This year’s recipient of the prestigious Distinguished Educator Award of the South African Association of Health Educationalists (SAAHE) is Prof Susan van Schalkwyk, director of Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Health Professions Education (CHPE) in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).
“I am very grateful and humbled by this recognition,” says Van Schalkwyk, who has been a member of the association since she joined the CHPE in 2011. “To be recognised in this way by one’s peers is always something very special.”
She has certainly made her mark on health professions education, and deserves this accolade from SAAHE, an association of health sciences educators from South African universities.
The notion of transformative learning is at the centre of her approach to education. “It is based on the premise that we are encouraged to confront preconceived ideas, to challenge our blind spots, leading to new ways of being in the world,” says Van Schalkwyk.
“There’s an imperative that if you are someone who is involved in teaching and learning, you recognise the responsibility that comes with that role, aware of your own established ideas and recognise your own positionality within relationships.
“As an older, white woman who is a professor, I need to be cognisant of what I bring to the teaching and learning space, and how that influences the engagement that occurs within that space. I’d like to believe this makes me more critical of my practice, more thoughtful and more care-full when I engage with others, including my students who come from all walks of life, many different professions, many different backgrounds.”
Van Schalkwyk, who holds a BA (Hons) degree in English, also has a particular interest in academic writing. “I believe writing is a powerful act,” she explains. “It is a lot more than an academic activity; it positions us in the academy, identifies us as ‘insiders,’ but it can also exclude, making some feel like ‘outsiders’. So there are issues of equity and access that sit within academic writing.”
In response, she runs an annual workshop at the FMHS on academic writing: “My PhD in Higher Education focused on academic literacy, so language and how we use language remains an interest.”
Van Schalkwyk regards SAAHE as centrally placed to help address the challenges that are currently being faced in health professions education: “It’s pretty much the go-to forum and organisation for us in South Africa who are involved in health professions education.”
Her first involvement with SAAHE was in 2008, when she was asked to provide input to its regional conference that year. Since then, she has facilitated workshops for the association and participated in various oral presentations.
Last year she was asked to deliver the keynote address at SAAHE’s annual conference, but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year she delivered the postponed keynote address during the online conference in June as the recipient of the Distinguished Educator Award.
It will be Van Schalkwyk’s second award from SAAHE. In 2016, she won the association’s Best Publication Award together with a group of colleagues: “It was part of a longitudinal study that stretched over a five-year period. That award was important affirmation for the entire project team.”
Van Schalkwyk’s individual achievements in health professions education are just as remarkable. She initially started her professional career in the retail industry, where she was involved in training and staff development. She moved to what was then the Cape Technikon in 1997 to teach business communication and retail business management.
“I realised very quickly that I knew very little about teaching and learning,” she says, and went on to complete a Master’s degree in Higher Education at Stellenbosch University in 2002. She joined the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning in 2005 and completed her PhD in 2008 before becoming its deputy director.
In view of the fact that she joined the CHPE just 10 years ago, Van Schalkwyk is particularly gratified by her latest SAAHE award: “It means a lot to me because I recognise that I came from a different educational context.
“Even though I am not a clinician, I really felt welcomed by colleagues in the Faculty and by the health professions community. Where I am in my career now is a wonderful place to be. Receiving an award like this as you move towards the end of your career is very special.”
But it will still be a while before Van Schalkwyk can fully indulge her love for golf or spend more time visiting a farm in the Karoo with her family. She was recently asked to step in as the FMHS’s Acting Vice Dean: Learning and Teaching.
In addition, she is involved in the Association for Medical Education in Europe (AMEE), and is now part of its Faculty Development Committee. She also still remains committed to the work of the African Forum for Research and Education in Health (AFREhealth).
Yet she has no regrets about the demands that such engagements place on her time. “I have been incredibly fortunate in my academic career and have worked with truly amazing people,” says Van Schalkwyk. “It continues to be a wonderful privilege.”