National Research Foundation (Pretoria)

Upon arrival in South Africa, our first visit is with a friendly face, Dr. Kaluke Mawila (PhD ’09) who now serves as the executive director of institutional engagement and partnership development at the National Research Foundation (NRF), located in Pretoria.


At NRF, Kaluke and her colleagues describe South Africa’s overarching research priorities, NRF’s role within that context, and samples of how this work is currently accomplished (human capital development, technology transfer, etc).


They also share how NRF interfaces with higher education institutions, including some successes and challenges in NRF’s efforts to promote research standards across multiple institution types within South Africa.


University of Pretoria

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) efforts to support and retain historically underrepresented students (through put rates) is our topic of discussion with Patricia Smit, head of Research Capacity.  She also discusses UP’s institutional research themes: malaria, energy and food security — all issues important and timely to South Africa — which are part of the University of Pretoria’s “UP2025” vision document.


Dr. Wendy Kilfoil, director of the Department for Education Innovation, provides our group with an overview of the University of Pretoria.  She is joined by colleagues Ana Naidoo (deputy director of Academic Development), Dolf Jordaan (deputy director of E-Learning & Media Development) and Juan-Claude Lemmens (head  of Higher Education Research & Innovation).  Each shares data and details about how the institution measures success in the areas of teaching, learning, and student retention.  They also discuss the challenges of and some unique strategies for being a commuter campus, especially when students travel from great distances via public transportation.


One particularly interesting thing we learn about is a tool created by Dr Lemmens.  His team has developed a career path navigator called App.tizer which we discover during the SANRC 1st-year experience conference (in Johannesburg) is rather broadly used by students and highly regarded by colleagues.  This on-line tool helps students consider career pathways and select appropriate course accordingly.  At UP, the number one reason for student drop outs is attributed to program mismatch.  (Students begin a program of study without a clear understanding of what career the coursework leads toward.  Although they are able to transfer between programs, this initial mismatch puts them behind and they are still counted as a “drop out” in the initial program.)  The App.tizer tool reduces the instances of mismatch by pointing students in the right directions before they begin taking classes.


University of Pretoria

As I set foot on the campus of the University of Pretoria, I had the sense of history preserved in modernity. I was struck by the signs written on the buildings in both Afrikaans and English—a testament to the university’s roots as a historically White institution—which currently serves a more linguistically, culturally, and ethnically diverse student body.  Further, walking through the university’s beautiful campus, I grappled with the notion of transformation as I considered the seemingly permanent, unchanging nature of the institutions’ physical structures and the clear evolution of the student body moving through those spaces.


My personal reflections were echoed in the discussion with faculty members and administrators at the University of Pretoria that afternoon. The panel shared that the University of Pretoria is working diligently to meet the goals of its Strategic Plan – 2025. According to the University of Pretoria’s strategic plan, the institution aims to increase student access and graduation rates, while recruiting an increasingly diverse student body. Additionally, the university is working to establish itself as a leading research-intensive institution and strive for excellence in teaching and learning. To reach these goals, the university is undertaking new initiatives, such as the establishment of a departmental student advising program to support student success. The university is also strengthening its assessment and evaluation of teaching and learning practices to improve the overall student experience.  Acknowledging its exclusionary past, the University of Pretoria is working to move forward and cultivate a collaborative, innovative, and supportive academic environment for its students. Although the university has much to accomplish in order to reach its 2025 year-end goals, their lofty aspirations were a reminder that true transformation does not occur overnight and an institution’s aims should remain high to discourage complacency.


After the panel discussion, we took a walking tour of the campus. Near the conclusion of the tour, my thoughts came full circle as our guide explained the festive signage decorating the Faculty of Theology building. She shared with us that the Faculty of Theology was celebrating its centennial year of existence. The emblem chosen to commemorate this momentous milestone was an image of an open gate, symbolizing an invitation for “all who seek to enter.” The gate also serves as an acknowledgement of the university’s previous exclusion of marginalized populations and represents the university’s renewed commitment to welcome all, regardless of the identities and ideologies a person may hold. Finally, the original wooden gates that stood at the entrance of the University of Pretoria over 100 years ago are fixed in an open position in front of the Faculty of Theology. The same gates that provided the privilege of exclusivity for some and barred the access of many now stand open wide. For every university constituent, or international passerby like me, I pray that those open gates endure the passage of time and reveal the path to true transformation.

