A conversation with our first-place Mac Prize winners
By AMY CARZO
Editor’s note: Last year’s first place MacJannet Prize was awarded to the Nine Tenths Programme at Rhodes University in Makhanda, South Africa. Following the announcement in November, Amy Carzo of the MacJannet Foundation sat down with the program’s two administrators: Diana Hornby, the university’s director of Community Engagement; and Anna Talbot, coordinator of Rhodes University’s Community Engagement Office.
Amy Carzo: How did the Nine Tenths Programme get started?
Diana Hornby: When our vice chancellor, Dr. Sizwe Mabizela, was inaugurated in 2014, he said, “We are not just geographically located in Makhanda, but we are of and for the city.” It was a deliberate departure from the old ivory tower kind of image— to say that we do not live in isolation and we are inextricably bound and we are part of our community.
After his inauguration, he made a commitment to work in public education, the local municipality, and to achieve Internet access for the city. First he set up a committee (including the dean of education and key community members) to look into how we might begin to transform public education in the city.
In 2011, only nine people entered the university from the local community. By 2020, that number had grown to 120. In 2016, Makhanda was one of the four worst- performing school districts in the country; in 2020, results showed we were the best performing city in our province. We naturally started at the top end and created these matriculation programs to create that kind of impact and access to our university, because we can’t be a university that educates everyone else’s children and not our own.
Once the Programme was in place, we started to see that many of the deficits we were dealing with were created in early childhood. One study showed that 80% of our city’s third grade children could not read for meaning. So we realized that it was futile just to work at the top end; we actually needed to go back to early childhood education. We couldn’t do that ourselves as a university; we had to bring everyone working in education in the city together. So we put together educators in primary, middle school, and high school, who previously functioned separately, to develop this pathway. Now we all see ourselves with the same goals, complementing each other and getting excited about it.
Amy: What’s the meaning of the program’s name— “Nine Tenths”?
Anna Talbot: It comes from French poet Anatole France’s remark that “Nine tenths of education is encouragement.” So we really focus on mentoring, as opposed to tutoring, to give students that encouragement. We work with matriculating students in their final year of high school, to help equip them with the skills that will get them through that year. It happens in three phases:
Phase 1 teaches them how to set goals.
Phase 2 hones in on study techniques.
Phase 3 creates guidance to set up a trajectory beyond school—something that is positive and engaging and worthwhile doing, once they leave school.
These three phases occur across nine sessions at strategic points through the academic year. These sessions are one-on-one, matching one student volunteer mentor with one mentee, and last for about an hour each.
Many of these student volunteer mentors join us in their second year at the university and continue through to fourth year. But that’s their decision. But we have quite a high retention among the volunteers, because of the relationships they form. And mentors often go beyond the planned nine sessions, meeting privately between sessions as well. Many of our volunteers come from very similar socio-economic circumstances and never had that support, so they appreciate its importance. And even though they are 17 or 18 years old, they connect much better with someone who is dealing with similar issues. This is the exact reason why we prefer student mentors over academics (although staff are allowed to become volunteer mentors too).
What makes the program unique is that volunteers are not tutoring a subject; they’re imparting life skills. Some student volunteers who’ve matriculated within the past few years can pass on tips about writing exams, subject knowledge— that sort of thing. It’s more a big brother, little sister sort of familial relationship than a teacher relationship.
Amy: What was Rhodes University’s original mission?
Diana: The university was established in 1904. It’s a relatively small university, in a semi-rural town: Makhanda. Also, during apartheid, Rhodes was designated for whites only. There was strong separation between the university and the community at that time. After apartheid ended, in 1997, all universities were mandated to introduce community engagement. So at that point, the aim for the university was to play a much broader role in society.
When we speak of the purpose of higher education now, we speak of two main roles: How do our academic projects contribute to social and economic development? And how do we grow socially responsible young people to be the change agents that our civil society needs?
And you can see that in our numbers: Almost 50% of our 8,500 students are involved in some community engagement. And almost half of those are volunteers.
Amy: What’s it’s like for a typical student who participates in the program?
Anna: Before the mentors work with the learners, our partner organization conducts training to teach them the skills that they will pass on— like being able to regulate and take control of your own learning.
Most of Makhanda’s schools are located in low socio-economic areas with very minimal/non-existent Internet access. So we’ve been really lucky that a local Internet service provider has installed Internet service in the schools, which has really made mentoring online much more accessible. Especially during COVID, we really had to think innovatively about how to build those relationships between mentors and learners. Now, with these Internet connections, you can have much richer experiences. We’ve also been able to increase the number of mentees/learners, because we don’t have to transport people back and forth. We’re not bound by the number of seats on a bus.
Diana: I think for a lot of students, it’s all about the relationships. Our mentors have said being engaged in the program holds you accountable. The mentees push you to learn these skills because you have to teach them. There’s plenty of mutual learning as well.
A lot of the mentors say, “We can’t tell the mentee how to use a timetable if we’re not using a timetable ourselves.” Things like that.
There are also some bright young school kids who are capable of managing at university but didn’t get good enough marks for a bachelor pass (which is what you need to attend university). In those circumstances, we offer three options:a second chance schooling at one center called the Assumption Development Center; a standard matriculation school; or a “bridging year.” If their grades are not high enough to get into Rhodes, then we offer them the bridging year. We have a partnership with Gadra, a “second chance” school. For one year, these students take two subjects at Gadra and one subject at Rhodes. Then the following year, if they’ve passed the subject at Rhodes and they’ve improved on the other two, they’re automatically accepted into Rhodes.
Amy: How is Nine Tenths funded?
Diana: It was an unfunded mandate. We get funding from corporations and foundations. Our salaries are paid by the university, but the money we need to run programs needs to be found elsewhere.
Amy: Can you share a story of a student who benefitted from the program?
Diana: Zanele Toyisi was a mentee of our pilot program in 2015. The following year, she became a mentor and mentored people at her previous school. And a year later she became a student leader, mentoring mentors to work with the mentees. Now she is a teacher at our partner organization and a board member there as well. So she’s come through the full iteration of the program. And she’s thrived in that education space and it’s formed her career and who she’s become in the community. She studied environmental science, and now she teaches geography.
Amy: Looking forward, what’s next?
Diana: At the end of every year, we re-conceptualize the program, because there were areas left wanting. Then, last year, we realized the program is now running on oiled wheels. And we see the results in the impact data.
So what now? Do we sit on this amazing model, or do we share it?
We went to other universities and asked if they were interested. Two universities expressed interest, and in fact, the Talloires Network and winning the MacJannet Prize helped us enormously. And next year, we’ll be rolling the program out to two other universities.
We feel we have a responsibility to share these models we’ve developed. It’s not about trying to sell it or benefit financially. We tell other colleges: Rather than everyone creating and learning from the beginning, here’s learning you can build on.
Here’s something you can adapt to suit your circumstances. In that way, we can contribute to the global stock of knowledge by having mastered something and developed a model of excellence in our own space.
If one child out of a family has a Rhodes University degree, that changes the circumstances of the whole family. A study by one of our units shows that 96% of Rhodes students are meaningfully employed in about a year after graduation. So students know now that the program is a pathway to success. With their efforts and a good degree, they can change not only their own circumstances but those of their whole family. They pull up the other children, who see them as their role models. The earning power of that one family member changes the circumstances for the rest of the family. It is true intergenerational change.