The rise of student activism and the often uneasy relationship it creates between students and university structures, has Tonia Overmeyer, Dean of Students, convinced that active listening, deepening our understanding of each other’s perspectives and working together to co-create solutions to the challenges in Higher Learning, is the only way to achieve meaningful student engagement.

Overmeyer, formerly acting Director of the Centre for Student Support Services at the University of the Western Cape, joined Stellenbosch University’s Student Affairs Division in the Centre for Student Leadership and Structures on 1 September last year, and describes the current situation at SU and in the higher education sector as uncertain, complex and fast-paced.

“It is not only a reflexion of our society, but also of global trends of student uprisings and activism. We are experiencing on a micro level what is mirrored nationally and globally. And we should guard against a rush to simplify these issues and find binary solutions.”

Overmeyer says it is a time to pause and reflect on what a South African university should look like amidst the challenges that we are facing and to find ways of co-creating solutions. “We all – students, staff as well as other role players in the sector – have a responsibility towards finding solutions and we should listen actively, collaborate and stay committed to working towards this goal.”

This collaboration is also the cornerstone of the Division Student Affairs’ approach to the support and development of students. Therefore, the centres for Student Communities, Student Counselling and Development as well as the recently formed Centre for Student Leadership and Structures, of which Overmeyer is the Director, all work together in “an ecosystem of support” to students and each other.

This Centre comprises the Frederik van Zyl Slabbert Student Leadership Institute, headed by Dr Leslie van Rooi; formal student governance structures and primarily the Student Representative Council; as well as the coordination of the Co-Curriculum and the related second transcript and First Year Academy.

The aim with establishing this Centre is to ensure that the University provides comprehensive and coherent leadership experiences for its students, focussing on positional leadership as well as meritorious leadership. These experiences contribute significantly to the development of graduate attributes and future employability of SU’s students.

“We have a shared understanding among our areas that student development and engagement has a variety of entry points. Our approach is that everything is about engagement and that we should use every opportunity to engage constructively to not only address the challenges, but also deepen our understanding of each other’s perspective,” says Overmeyer, who also functions as the Dean of Students.

She describes the impact this collaborative approach can have, with an example of how the interim SRC, in addition to the #RegisterAll financial aid campaign, mobilised students across the different student societies and gathered 50 volunteers to, in partnership with the Division Student Affairs, the Registrar’s Office, and Bursaries and Loans, assist students with registration.

The students offered fellow students opportunities for peer-to-peer sessions, to help them navigate the issues they are dealing with. They also offered help with online registration and gave feedback to university structures on trends that should be addressed. From the University’s side the volunteers were given the information they would need to help other students, as well as the people they could refer students to for help.

“Departments are open to collaborations with students to co-create solutions, and value students’ perspectives. We find more and more that students form part of task teams and offer valuable input and insights. There is always room to improve, but this is the way forward,” Overmeyer emphasizes. 

“We remain committed and will work even harder on being deeply responsive and recognize that although we have different mandates, we all have a role to play in the support and development of our students.”

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