“Be a contender,” Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng tells MasterCard Foundation Scholars

24 May 2017 | Story Natalie Simon. Photo Je’nine May.
UCT’s MasterCard Foundation Scholars at their welcome reception at the Baxter Theatre in April 2017.
UCT’s MasterCard Foundation Scholars at their welcome reception at the Baxter Theatre in April 2017.

“At every university, you get three types of students: spectators, pretenders and contenders,” Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation, told UCT’s MasterCard Foundation Scholars at their welcome reception in April.

Spectators, she said, know the game but never play it. They watch, criticise, and know what the players are doing wrong – but they never step into the field themselves. The trouble with being a spectator is that you never get any of the benefits. “Spectators always have to pay to be there,” she said.

Pretenders, on the other hand, do all the right things, or at least pretend to do all the right things, but they are only faking at playing the game. Those students are the ones who go to the library when their friends do, look at the computer screen or sit surrounded by a stack of books, but it is only for show.

“It is the contenders I am interested in,” Phakeng told the students. “Those who recognise that they are in a competition here, and that the competition is against yourself.” Real contenders are those who identify the standard, and then rise above it, who see what is expected of them and then deliver more. But more importantly, it is the contenders who go on to make a difference in their own lives and that of their communities.

The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program aims to educate academically talented yet economically disadvantaged young people, equipping them with the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to contribute to economic growth and social development within their own countries and communities. MasterCard Foundation Scholars at UCT receive comprehensive scholarships, which includes fees, accommodation, books and stipends, as well as training and a support structure. In return, an integral part of the programme is the commitment from scholars to give back to their communities and countries of origin.

UCT, as a partner to the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, provides 338 scholarships over 10 years to students from Sub-Saharan Africa to study at UCT. The university welcomed its first cohort of 19 scholars in the 2015 academic year, and 20 scholars in the 2016 academic year. The third cohort in 2017 includes 37 scholars: 14 undergraduates and 23 postgraduates.

The 2017 cohort were not at UCT by some mistake or favour, but were deliberately chosen because they self-identified as leaders, the students were told by Insaaf Isaacs, recruitment and peer mentor officer on the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program based at the International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO). Isaacs was echoing the sentiments expressed by Carol Ojwang, manager of the African Partnerships and Study Programmes at IAPO, when she told the audience: “In this programme we are grooming the future leaders of this continent.

“I cannot stress enough that our programme unit is always there, and always available, to support you to become successful alumni and productive citizens of the African continent.”

The students in this room are not like any other students, Phakeng told the audience. “You were specifically selected, not just because of your academic results, which were excellent, but because of who you are and the various odds you have already overcome.

“We as a university want to contribute to African leadership. We see you as the next cohort of African leaders, and this is why I challenge you to be contenders, at university and throughout life.”

“Remember,” she said. “It is not what you know that matters, but what you do with what you know that makes the difference."

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