–Christina S. Morton, PhD candidate

University of Witwatersrand

Our visit to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg begins with a warm welcome by the head of Wits School of Education, Dr. Lee Rusznyak.


Elizabeth Walton, associate professor in inclusive education at the Wits School of Education and a member of the forum of the UNESCO Chair for Teacher Education for Diversity and Development, shares sobering aspects of her research on inclusive education.  For instance, not dissimilar to the U.S. context, deracializing schools does not solve disparities.  Black schools in South Africa remain under resourced.  In fact, her studies show there are higher disparities today than in 1994.  And with youth unemployment at 50%, Dr. Walton explains that social mobility for many in South Africa “is a myth.”

In his presentation titled “Transformation in higher education in South Africa,” Dr. Felix Maringe, assistant dean for internationalization, shares his opinions about what it will take to truly transform higher education in South Africa.  He notes that while people have changed since the dawn of democracy in 1994, curriculum change will be necessary in order to make real impact.  In his words, “much has changed, nothing has transformed.”


A theme we hear throughout of time in South Africa is one of decolonizing the curriculum–recognizing, valuing and incorporating traditional African ways of doing and thinking.

Our colleagues at Wits arrange for us to hear directly from three student leaders of the #feesmustfall movement.  These students provide us with a history of the #fees movement, and emphasize the importance of curriculum change.


After a comprehensive tour of the Braamfontein campus, led by Mohamed Moolia, Drs. Rusznyak and Walton join us again for lunch and further conversation at Olive and Plates in the lovely setting of the Wits Club.


University of Witwatersrand

On the second day of our study program, we spent our morning visiting the University of Witwatersrand (commonly abbreviated as Wits), where several professors, staff members, and students graciously welcomed us.

Dr. Lee Rusznyak, Dr. Felix Maringe, and Dr. Elizabeth Walton spoke with us about various aspects of the South African higher education system in the post-apartheid era, including what challenges remain.  Dr. Rusznyak noted that, during apartheid, South Africa had 19 different government departments that oversaw initial teacher training for primary and secondary schools.  Rather than focusing on pedagogical content knowledge, including how to make the course content accessible for students, the departments tended to emphasize skills.  While this changed after the end of apartheid, it was helpful for contextualizing some of the country’s lingering barriers.  While we spent the majority of our time in South Africa learning about and discussing the higher education system, it was fascinating to discover more about their primary and secondary education context and the ways in which it impacts postsecondary institutions.

Dr. Maringe, who serves as the assistant dean of internationalization at Wits, provided insight into students’ calls for curricular transformation.  He argued that tensions between generations – that is, between young students and older faculty and administrators – makes this an especially fraught project.  While curricular transformation is crucial, he noted that universities often lack the capacity, urgency, and enthusiasm for truly radical change; rather, the changes that institutions have enacted thus far have been piecemeal and, consequently, non-transformational.

Finally, Dr. Walton discussed what inclusive education might look like in South Africa.  She addressed what has essentially become a two-tiered basic education system: one tier has access to resources, serves students from affluent families, and adequately prepares their graduates for higher education, while the other does not have adequate resources, overwhelmingly serves children from low-income families, and graduates students who are oftentimes ill-prepared for higher education.

After hearing from the faculty members, we had the opportunity to speak with students who had been leaders in the #FeesMustFall campaign at Wits.  These students discussed what transformation in higher education looks like for them and their classmates.  There were many moments throughout our program in which I wondered if both South African and American higher education institutions were caught in a similar moment of transition, transformation, and tension.  Listening to Dr. Maringe speak about the faculty perspective (and later hearing Wits students discuss their point of view) reminded me of the ongoing conversations around diversity, equity, inclusivity, and justice in American colleges and universities – another reminder that our countries, despite cultural and historical differences, have a lot to learn from each other.

–Rachel Wright, master’s student

Conversation w/ Francois Strydom (University of the Free State)

Dr. Francois Strydom joins us for a late-day conversation to introduce us to the University of the Free State (UFS), which has one of the longest running access programs in South Africa.


