University success creates long-term impact in South Africa

“Looking back, it was my first interview. I walked in to the room very nervous, but I knew that I was not just doing this interview for me. I had the hopes and dreams of my family, and my community. It was probably a 20-minute interview. Surprisingly, the questions focused on me. They wanted to know me. Where I grew up and what support I thought I would need to get a university degree. I had been on campus for three months, and I was just about to give up. The fact that someone asked, meant there was hope of support being provided. I felt I could share. I did not feel alone…”

–Dr. Lindsay Sadie, Dell Young Leaders Alumni and Medical Doctor at a public health hospital in South Africa.

In the past seven years, I have interviewed thousands of students who are determined to get a Dell Young Leaders scholarship. Every interview feels like more than just a student competing for the scholarship. When we started the program in 2010, we were surprised by the sheer level of need and determination of these students, when they were probed on their background and challenges. We were shocked by how hard life was for these young people, yet it only made them only stronger. We were even more baffled that University was the hardest thing they had ever experienced when they had been through the unimaginable. Our experience taught us first-hand that the institutions that prided themselves on research and learning were not targeting support to at-risk students.

We knew little about what it would take to build an end to end model that would change the conversation around support to disadvantaged students in South Africa. But, we were ready to innovate. We decided to focus on outcomes. We created goals for the program that seasoned practitioners working in the sector thought were aspirational, but not achievable! We committed to getting 80 percent of the most high-risk students on financial aid, studying towards a professional degree program, to graduation and also ensure that all graduates would be able to compete for meaningful employment. In retrospect, the aspirational target was a good thing. It held the program staff accountable for achieving the extraordinary. It also felt like a better alternative, a disruption, to the sink or swim approach that we had typically seen at South African universities.

It was a disruption in the way support was extended in times of need to students that were dealing with some horrible past or present challenges. Through the course of the program, we have learnt that home responsibilities do not end when students start university. They all are young adults carrying the dreams of their single moms, dad who just never could put food on the table or their orphaned siblings, or grandmothers that had to step in. Despite all this, they feel a sense of responsibility, not burden, of not letting those closest to them down.

Did it feel like we were taking on too much? No. We believed we could champion a change to improve university success. How? Just by taking some small steps like making a vulnerable student feel like they belonged or helping someone with a mental health condition get a firm diagnosis and treatment. It was all worth it. Why? Because we realized that issues like these were the root cause of why these students could not get to graduation. In my time at the foundation, I have seen the lives of 685 students change. Lessons that I have learnt? Money alone does not solve problems! Our Dell Young Leaders outcomes have proven that holistic support can have a huge impact on improving the trajectories of underserved students. We have also learnt that completion is not just about getting a degree. It is also about making sure that when these students graduate, they have a job in hand. We are always so excited for them when we hear that their first salary has hit their bank account.

Our Dell Young Leaders are also incredibly aware of the fact that they did not make it to where they are today, alone. Their entire family sacrificed for them, waited on them and struggled for them. When we ask our alumni, what was about the first thing they bought themselves when they received their first pay check, most say that they have still not bought anything special for themselves. They have just been paying it forward. Their salaries are enough to support five to eight people, and they are continually giving back to young people in their communities.

These phenomenal young people are socially driven and want to create a long-term impact.

I invite you to celebrate the successes of these remarkable students with me and know that this type of support can be replicated. Join us in this effort. Our young people deserve it.

To learn more, please visit https://impact.msdf.org/completion.