You obtained a PhD at 26, became professor at 32, and, among others, received a rating from the National Research Foundation. Also, you are the incumbent of the SA Research Chair in Property Law. What is your recipe for success?
I have really been blessed with a considerable amount of opportunities that came at just the right time. It was just a question of taking those opportunities and making the best of them. I also had an incredible mentor and friend in the first five years of my academic career that guided me with honest and critical advice and looked out for me in instances where I doubted myself – because, believe me, you will doubt yourself. In terms of my own efforts, I have never really been someone to sit and wait for things to happen. I think this can largely be attributed to my upbringing. Being raised by a single mother who was not scared to get her hands dirty to put food on the table, taught me valuable lessons that I think is still reflected in the way I work today.
Professors are often seen as old and grey. How do people react when people hear you are a professor?
People – especially students and their parents – are mostly shocked and quite surprised when they meet me in person and see that I am a young female professor of colour. Having an outlandish name and surname certainly does not help the cause!
What are some of the challenges you face as a young academic?
I think one of the biggest challenges that young academics, who have moved up the ranks quite quickly, experience is the pressure of somehow having to meet up to expectations that ordinarily go with academics who have had years of experience. When you’re a young academic, you’re supposed to have a certain level of academic development almost overnight and that can be particularly challenging. Generally speaking, you’re required to focus on undergraduate teaching, postgraduate supervision and your own research career. You’re also required to be conscious of the community around you, so that you can empower and strengthen those who are not as fortunate as you are. It’s a tall order for any academic, but for a young academic who is still trying to find his or her feet, it can be extremely daunting. I think it is important that one needs to be acutely aware of these challenges so that one can find your place in the institution.
If you gaze into your crystal ball, where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?
Not an easy question. In ten years’ time, I hope to be a happy, healthy 43-year-old woman who is content with who she is and what she has, and who maintains an appropriate balance between her spiritual, family and work life. I hope that all the effort and time I ploughed into those three aspects of my life will bear fruit ten years down the line, so that the next generation (i.e. my children and my students) will be reaping some of the benefits of the labour I put in now.
Apart from academic life, what other activities are close to your heart?
I believe my biggest activity at the moment is raising my son to be a responsible and compassionate person. My husband and I are very involved and invested in our son’s development and growth with the hope that he will grow up to reach his full potential. By far, that consumes most of my time and I am so incredibly proud of that. I love travelling (although I do that less now that I am a mother) and meeting new people. Travelling allows you to meet people with different ideas and from different cultures, and to get away briefly from the madness and chaos of your everyday lives. I also love staying active by doing sport, because I believe in taking care of yourself – body, mind and soul. So, I try and do what I can to get out and stay active.
What would your message be to young people wanting to pursue an academic career?
I think academic life presents a wonderful opportunity to have a certain level of flexibility to balance work, family and your general wellbeing. That is if you’re able to set appropriate boundaries so that these facets of your life do not encroach upon each other. If you’re looking for that type of flexibility where you can decide how and when you’re going to invest your time, academia as a potential career will suit you well. The profession provides a chance to impact on young people’s lives and really empower the next generation to think differently about what South Africa could look like in future. I think the profession allows the intellectual space to engage with important issues and debates that are critical in taking this country forward.
Prof Ronelle Carolissen of the Faculty of Education is the first professor who hails from the Overberg town of Hawston. ALEC BASSON spoke to her.read more
Four new professors of Stellenbosch University delivered their inaugural lectures over the past month.read more
South Africa’s young people should help to empower those less privileged than they, writes LWANDO NKAMISA.read more