Built Environment), being one of the Top 10 Achievers in 2009; and in the same year, the Top Achiever Award in Town and Regional Planning was bestowed on her by the City of Johannesburg. She had earlier also won UJ’s Award for Best First-Year Student in Town and Regional Planning, and Top Achieving Student in Land-Use Management. She went on to win the Golden Key from UJ’s Chapter of the International Honour Society in 2011, the South African Council for Planners (SACPLAN) Partial Bursary in 2011 and 2012, as well as UJ’s Merit Bursary in 2012. This bright mind graduated with 12 distinctions in her undergraduate degree, and was offered both the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship and the Chevening Scholarship in 2013 (she could only accept the former). She ultimately graduated with three distinctions in her Master’s programme in 2014.
With this track record, Lowton has no doubt that the sky is the limit.
While in the UK, she wants to develop further a mentorship-based, twinning network system which she had already started. This network is looking at pairing-off matric students in South Africa with professionals in industries in which they aspire to work, and to also create a link between these learners and students in disciplines they hope to pursue in the UK, as well as with relevant Commonwealth alumni. This plan, she says, was inspired by an awareness of obstacles confronting young people, which range from lack of information, scarcity of resources, limited funding and the dearth of mentors. She believes, nonetheless, that through information-sharing, these challenges can easily be overcome. The network she has in mind will not be confined to geographical areas. “I would like youngsters to think beyond their natural boundaries. This will help them get out of their comfort zone, think positively about their future and aim for more than ‘just enough’ in life. The network will become a platform for sharing ideas, job shadowing and internship opportunities.”
She hopes to complete her four-year PhD programme by 2020, at which point she wants to return to South Africa to make a contribution in the City of Johannesburg.
Taylor to bridge the science-management gap in the conservation field in South Africa
Also now settled in the UK is Janet Taylor, an MSc graduate in Grassland Science from the University of the Free State (UFS), now pursuing an MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge. She deems it a great privilege to be jetting off to study at a world-class institution, which she chose because her study programme is not available in South Africa — hence, her intent to return to South Africa, to apply the knowledge she will have gained.
Taylor, who hails from Pietermaritzburg, worked for the Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in KwaZulu-Natal, prior to her study break. Having a keen interest in the conservation of South Africa’s natural resources and wildlife, she notes that she was already making a meaningful contribution as a field scientist; she now desires to improve her leadership skills in order to complement her experience in the field. She chose to study Conservation Leadership in order to learn cutting-edge skills through in taught modules, which cover aspects of governance, management, communication, and enterprise and leadership in conservation. She has noticed that many people struggle to bridge the science-management divide in the conservation field, hence her aspiration to bring back new ideas and new approaches in conservation leadership to South Africa. “Conservation in South Africa is currently undergoing rapid transformation from being a domain of the elite to a land-use practice that is relevant to all citizens. The value of ecosystem processes, which maintain the ecological infrastructure that so many people rely upon, needs to be recognised.”
Also a BSc Ecological Science graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Taylor is a top academic achiever. Studying in the UK will enable her to be part of an international network of conservationists so that valuable skills can be developed, as experiences and knowledge are shared globally.
The Award is a passport to a yet-to-be-discovered career destiny
Qaphela Mashalaba, who hails from Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal, says that the Commonwealth now has sentimental value for him.
“This offer came at a crucial time when I was at a crossroads regarding my studies. In 2014, I was a third-year student in Actuarial Science at the University of Cape Town (UCT). But after a few short internships in insurance, I was not as inspired as I would have liked to be, despite being among the top performing students in my class. All I knew was that I loved Mathematics, but I also wanted to be in an innovative space. Financial engineering, as practiced in Wall Street in New York, fascinated me. I tried to venture into this field by looking at various Master’s programmes in Financial Engineering. I was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley. However, without any funding I could not realise what I’m certain would have been a live-changing opportunity. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach and knocked the air out of me.”
