At the beginning of 2020, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Careers Service welcomed a new director to head up its award-winning team. Brenda Martin brings a wealth of experience in leadership and as a member of the campus community.
To mark three months since she stepped into her new role, UCT News caught up with Martin, who has been warmly welcomed by her colleagues during her first few weeks, which have been focused on contextual understanding.
Carla Bernardo (CB): Please tell us more about yourself: where you grew up, where you received your education, your family and your career journey.
Brenda Martin (BM): I grew up in Cape Town. I studied at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the University of the Witwatersrand, the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB), UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment and Harvard Business School.
I have worked in the education, gender, sustainability and energy sectors, generally in roles that combined theory and practice. A common feature of my career journey is that I did not think too far ahead, have tended to consider each task before me in terms of how it aligned with my professional interests, what it might teach me and how I might make a contribution.
CB: Tell us about your relations with UCT prior to taking this job.
BM: I’ve worked in four UCT departments over the years, initially at the GSB in 1994 where I was part of the team that designed and implemented the Associate in Management programme. Later, after working in the development sector for a while, I returned to UCT and joined the team that scoped and implemented the merging of the Mathematics Education Project and the Teaching and Learning Resources Centre into the Schools Development Unit. After this task was complete, I joined the executive team at the African Gender Institute where I oversaw operations and coordinated the continental Associates Programme.
“A common feature of my career journey is that I did not think too far ahead.”
I left UCT in 2002 to return to the development sector where I founded a social enterprise. In 2014 I returned to complete my master’s in energy and development at the Energy Research Centre (ERC). While doing so, I coordinated the ERC’s research outputs and worked as part of the renewable energy research team. In 2016 I left UCT to work in the private renewable energy sector before applying for and being offered the role at Careers Service at the end of 2019.
CB: What interested you about this position and about returning to UCT?
BM: I have not worked in the discipline of careers at all, but I was attracted to the notion of making a contribution to growing graduate employment nationally. The institution has been challenged to reinvent itself often over the years – even more so in recent years – and I was attracted to what appeared to be a recent renewed commitment to transformation.
CB: What has the transition been like from the energy sector to the university?
BM: There are not many parallels between the day-to-day functioning of the sectors, but there are many common concerns, for example: the rapidly transitioning world, particularly as this relates to people and resources; the need for and the tensions within public–private partnerships; the importance of strong partnership and collective effort; and achieving developmental outcomes at every opportunity.
CB: What role does the UCT Careers Service play within the campus community? And in broader society?
BM: Our primary role is to support students in their learning journey, specifically as this relates to their ability to connect the dots between the important investment of time and money they are making as students, and the opportunities that graduating from UCT will unlock for them.
“We are also increasingly recognised by faculties for the direct contribution we are able to make to student success.”
Many students benefit from the early advisory interventions we offer at crucial moments when they need to make curriculum changes, and many more rely on our guidance as they prepare to graduate and enter the world of work. We are also increasingly recognised by faculties for the direct contribution we are able to make to student success, given our insight into what employers are looking for in graduates, as well as our capacity to increase access to opportunities for graduates.
Beyond UCT, we first and foremost aim to make a daily positive contribution to the youth employment crisis. In addition, we participate as colleagues in the fraternity of careers services at other universities in South Africa. We play a leading role in the area of student entrepreneurship, and we stay informed on and contribute to contemporary labour market understanding.
CB: How will the UCT Careers Service continue to assist students with preparing for work, as well as realigning in light of COVID-19?
BM: I believe that one of the most important skills graduates can take into the changing world of work is the capacity to function with uncertainty. COVID-19 has been providing everyone with many opportunities to practise this skill and no doubt society will continue to be challenged by massive system change. In our routine advisory work with students, we emphasise growing their capacity to solve their own problems, to see solutions and to feel empowered to act on these. We will be stepping up our direct support to those students who might need more support during this period. Before COVID-19 we had already begun the work of ensuring that as a relatively small team we are better equipped to work at scale and more effectively; the pandemic has foregrounded the need to do so more urgently.
CB: Finally, what are you hoping to achieve during your tenure as director?
BM: My initial priority is to strengthen our partnerships within UCT, with a focus on the common priority of student success. This aligns with the Centre for Higher Education Development’s (CHED) primary purpose.
The service has done important work to understand contemporary world-of-work shifts globally and nationally – as these relate to what graduates look for in the formal sector, what employers are wanting from graduates, and the many constantly emerging options in the informal sector. I would like to ensure that we apply this knowledge creatively and well in order to better fulfil our primary mandate to UCT students.
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