I was born and grew up in South Africa’s one township called Atteridgeville that happens to be near a city called Pretoria. Growing up in such an area near the city gave me the privilege of being exposed to different developmental programs as a youth. Part of the training then introduced to us was training in leadership to lead the youth in living a healthy lifestyle and other life skills. It was in these programs that I felt inspired and started to love helping youth to grow and become better people. This was a seed planted in me, and it grew over time. I became more interested in supporting and assisting young people to realize their dreams. To see them excelling from basic education to the post-school sector, where I am now, became fulfilling. I started my career in library and information science. I worked in the library and introduced library user education to young students, which connected to my mission of helping youth. I ultimately ended up in what I call my niche area, which is student affairs or student life, and never looked back.
I had to navigate the complexities in student life, particularly in student housing where I have spent a bigger chunk of my career the past two decades. Recently, I had a visit from three successful men who at first I did not recognize, but they later clarified who they were. They were students I worked with more than 10 years back in a residence at another university. I introduced a responsible approach to life as part of their program. They came to my office to thank me for making a positive impact on their journey of life and education. This made me understand that what we do in student housing as professionals is not only a calling, but also a lifestyle choice.
Challenges in such a profession have evolved over time. Previously, we had political differences, tribalism, and more forms of discrimination as the order of the day and as part of the life of students. The biggest challenge we face today is dealing with at-risk students. We are managing a big number of students who lack resources and are dealing with students who came to campus destitute and hoping for a better life in a university. The number of indigent students coming to our universities is increasing every year. The government bursaries cannot cope.
The correct positive attitude, the energy to care and love unconditionally, the patience to deal with very complex, sensitive, and challenging issues from both staff and students, and enough tissues to give all to wipe their tears when they come and cry in my office.
Allow the university to have a break for one day, put a pause on the academic activities, and focus on social cohesion for staff and students to come together and know each other better. The program for the day would address the challenges we all face, and the order of the day would be listening to each other.
We have a very beautiful campus with an impressive aesthetic setup and natural look. The one factor that makes the campus unique is the students we have accommodated for the past five years. They are very energetic and creative and always want to excel in all that they are doing. Even if what they are doing is not the best thing for their progress, they still want to excel in studies, playing, dancing, protesting, entertainment, and falling in love.
In September, we celebrate heritage month in South Africa. What has been my favorite tradition at all the universities I have worked at has been the kind of cultural celebrations we embark on to teach each other about the different cultures. This will include the traditional attire, food preparation, dance, and singing. We have seen a lot of creativity from students backed by staff in such a way that it has always created a family-fun type of event.
Not only do we need to be resilient in doing our work, but we must also understand and accept that part of what we will experience is lack of success in some areas of the business of student housing. I have also learned that where we have not succeeded we need to pick up the pieces, learn from the mistakes, and soldier on to be better. Also, we need to remember to celebrate where we were successful.
The teamwork that is put toward solving the daily complex challenges we face and wanting to perfect the art of solving such challenges as we continue.
Wisdom to understand and know when to talk and what to say to the young generation with the hope of inspiring them.
Jacob Simango is the director of the department of student life on the Vanderbijlpark Campus of North-West University in South Africa. Have a colleague you think others should get to know? Please share with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and you may see them in a future issue of the magazine.