As graduation season approaches, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has named its inspirational graduates for 2022 to recognise these individuals for the impact they have made on the institution as well as their friends, families and communities. Included in this year’s cohort is the Communication and Marketing Department’s (CMD) deputy director, Olwen Manuel.
The path to success seldom follows a straight line. Olwen is living proof of this. While her love of children had her dreaming of being a paediatrician in her early years, challenges and opportunities presented to her over the course of her professional and academic careers have seen her excel in an entirely different industry.
When Olwen was finishing high school she, like many other matriculants, found herself having to make some weighty decisions about her future. Top of this list were whether she should study further and, if so, where she should focus her efforts.
Having always had a drive to better the lives of those around her, a career in science seemed to be a natural fit – the only problem being that her high school subject selection had focused more on the humanities than the sciences.
Not one to shy away from a bit of hard work, a trait that she inherited from her parents, Olwen enrolled in a bridging course in order to gain entry into a Bachelor of Science (BSc) programme.
Unfortunately, though, things didn’t go quite as planned. Besides not enjoying the material she was studying, Olwen was failing modules and being confronted with the realities of having to pay off a student loan.
At this point, she was faced with the decision of whether to continue with the bridging course or follow a different path. Rather than sticking it out in the hopes that she would be able to find something she enjoyed in the sciences, she decided to abandon the bridging course and take some time to figure out a way forward.
Finding the way forward
Over the next couple of years, Olwen studied part time while working and searching for the career that would give her the most fulfilment. That moment finally came when she stumbled upon public relations (PR). The field married two things she was passionate about: people and creativity.
“I studied history [in high school] because I really enjoyed learning about people and the past. When I started studying PR at [The Independent Institute for Education’s Varsity College], it just came so easily to me. I loved the idea of coming up with creative copy that really speaks to people,” she said.
The course sparked Olwen’s interest in communications and led her to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce in marketing. It was here that she discovered her interest in the business side of the marketing – and the benefits it can bring to an organisation – which would drive her home her leadership skills through a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice, and Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) at the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).
The first in the family
When speaking about her academic and professional trajectory, the inspirational graduate notes that being the first person in her family to attend university presented some challenges.
“Neither of my parents or my siblings had been to university. When I completed matric, there was this lack of knowledge about what the next steps are, so they couldn’t give me a lot of guidance and I was figuring these things out with them,” she said.
“Maybe like most kids, I spent a lot of time after high school just asking myself ‘What do you actually want to study? What do you think you’re good at? Or what do you think you can make a career in?’”
While these were questions that could have stumped her, she chose to let her curiosity and love for learning lead the way as she seized every opportunity that presented itself. “I’m a curious person. I’m curious about things and I really enjoy developing myself,” she says.
“I also believed that through studies I could hopefully make a better impact in my career and in the roles that I find myself. It’s always about how I can become a better employee, a better leader, and make a small change in society.”
Olwen hoped that the change she sought to effect would inspire others to tap into their curiosity and encourage them to unlock their potential.
“I hoped that in the spaces I found myself, with the lessons I’ve learned, that I could inspire people to go and study more so that they can unlock their potential. So, it’s really about curiosity and trying to be a more impactful person,” she added.
The three Fs
Olwen will be awarded her EMBA, with distinction, in December. Although balancing her work, studies and personal life has been a challenge over the past two years, she highlights three things that helped her get through even the toughest moments.
“Having completed my master’s now, I’ve really spent the past couple of months reflecting on what helped me get through it. One has been my faith. When I was struggling with things and I had moments where I didn’t think I was good enough, I would just pray and use that as my way of getting through those moments of self-doubt.
“Second was my family. My husband and my mom believing in me and cheering me on, and just trying to be a good role model in my own family and for my community. There aren’t many people in our community who get the opportunity to study because of socioeconomic reasons. So, I really take my opportunities, try to make the best of them and be a role model for the people around me.
“Then there’s fitness. Really just being able to get some of that stress out of my body and use my body in a healthy way and release some endorphins. I found that exercising helped me balance some of my mental strain... with exercises like running and boxing,” she said.
Not the end of the road
The completion of her EMBA is a massive achievement, but Olwen shows no signs of slowing down. She plans to put her studies on hold for a while to focus on family, but intends on returning to academia in the future.
“I just want to be there for my family, [enjoy] them and [support] them. Professionally, I want to be in a space where I can continue to make an impact, helping people to achieve their goals. I want to try to give people more access to education and help them gain more confidence to come into the space.
“Hopefully I’ll also polish up my PhD topic. My husband and I have a deal that I’ll only do my PhD when my daughter has finished high school, so I have six or seven years to figure that out.”
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