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Lucia Pelser and Meshack Thusi

Meshack Thusi is a third year student at the University of Johannesburg studying electrical engineering. Life for him has been a struggle but he is determined to make something of himself. Setting out from the village of Zwelishane in Mpumalanga with R3000 in cash earned by his street vendor mother, Julia Mkhonto, he headed off to Gauteng and the University of Johannesburg. A rural boy from a poor family, he knew this was his only chance to make something of himself.

 

Despite having no income he managed to get himself registered at the university but his attempts to obtain funding from the NSFAS, the South African government student loan and bursary scheme, were fruitless. A fellow student from his home town tried to provide support by letting Meshack sleep over whenever the landlord was away and by sharing what little food he had.

Aside from having no food and accommodation, Meshack also had no money for textbooks, stationery and the other sundries many of his fellow students take for granted. He resorted to sleeping on campus, hanging around until late in the evening before climbing through open windows to find a safe place to sleep for the night.

His story could have been yet another variant on the student drop-out, but UJ’s engineering faculty had been influenced by the good-hearted generosity of former personal assistant, Lucia Pelser, to start paying attention to the overall well-being of its students.

At 10 pm one night, Lucia received a phone call from Dr. Norah Clarke who had been going through first year survey forms filled out as part of the university’s First Year Experience programme which aims to assist students with the transition from school to university. The survey is intended to provide details on how first year students are coping with the transition, and what Norah read on one of the survey forms disturbed her greatly.  She phoned Lucia to alert her to Meshack’s situation…

Lucia couldn’t sleep that night knowing that one of her students was struggling so.  A self-appointed mother to the engineering students at UJ, she had created her own position as Relationship Co-ordinator through her own kind-heartedness. All her life Lucia has cared deeply for those around her, and the death of her two sons and her daughter being seriously injured in a car accident has made her even more determined to help others. “It’s better to give than to take,” she says.

“Lucia is showing us the true version of humanity,” says Meshack. “I don’t want to disappoint her. We engineers are privileged to have Miss Lucia… it seems easy because we have her.“

Trained as a graphic designer Lucia took a position at UJ as a personal assistant to Prof. Wimpie Clarke at the electrical engineering department. The well-being of the students she encountered quickly became a major concern to her. Soon she was identifying quiet places for the students to study, helping them find suitable accommodation and bringing them food from home.  Her activities came to the attention of her boss, who told her to stop her “underground activities” and take them above ground. People, he said, needed to know what she was doing so that she could help more students.

Once word got out that there was a “mother” in the electrical engineering department, more students went to Lucia for help and in 2010 Prof. Wimpie Clarke pushed her to go full time with her “mothering” activities. In 2012, following appeals from the other engineering departments, Lucia was moved to the Faculty of Engineering where she could be in a position to help all engineering students, and not just the electrical engineers. She was appointed as Relationship Co-ordinator for all engineering students at both the university’s Auckland Park and Doornfontein campuses, overseeing the well-being of over 4000 engineering students.

Returning to Meshack’s story… Lucia still remembers the time she gave him his first textbook, a second-hand one. “He sat there with it, rubbing his fingers along the covers, slowly up and down. The next day he was in my office, his precious textbook in a plastic bag. I handed him an old conference bag to keep his book in. It was his only bag… when he got mugged later that year in Brixton, he pleaded with his attackers not to steal the bag that Miss Lucia had given him…”

“Meshack goes through tough times. Times when he goes hungry,” continues Lucia, “but he is determined to get his degree, that is why I will go the extra mile for him.”

“Everything is possible if you put your mind to it… despite your circumstances,” interjects Meshack. As a young boy growing up in Zwelishane, near Nelspruit, he knew that he wanted to make something of himself. “It’s hard,” he says, “for youth in the rural areas to find a way out.” Encouraged by his Maths teacher Mr. Mandlaka at Mandlesive High School, who passed away last year, and his Principal and Physics teacher Mr. Mlombo, Meshack studied hard. “I wanted to be involved in doing something big… designing things…” he says.

Meshack initially registered as a mechanical engineering student, but once his personal circumstances had been stabilised his experience at university saw him being drawn towards an electrical engineering degree. But before altering his academic path, Meshack had to get past Lucia who was concerned about the motivation for this change. On hearing that his decision was soundly based on his interest in telecommunications and automation, she gave her approval and support for this change in vocation.