The following morning, at the SANRC 1st-year experience conference, we hear more about programming at UFS from colleagues of Dr. Strydom directly involved in a Siyaphumelela project which supports student transition and success.

University of the Free State conversation with Francois Strydom

Upon returning to the hotel after visiting the University of Witwatersrand, we were very honored to have Francois Strydom join us for a conversation entailing his view and impact on higher education in South Africa. Dr. Strydom, the lead instigator of the South Africa Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE), has worked with George Kuh at Indiana University at Bloomington. He was also very knowledgeable about our own center (CSHPE), as he used the center as a model to develop his own at the University of the Free State.

Dr. Strydom began our conversation with a brief breakdown of South African higher education as a whole, highlighting many of the challenges that the country faces and the success they have seen. We were introduced to a number of concepts around race that we had not necessarily encountered thus far on our trip. Dr. Strydom brought up the term “black diamond,” which refers to black individuals who have moved into the middle class, particularly young, black professionals. According to Strydom, much of the marketing in the country has shifted greatly since the fall of Apartheid to focus on young, up-and-coming black people – which is reflective of the growth of the black middle class, a success for the country thus far.

An interesting concept that Dr. Strydom brought up to the group was the concept of the inverted pyramid. The pyramid contained three sections, Primary education, intermediate level education (i.e. technical and vocational training), and four-year institutions. The size of each section of the triangle refers to the capacity at which the country has for each level of education. Strydom referred to the upright triangle, with primary education on the bottom and four-year institutions at the top as the ideal, but he said the South African higher education system is very much inverted. The country has more capacity at the four-year institution, but is lacking on the primary education. The problem with the inverted pyramid is that, though the country has the capacity for students to move into higher education, there is a great inequality amongst students to the lack of capacity and resources amongst primary education schools.

Another inequality that was highlighted in this discussion revolved around the breakdown between Technical and Vocational Education and Training schools (TVETs) and your typical four-year institution. Looking at graduation rates, TVETs only have a 4% success rate. Due to this, there is a lack of students and families that wish to attend these institutions, as well as a lack of faculty and staff that wish to work at TVETs. There is also a pressure for the lower class individuals to attend a university, as they see this as a way in which they can help their family into the middle class.

The final part of our discussion centered on race and racial inequalities that continue to exist within the country. This conversation was particularly interesting, as we were able to get a very critical perspective on the inequalities that continue to exist within the country. Overall, the conversation with Dr. Strydom was extremely fruitful, and we left for the night with a new basis for the rest of our trip.

–Darin Martin, master’s student


SANRC First-Year Experience conference

During the planning for this study trip, an exciting opportunity for the group to be involved in the SANRC First-Year Experience conference presented itself.  Over the ensuing months leading up to our trip, members of our group work in teams to develop conference presentations.  The conference organizers then propose to feature the U-M presentations within the framework of the conference’s standing ‘Global FYE Perspectives’ session.  We are greatly honored by this privilege to share with conference attendees.

Master’s students Reuben Kapp and Javier Solorzano Parada serve as MCs for the two-hour session.


They do a masterful job introducing each of three presentations by their peers.



CSHPE presentation titles include:

  • “Low -income and Underrepresented Students and the First Year Experience:  Bridging and Transitioning into College
  • “Creating a Sense of Belonging:  Building Models of Individual and Community Belonging in Institutional Settings
  • “The First Year Experience: Living-Learning Models and Residence Life”


The SANRC conference keynote speaker, Dr. Tia Brown McNair, of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, serves as our discussant.  And following her comments our students lead small-group conversations with attendees interested in each of the respective presentation topics.


On Thursday evening, we attend the conference’s gala dinner event to let our hair down with new friends.  During the event, CSHPE’s own Darin Martin is recognized (by committee!) as the Best Dressed Man, and is described as “a young James Bond” to the crowd.


SANRC 1st-year experience conference

From May 24 through May 26, we participated in the South African National Resource Centre First Year Experience (SANRC FYE). 2017 was the third year of the annual conference, which gathered practitioners and scholars from South Africa and elsewhere whose work relates to the first year experience. The conference covered a range of topics, from discussions about the priorities of higher education in the first year and beyond, to discussions of particular interventions or teaching strategies, to exploring the experiences of students in their transition to university, to professional development advice for scholars and practitioners in the field.

