I came across this tweet by one of my fellow Women Deliver young Leaders “Young people have suffered and continue to suffer, due to being excluded in decision-making. It is through these voices that they can become fully empowered to become leaders in the own right”.
It got me thinking about my journey as a youngster and newbie in academia, under the leadership of my two supervisors Prof Hannelie and Dr Moliehi. I was doing my second year as a Master of Pharmacy (Public Health and Management) student when I went to Prof Hannelie with an advert for a conference that would be hosted in the United States of America. I told her that I wanted to present my research at the conference, and I noticed that they offered a good prize for the best presenter at the conference. I found that bit to be more attractive. I remember the look on Prof Hannelie’s face, you know that ‘do you know what you are even saying?’ expression.
I later went back to her with a poorly written abstract, that I planned to submit. She said it was okay, but sent it back to me with much more colour than I had expected, and I mean red colouring. My confidence was a bit shattered, but I had more to lose if didn’t submit that abstract. I worked on it multiple times, sending it back and forth between my two supervisors, and eventually I sent it in. A few months passed, and I heard nothing from the organisers. On one December afternoon, I received an email stating that my abstract had been accepted. I jumped in excitement and then sent my supervisors emails. My excitement was short-lived because I didn’t really have funds available to finance my trip, and universities are not really interested in funding international trips for masters students (strictly an opinion).
My supervisors hustled and went to their absolute extreme lengths to get me funds. Dr Moliehi literally had to pay for my flights and then have the university reimburse her while Prof Hannelie paid for my conference registration. I had another problem though, I was going to present a poster for the first time in my life, and I didn’t know how to design one. Prof Hannelie is hands-on with tech art, but I bravely told her that I wanted the poster to be my own. I asked her to send me her past posters, so that I could create my ‘pretty poster’. For the first time, probably in the history of our relationship as supervisor and student, she trusted me and said ‘okay you can do this’.
I went home, and I started to work on my poster, putting my all in it because I had to impress her. I didn’t want to disappoint her for trusting me. I sent her the first draft and it was pink, yes it was really pink with a bit of white. She said to me ‘it looks very feminine’. I was not too sure of the colour, but the content had been well polished by her and Dr Moliehi. I then changed the colours and made it a little more attractive, had it printed the day before I was to catch my flight. The whole department wished me goodluck and Dr Moliehi was there every step of the way. I went to confidently present my research at a conference in the US, with other researchers from elite universities like Harvard, Stanford and MIT, to say the least. It was nerve wrecking for a young girl from Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (one of the previously disadvantaged universities). To cut the long story short I was awarded first prize for the best poster presentation in the Governance/Management/Human Rights/Economics track for presentations. And they gave me the money that was promised, in US Dollars of course, I was over the moon.
It would be nice to take the credit for this successful story, but I have to admit that it was the trust that was afforded to me by my supervisors whose primary aim was to empower me. They showed me that I could become better than I thought I could ever be; by teaching me countless skills. If it was not for their money, I wouldn’t have made the trip. We talk about tokenism and abuse of young people, but we do have pockets of excellence where the older generations want their successors to flourish in their endeavours. This particular incident taught me that I had the potential to achieve everything I wanted and the sky was not the limit, because I had these two women who could help me reach greater heights.
The morale of the story is that being young is a phase, and even more a gift that only you can make a dream or a nightmare, that is guaranteed to become a reality sooner than later. Ask your seniors to give you that independence and sometimes trust your craziness, I did. Aim to learn to excel with every task you undertake. Part of growing up comes from learning to walk without a helping hand.