However, in 2015, he enrolled for an Honours degree in Statistics, “and that became one of the most fulfilling times of my life.” The Stats worked in his favour because to be able to pursue post-graduate studies in Mathematics at the leading international institutions I was considering, he I would have needed to take courses in Mathematics to make up for the fact that he was not a maths major. “As a result, alongside my regular Honours programme (which also had a dissertation component to it) I took up five extra Mathematics modules. It was an extremely difficult challenge, but through the combination of a clear vision and commitment, a flexible faculty, and extremely helpful friends, we made it!
“One of the courses I did in 2015 was in Algorithms. It was my first introduction to Computational Mathematics, and I was particularly intrigued by the way in which Mathematics and Algorithms complemented each other. So much was the intrigue that at the end of 2015, when my ambitions to go to the US had been thwarted, I came across a unique programme in Computational Mathematics, offered by the London School of Economics (LSE). My admission to LSE and this Scholarship award, therefore, has immense sentimental value. While the Scholarship, in itself, did not necessarily shape my vision, it brought its realisation closer — and my gratitude to the Commonwealth abounds.
“I’m now pursuing a degree in Applied Mathematics, an important stepping stone to what I would like to eventually attain. This includes working in finance and proceeding towards a PhD in Mathematical Finance or in Electrical and Computer Engineering.
“I have often found that people in finance and technology, from which I draw my biggest inspiration, have the largest impact in areas most remotely related to their core interests. Right now, it is not yet clear to me what my destination will be, but I’m convinced that I’ll get there, whatever it is.
“Upon my return to South Africa (probably halfway through 2017), I will spend the first six to eight months finishing off my Masters in Mathematical Finance with the University of Cape Town. Thereafter, I would like to take a break from formal study and work in finance, banking, or information technology.”
Leontsinis wishes to aid land-claims decision-making, using historical evidence
Nicholas Leontsinis, a 2013 Honours graduate in History at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), also greatly cherishes the opportunity granted to him through the Commonwealth Scholarship. In his past studies he chose to focus on South Africa’s rural history in order to understand why some sectors of society had historically gained an advantage over others. On completion of his Honours degree, in which he looked at the history of the Bakoni people in Mpumalanga, he was invited by his Wits professor to assist in some research study needed to facilitate a large land claim. He says exposure to that study made him realise that “despite the importance of land ownership, research on land claims often does not seem to pay any attention to the history and experiences of the claimant communities. Investigations tend to be dominated by lawyers, while the role that historians could play is often forgotten — this, despite forced removals and land expropriation being integral to South Africa’s past.” He says that he has since assisted in comparing oral evidence with archival material and aerial photography in order to understand how people were dispossessed of their land, and whether they do indeed qualify for restitution.
“I’m using my research skills to make a difference, contributing much-needed expertise in the area of land reform. The provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo are often overlooked by many researchers, reflecting an urban bias. The work that I have been involved in will, hopefully, bring a greater focus to rural land issues. I’m therefore grateful that the Commonwealth is funding me to pursue a Master of Arts in African Studies, with a focus on African Politics and Government, as well as gender issues in Africa.
“Besides this, I have a huge interest in the ethno-politics of the former Lebowa and Gazankulu, and the role of the apartheid regime in designating people to a particular group. Tribalism is also real in rural South Africa. For these reasons, I hope to continue with land-claims work when I qualify. Ultimately, I aim to go into academia so as to impress upon students the importance of history. I would like to promote this discipline and show students how it can enable them to make a difference in their communities.” Leontsinis is now studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) within the University of London.
Of the 17 scholars who attended the pre-departure event in July, seven were destined for Doctoral programmes, including in Clinical Medicine, Linguistics, Politics and International Relations, and Psychology. The rest have enrolled in lectured Master’s programmes in, among numerous other disciplines, Economics, English and American Literature, Law, Computer Science, and Applied Environmental Geology.
Meanwhile, Universities SA, which administers the Commonwealth Scholarships in South Africa as part of its direct support to the university sector, has since received applications for the 2017 Commonwealth Scholarship nominees. Applications closed on 18 November, and selection is set to take place on 06 December 2016.