The first day of the conference began with a tea and coffee hour, followed by an introduction from the campus organizers and a keynote address by Dr. Birgit Schreiber, Director of Student Affairs at Stellenbosch University. Dr. Schreiber encouraged us to consider how higher education is preparing students to excel in a complex, often uncertain world, advocating using FYE programming to facilitate the development of cognitive fluidity and complex thinking skills.  The remainder of the day consisted of breakout sessions with presentations on a number of topics. One memorable session by Dr. Elizabeth Sipiwe Ndofirepi discussed the diverse home communities of the students on a university campus and explored the complex and varied meanings of different shared spaces on that campus to the students who occupy them.

The second day of the conference began with a keynote address by Dr. Tia Brown McNair, Vice President, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success for the AAC&U. Dr. Brown McNair challenged the notion of “college-ready students” and instead urged the audience to consider what it would mean to be a “student-ready college” or a “student-ready educator,” prepared to best support all students when they arrive on campus. Day Two of the conference also contained a session that included presentations by many members of our group, moderated by Dr. Brown NcNair. Three teams of CSHPE students worked together in the months preceding the conference to prepare presentations on different aspects of the First Year Experience in a United States context: Fostering a Sense of Belonging, Bridge or Transition Programs, and Living Learning Communities. After each group presented, we had the chance to participate in breakout discussion groups with South African educators, who raised many interesting questions and shared their experiences with each topic in a South African context.

Later that evening, we joined our fellow conference attendees for an elegant Gala Dinner. We enjoyed a delicious dinner (complete with Malva pudding, a rich South African dessert we enjoyed many times on our trip). Dinner included a moving talk by one South African student about her persistence in her pursuit of higher education in the face of many challenges, who spoke to importance of colleges and universities better meeting the call to be truly student-ready and supportive. Following dinner were the much-hyped “best dressed” awards. We’re proud to say our very own Darin Martin (sporting a classic black bowtie) won the award for best dressed man! The evening was capped off by a night of dancing, with everyone showing off their best moves on the dance floor.

The last day of the conference was a half day of programming.  The final keynote address was given by Professor Ian Scott, an emeritus professor in higher education development at the University of Cape Town and a series of final workshop offerings concluded the conference. Over the three days, the content varied greatly in expected and unexpected ways.  Sessions often reminded us of the many varied challenges that higher education institutions, and the students, faculty, and staff within them, are faced with in South Africa.  In particular, several of the sessions dealt with topics ranging from the marked disparities in student experiences and outcomes that exist along socioeconomic and racial lines, to addressing the technology gap which included students who had no experience using a computer and the added challenge that creates for them as they transition into university, to creating nurturing and supportive learning environments in large lecture mathematics courses, to male attitudes toward contraceptives and university efforts to reduce unplanned pregnancies and STIs among their student body. It was an insightful three days and broadened our understandings of the higher education environment in South Africa which further helped set the stage for our subsequent visits to universities during the rest of the trip.

–Ann Luke, master’s student, and Erika Mosyjowski, doctoral candidate


Reflections of an MC
Part of our experience in South Africa was the amazing opportunity to present at the 2017 SANRC First-Year Experience Conference. Our groups worked together to create three presentations focusing on the Global first year experience – specifically highlighting the work at the University of Michigan. We kept in mind that we would be visitors to the country and to the conference. We made sure to think very deeply about the language we would use during our presentations but also the takeaway we would want our audience to leave with.

I believe that the university (South Africa) visits prior to the conference helped our presenters think about what sense of belonging, transition, and living learning communities looked like in South African higher education. People from the three different presentation groups were given the opportunity to listen to faculty, staff, and I believe most importantly students during the many university trips. These folks shared valuable information to the presenters who then were able to include or incorporate in their presentations.


As an MC for our session, I felt that we received positive feedback from the professionals attending the conference. I was pleasantly surprised by all of the questions that were brought up during the small dialogic sessions. Folks surfaced questions about aligning our work to the current higher education models in South Africa, expressing that funding is a major pushback with their work. Folks also seemed very interested to learn more about our U.S. higher education system, the many programs that are offered to students and the K-12 education system. Here is a link to a short video that highlights some of the dialogue that occurred after the presentations.

–Javier Solorzano Parada​, master’s student