Keeping the volunteering spirit alive after graduation

More than 20 years ago, when I set foot on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), I could not imagine all the places I would go. 

The well-rounded education I received, equipped me for the changing world and the opportunities that it presented. That gift of knowledge, though it cost my parents, is invaluable today. Yet, if I were to redo the experience, I would have immersed myself in more of the community activities that were available to me. However, I have fond memories of the ones I was involved in, because they gave me a sense of belonging that transcends frontiers and nationalities. 

As I reflect on the journey, I feel enriched by the experiences I acquired and how I was able to learn with purpose. On campus, that purpose was [helping] the broader community and [witnessing] how UCT volunteers grew in their interactions. We were nudged to take a step to support, as we were enabled to contribute with our heart, hands and minds. 

As such, we were given the instruments to keep [fostering] the volunteering spirit beyond our time on campus. But there was a lag between my graduation and me recommitting resources to UCT. It need not be, as we have an opportunity as alumni to engage with current students so that they nurture the ethos of giving back throughout their time on campus and leave with a clear sense of what they still need to do for UCT and the next generation. 

It is not an easy process to get it right, but it is worth the challenge for alumni to be associated with the project of providing quality education. Today, more than 20 years [after my graduation] later, skills are [remain] an extremely important attribute of employability. In that sense, we have to think about where we can package [and pass on] the skills across the 120,000 alumni to support the next generation. 

In many respects, the narrative of giving has been overshadowed by large cheques. While they are important and they will remain important, one cannot discount solidarity as the trigger that makes one give. When we give, we signal our understanding of the role that we play in society. Giving starts with the willingness to lift up a life. 

On the African continent, we have the presence of large foundations and wealthy individuals who commit large resources to the causes they believe their resources can alleviate or eradicate. While money can create the conditions for a great education. It does not, however, replace the role that a community of alumni can play in nurturing the image of the institution by excelling at what they do on one hand. On the other hand, alumni need to solve how they might provide skills, networks and ideas to UCT on how to better achieve its goal. 

When I set forth in the world, confident that I could change it, I also would have appreciated the support of a mentor from UCT to guide me on the road ahead. And this is something that us, alumni, can put in place with UCT’s support to make youth embrace the changing world with all the skills and the maturity required to support Africa’s transformation’s agenda. 

African youth are youth of the world. Their future, filled with quality education and skills passed on by previous generations is an investment worth making. In this model, we give [pay] forward because the success of this generation will greatly influence the life of my daughter and my son, as well as their peers. It is intergenerational by design, and when we miss the opportunity to constantly strengthen the foundation, we weaken the base for future generations.

UCT trained us to appreciate the value in giving of both time and ideas. As students we had ample opportunities, on campus, to contribute to the change we wanted to see. I remember the opportunities for community engagement that we had with SHAWCO and O-Week. Yet, my most precious memories of volunteering were for O-Week. In that moment, I felt that I was part of someone’s future on their first week on campus. I could offer new students, an opportunity to make the most of their time on campus. 

The intergenerational model was already embedded in our student life from day one. How might we bring it back at scale? That summer of 1999, when I landed in Cape Town, the volunteers made a difference to my experience. There, in these experiences, the university was already giving us the tools to connect to our community and make resources available for the next generation. 

In my case, like many of my peers in residences, we invested time in the life of the resident. At Groote Schuur Residence, I committed time to improve the well-being of my peers. In essence, we understood that there was more to our life than graduating. But for some reason, at graduation, some of us, in the pursuit of changing the world lost sight of our commitment to UCT and the alumni community. In my case though – through SHAWCO, O-Week or Groote Schuur Residence –  the seeds of community engagement were planted.

Over the past few years, I have taken a keen interest in the life of the UCT community. Becoming a parent made me think about the future in a more precise way. What if my daughter and son choose UCT and it has not progressed to what it could have been? That existential question made me appreciate the road ahead of their application and [made me ponder] what I could do to sustain the position that UCT has in the world. UCT, on merit and affinity, should be their first choice and I, like all my fellow alumni, can make the commitment of time by volunteering to teach at the Summer School like I committed to do.

That commitment mirrors the impact of pooling resources, just like our mothers do with stokvels, to improve knowledge. Knowledge shared is a transformational investment and many of us have accumulated enough to share and enrich ourselves from the engagement. I often think about the role that each alumnus could play in investing one Rand every month and invite one other alumnus to do the same. The impact of all of us doing so regularly could start to transform someone’s life with knowledge from peers and UCT faculty at least. 

Just imagine the possibilities when we come together in numbers to emulate a tradition of community giving. Even though, the reality that my children’s generation will face when engaging with university content, and while physical spaces are being redefined, we have clarity on the fact that more than ever, alumni have a responsibility to make resources available to their alma mater. 

Some may argue that the transaction was completed when they paid for their degree. While they might be right, it is the size of the pie that needs to be expanded for more people to receive quality education. We have had ample opportunities on campus to nurture our philanthropic fibre, it is time to increase the bandwidth to act, so that tomorrow finds the next generation further than we have reached. UCT alumni cut across generations. This should be a reminder that when we leave, we have an opportunity to pay forward for the next generation. In doing so, we capture the essence of who we are as a community and no longer as individuals who arrived on campus. It is the sentiment of belonging that needs to be nurtured by both UCT and the alumni body. 

Finally, we can, as alumni, come together to continue to fuel the light of knowledge with time and money. Today, as I think about that day when I graduated, I remember the ceremony as it represented my parents’ sacrifice for me. Today, I and my fellow alumni, have an opportunity to make UCT greater than it has ever been. It is not only about the ranking; it is about the investment for excellence in the leading African institution of higher learning in the world.