These days Meshack is a third-year student with dreams of working at SASOL and travelling the world. Lucia has other plans for him though. She is encouraging him to continue with a Masters degree once his four-year engineering degree is complete. Meshack has other concerns too. He wants to help his mother, and provide her with support. “For the sake of my Mum, I need to get working,” he says. “She is so proud of me… seeing me and my laptop,” he says, adding that their roles have changed, with him being treated as an elder of the family.

For now, Meshack’s financial position is stable. EE Publishers, has provided R25 000 towards his 3rd year tuition fees, with the remainder sponsored by Plasserail.

Chris Yelland, managing director of EE Publishers, says the company is proud to be associated with UJ’s Faculty of Engineering. “I am delighted our donation of R25 000 is being used to assist Meshack continue and complete his studies. We are looking forward to receiving feedback on his progress. We also challenge other companies to get involved in supporting students in need at UJ and at other tertiary institutions.”

Aside from working on his studies, Meshack is helping Lucia to “mother” his fellow engineering students in need. He gives talks to first year students. “You think life is hard,” he tells them, “but look at me… anything is possible.” He also assists with the mentoring programme, helping first years with time management and the correct study methods.

Lucia says there is a big need for money to assist students who have managed on their own so far but who need help. It is four months into 2015, and she has helped 17 of her “kids” get bursaries, another seven find vacation jobs, and nine graduates find employment. She is also working on finding bursaries for 37 electrical engineering students, from first through to fourth year.

Her work is starting to overflow into other faculties at the University of Johannesburg, and also to other universities. Lucia is happy to share her knowledge and experiences of helping her engineering students. “It’s my passion,” she says. “I want to be part of their lives.”

“She is here for us 24/7,” adds Meshack. “Our lives will never be the same because of her.”

It’s no surprise to hear that Lucia was awarded the 2014 UJ Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Service Beyond the Normal Call of Duty. All strength to her and her students.

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Not surprisingly, land surveying, engineering surveying and geomatics have been identified as scarce skills by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in its “Skills for and through SIPs” report. Occupational teams preparing the report first analysed the 18 Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs) making up the National Infrastructure Plan, identified the projected scarce skills and provided suggestions on how to address the skills scarcity.

With regard to schooling, the teams suggested that numeracy programmes be introduced at primary school to insure that all secondary school entrants have the basic numeracy skills in place. They propose that Maths and Physical Science be given priority, that teachers undergo training in their subjects, and that teachers be rewarded for successful outputs. They advise that an equivalent of Maths Higher/Standard Grade be re-introduced in preference to Maths Literacy. They also recommend that Senior Certificate results, in particular for Maths and Physical Science, not be adjusted to achieve a higher pass rate, and that matric outcomes be better aligned with higher education requirements.

In terms of theory, the report suggests that increased funding be made available to accommodate higher enrolment numbers and to provide the necessary infrastructure. It recommends that salaries for lecturing staff be increased by at least 25%, that additional staff be employed, and that minimum qualification requirements for lecturing staff at universities of technology (UoTs) be dropped while simultaneously developing their capacity at a postgraduate level.

The professional occupational teams advise that major workshops be convened with industry to determine the required qualifications and courses, as well as the most sought after graduate attributes. They also suggest that institutions needing to roll out new courses be encouraged to start working with the DHET and industry on content.

The report proposes that the most effective teaching tools and methods be identified, and then be introduced nationally. It calls for student tutoring support to be expanded, and for numeracy programmes be rolled out at UoTs. That summer/winter schools be introduced and that “killer subjects” be repeated in each semester. It further proposes that admission policies, assessment methods and targets be reviewed with a view to improving throughput, and that the number of bursaries for SIP Professionals should be expanded.

However, if the proposals outlined in this report are to have any chance of sustainable success, it is essential that the Department of Basic Education get its house in order, as this is where the rot first sets in.

Primary school children need to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter and who are held accountable for their output. Primary school teachers must be allocated reasonably-sized classes and provided with the necessary tools and resources. Struggling learners need to be given more assistance in the primary stages, and promoting pupils who do not meet the required standard has to stop.

Solutions can be devised to assist students at secondary and tertiary level who are not up to scratch, but sustainably enhancing our SIPs skills capacity, for both professional and non-professional occupations, requires a refocusing of our primary school education system, and a clear determination to get education working from the bottom up.

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