The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Salome Maswime addressed top-performing students from the National Science and Technology Forum’s (NSTF) Brilliants Programme in a webinar as part of the forum’s Motivational Talks Programme on 11 September.
Each year, the NSTF recognises 18 students – two from each of South Africa’s provinces – who received top marks in mathematics and physical science in their Grade 12 National Senior Certificate examinations and have gone on to study science, engineering or medicine at university level.
In 2023, 13 of the cohort are UCT students. Having these students choose the university as their place of study and seeing a UCT head of department feature as a speaker on the Motivational Talks Programme are both great points of pride for the institution.
Inspiring and motivating top performers
It’s well known that top results in matric do not necessarily guarantee success later in life. Many top-performing school leavers – and university graduates – struggle to find appropriate work and direction in their lives after studying.
This is a major concern for the science, engineering and technology (SET) industries, as well as the NSTF, and was the impetus for the creation of the Brilliants Programme.
Through this scheme, the NSTF aims to encourage students to study as far as possible while also motivating these young people to find their way into a position in the National System of Innovation, which includes SET industries.
Previously known as the Education Recognition Programme, the Brilliants Programme was designed to inspire and motivate the students identified as top performers.
“Who you know, who you have interactions with, is extremely important because there is so much to learn from others.”
The young people who take part are not only made aware of various opportunities available to them but are also introduced to role models and educated about the importance of personal and professional development.
NSTF executive director, Jansie Niehaus, noted the importance of interacting with and learning from more experienced academics and professionals for those who wish to excel in their chosen fields.
“When I started studying, I didn’t realise how important it is to talk to older, more experienced people at the university. Who you know, who you have interactions with, is extremely important because there is so much to learn from others. The more you can learn from them and follow their example, the better off you will be in the rest of your life,” she explained.
“You can learn life lessons from other people – from their examples and from the interactions you have with them. So that is what the Brilliants Programme is all about.”
Addressing the outliers
Professor Maswime, the head of Global Surgery in UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, delivered a talk titled “Outliers, living with success”, which centred around the challenges that can come with being a high achiever.
The obstetrician and gynaecologist is well positioned to explore this topic considering her long list of successes, which include being a professor, mother and chairperson of the Health Systems Trust Board, as well as receiving numerous awards for her contribution to research around maternal and women’s health.
“When I put this talk together, I decided to call it ‘outliers’ because I really wanted to speak about exactly that – being an outlier,” she explained.
“Outliers are often these excellent people who are celebrated by their community and the world.”
“I believe that many of you in the room might be outliers or might feel like outliers. That’s not unusual when you’re young and you’re successful, and perhaps you’re the only woman in the room or the only black person in the room. Or perhaps the only black woman in the room.
“Many of you will find yourselves in spaces where your classmates aren’t the people you grew up with or whose lives don’t resemble yours in any way. Some of you might be struggling with imposter syndrome because of this. Some of you might be asking, ‘What’s next?’ or ‘Will this be sustainable?’ or ‘Am I the right person?’
“Outliers are often these excellent people who are celebrated by their community and the world. People might already be able to see your success and they might already be talking about it.”
Sustaining success in the long term
In talking about how the students who are part of the Brilliants Programme might sustain and build on the successes they’ve already had, Maswime had two major pieces of advice: be authentic and surround yourself with the right people.
“The first piece of advice I’d like to give you is that you need to be real; you need to be you. You need to be authentic. In all the noise of celebration, you need to be able to find yourself and not try to change or be something else – and not forget that there are some areas of your life in which you will need to develop and work on yourself,” she said.
“Surround yourself with people who inspire you and who energise you.”
“My second piece of advice is to surround yourself with people who inspire you and who energise you. Not everyone that we meet believes in us, supports us or encourages us. A lot of times you’ll actually find people who will criticise you or tell you that you’re not good enough, even with all your achievements.
“It’s good to really invest in the people that you surround yourself with. This is especially important when it comes to peers. Choosing friends who inspire you and encourage you, who are discussing ideas that you want to know more about and [who will] pull you in the right direction.”
The NSTF is a consultative forum and watchdog for influencing the formulation and delivery of SET and innovation public policy in South Africa. It aims to promote SET and innovation by hosting platforms for networking and debate on current SET issues, as well as by engaging with government on SET-related policies.
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