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VC inspires at Women in STEM event
27 August 2019 | Story Sarah Middleton. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 6 min.
“Your background, your history, your poverty doesn’t define you. Focus on what you can do, not what you are right now.”
This was the inspirational message from University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, speaking to an audience comprising hundreds of female learners and educators.
The occasion was a Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) event, held at Protea Heights Academy in Brackenfell, Cape Town, on 24 August. It included an expo with demonstrations of virtual reality software, robotics and drone technology as well as science and chemistry displays.
Other guest speakers were Carolina Ödman-Govender, professor of astrophysics at the University of the Western Cape, and Leandra Taylor, director at Tutor House and Split Second Science.
Phakeng used the platform to share her personal story of hard work and determination.
She was born into poverty as one of three children. Her mother was a domestic worker, and neither of her parents had a matric qualification.
“When you look at where I am now, you’d never guess where I come from,” she said. “Sometimes when you think about who makes a future scientist, you don’t think about yourself. There was a time that I was like you and I didn’t think I would be an academic.”
“There was a time that I was like you and I didn’t think I would be an academic.”
It was a life of poverty, she explained.
“The poverty that I’m talking about … is where you borrow mealie meal from next door just so you can eat pap with water and sugar.”
Her family also moved frequently and she attended eight different schools in her 12 years of basic education.
“What helped me get to where I am is that my parents had goals for us. My parents never told us that mathematics was hard. I had no clue that mathematics was hard and so I just pursued it.”