As Associate Professor Gonda Perez prepares to hang up her boots as deputy dean of undergraduate education at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Health Sciences at the end of February, she says retirement comes at the right time.
The year was 2000, the start of the new millennium and globally everyone was excited about the prospects of the 21st century. It was no different for Associate Professor Gonda Perez. She was preparing to take up the role as transformation officer at UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) and, as she said, “make some changes”.
Almost two decades later, role changes here and there, and Perez will pack up her desk and lock her office door for the final time. But despite the massive amount of free time and the joys that come with this new phase of life, especially after an illustrious career, leaving her home away from home will not be easy.
Admittedly, she will have more time to sink her teeth into the selection of books she’s been waiting to read and will even have extra time for some outdoor activities and community outreach programmes. Still, life as she knows it will change forever.
“It’s been a wonderful journey, right from the beginning. I feel very, very happy to be leaving at this time. We’ve been through the most difficult part of UCT’s history in the last few years and we’ve seen UCT grow and become even stronger,” she said.
Perez joined the university from the national Department of Public Service and Administration and was hired to fast-track transformation at the FHS.
“They [UCT] felt they needed to accelerate transformation and I was brought in to help.”
“When I came to UCT, the university was trying to find its feet when it came to transformation, especially in the Faculty of Health Sciences. They felt they needed to accelerate transformation and I was brought in to help,” she said.
It was Perez who, during those early days following South Africa’s young democracy, was tasked with establishing “novel” in-house programmes and initiatives to turn the faculty around.
Have they succeeded?
“Absolutely. Today we have a wonderful faculty and we’ve achieved quite a bit,” she said.
Reflecting on two decades
Commenting on the past 20 years, Perez said there have been many positive changes at UCT, including building and growing solid relationships between staff and students. UCT can also take pride in the relaxed atmosphere it’s created for students. Today, she said, students feel more comfortable about approaching academic staff with a problem compared with 20 years ago.
“We interact freely with students now and they feel comfortable about approaching us – more so than they did in the past.”
“When I first started at UCT there was a stark divide between PASS and academic staff. It was always the issue of hierarchy.”
Further, bridging the divide between academic, and professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff has also been an ongoing priority, one that the faculty continues to work on in earnest. Much progress has already been made.
“When I first started at UCT there was a stark divide between PASS and academic staff. It was always the issue of hierarchy and certain people looking down on others. We still have a long way to go, but at least we can see change and we can be proud of that,” Perez said.
Providing students with the help they need has also been a large part of Perez’s portfolio. Students are at the heart of the faculty, and part of her role, in partnership with her colleagues, was to ensure that they always felt supported.
The team established various initiatives, including the faculty’s first Students in Distress Fund, which started after it emerged that students were borrowing money from staff for food.
“So, we initiated a formal fund that staff and students can contribute to. The fund is used for students who need money for food, accommodation, emergency travel and sometimes even medicines,” Perez said.
The team again put shoulder to the wheel when staff discovered that many students were dropping out after their first year because they simply couldn’t afford the university fees. The faculty then established the Impilo Student Bursary Fund.
Perez explained that the name stems from the Impilo Student Society, which also comprises a mentorship programme. When she started at UCT, the society was formed by students from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure other previously disadvantaged students were afforded the assistance they needed to get to graduation day.
Members of the Impilo Student Society were some of the first to contribute to the bursary programme, and Perez said she felt it fitting to name the initiative in its honour.
“But when Professor Bongani Mayosi (dean of FHS) passed, we renamed the fund the Mayosi Impilo Student Bursary [Fund],” she said.
Highlighting the highlights
Over the years there have been many highlights over the course of Perez’s career at UCT, and a few stand out.
The faculty charter is one such example. The document seeks to acknowledge the injustices of the past and acts as a means to respectfully move forward.
“The faculty charter was a great highlight for me. It marked the end of an era and the beginning of transformation and a new era for the faculty,” Perez said. “We haven’t always lived up to the charter, but I think it’s aspirational. We’re trying to get there bit by bit.”
“Looking back, it’s been a great journey of discovery and learning.”
Right from the start her students have been a highlight. Perez said their drive, zest for life and will to succeed despite the odds remain inspirational. They’ve also taught her so much about herself, which she is most grateful for.
“They’ve taught me to be patient. I am naturally an impatient person. They’ve also taught me to listen, and more than listening, they’ve taught me to hear and understand,” she said.
“Looking back, it’s been a great journey of discovery and learning and hopefully one of meaningful contribution from my part; a time in my life I will fondly remember.”
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