When Associate Professor Amshuda Sonday first set foot on campus as a contract lecturer in 2006, she entered the old Groote Schuur Hospital building wearing rose-tinted glasses.
“The grass has to be greener here; why would it not be? This is the University of Cape Town [UCT] after all,” she told herself.
But Associate Professor Sonday was in for a surprise – nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Fast-forward more than one and a half decades as an academic in UCT’s Division of Occupational Therapy and two unsuccessful promotions to senior lecturer, Sonday has finally entered the professoriate. Her perfectly timed promotion was announced late in 2021 and came into effect on 1 January 2022.
“It’s a wonderful feeling and it came knocking at just the right time.”
“It’s a wonderful feeling and it came knocking at just the right time,” Sonday said.
“I must note that the ad hominem application is not for the faint-hearted and the process should not be taken lightly. But the reward of seeing years of hard work documented on paper serves as an affirmation that hard work does not go unnoticed and is neither in vain.”
Academia has been a tough nut to crack.
“When I first started at UCT and I began to engage in the everyday doings of being an academic, the mountains seemed impossible to climb,” she said.
But Sonday kept going, and soon after bagging a permanent position in the division in 2008, she was ready to apply for a senior lecturer role. But her promotion was denied – twice – leaving her feeling despondent and with way more questions than answers.
“In a way it was quite traumatising on a personal level. I started questioning whether the grass was in fact greener on the other side,” she said.
Refusing to give up, Sonday decided to pour all her energy into attaining her PhD, which she received in 2016. She described her doctorate as one of the highlights of her career. The degree paved the way to her promotion to senior lecturer and was the steppingstone she needed to enter the professoriate – a dream she’s been holding onto for what feels like a lifetime.
Career in a nutshell
Over the past 16 years, Sonday has worn multiple hats in the division. Shortly after she joined UCT in 2006, she lectured in physical health, and her lectures straddled both the paediatric and adult neurology disciplines. In 2012 she accepted the position of undergraduate programme convener – a first of its kind for the division.
Later, when she graduated with her PhD, she was finally promoted to senior lecturer and a year later (in 2017), Sonday was named the head of the division. Shortly thereafter, she became the master’s programme convenor, as well as deputy chair of postgraduate programmes in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
“Knowing that I can influence and shape future occupational therapists through my research, work and teaching, as well as in my role as a leader in the department is what makes my work worthwhile.”
“Knowing that I can influence and shape future occupational therapists through my research, work and teaching, as well as in my role as a leader in the department is what makes my work worthwhile,” she said.
“I love the flexibility the job brings, and I love that I have the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of people and to think about and discuss critical matters.”
The power of mentorship
Sonday’s main research area focuses on understanding the professional role of occupational therapists and their changing roles in post-apartheid South Africa.
The main objective of her PhD was to explore how occupational therapists navigate the process of professional role transition, negotiate power and craft appropriate identities in a constantly shifting policy terrain. Her paper was published in the Journal of Occupational Science.
“Interestingly, what emerged was how occupational therapists enacted their professional agency within environments that were hegemonic,” she said.
But reaching this point in her career would’ve been virtually impossible without the guidance and counsel of her mentors and friends, Sonday added.
“I was fortunate to have had really good mentors and friends along the way. They constantly reminded me of what I am worth. But despite their confidence in my abilities, it was also important for me to find meaning in what I was doing in order to belong,” she said.
In 2021 Professor Sue Harrison, UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation, nominated Sonday to apply for the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Black Academics Advancement Programme grant to further her research. In December 2021 she received word that her application was successful.
So, for the next two years she will be actively engaged in her research project. And if other teaching or leadership opportunities crop up during this time, she said she might be crazy enough to consider them, but she’ll cross that bridge when and if she gets there.
“My spirituality is a big part of who I am, and it plays a fundamental role in all my decision-making processes.”
For now, Sonday is still enjoying her entry into the professoriate – the journey’s been tough, and the hard work has only just begun. As she looks ahead, this wife and mother of two beautiful daughters will use her faith to guide her on her way. As a devout Muslim, she said, it’s never let her down before.
“It can be very easy to lose yourself in the academy. My spirituality is a big part of who I am, and it plays a fundamental role in all my decision-making processes. Staying true to your authentic self is important; it’s the key that opens doors to opportunities,” Sonday said.
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