Master’s candidate in the School of Life Sciences, Ms Thandolwethu Jele was part of the 2019 cohort of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (MWF). She spent just over a month at the JW Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia in the United States.
The fellowship, which comprises business, civic engagement or public management streams at US colleges or universities, hosts up to 700 fellows a year from sub-Saharan Africa, and concludes with the Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit in Washington DC where all 700 fellows engage with US leaders from the private, public, and non-profit sectors. This sets the stage for long-term engagement between the United States and Africa.
Jele participated in the civic engagement track. Her master’s research focuses on variation in growth and defensive characteristics of Vachellia nilotica and Vachellia tortilis seedlings from geographically isolated populations in KwaZulu-Natal’s major river valleys. It is supervised by UKZN’s Drs Zivanai Tsvuura and Nthuthuko Mkhize at the Agricultural Research Council.
In addition to her research, Jele has dedicated her time to community leadership. Since 2014, she has volunteered with the Community Development Association, founded by Professor Thabo Msibi at UKZN in 2002. This student-run voluntary community outreach organisation aims to address issues of inequality, HIV/AIDS and illiteracy in South Africa, and promotes a culture of excellence and continuous development in all spheres of life. While volunteering, Jele happened upon an article about the launch of the MWF and was motivated to improve her leadership skills and join the network of MWF leaders. When 2018 Fellow Ms Mbali Dlamini, an aquatic scientist and co-founder of Imphumelelo Educational Ecosystem, shared her experience, Jele was inspired to apply.
During the fellowship, Jele was exposed to the people, institutions, issues, and civic leadership strategies that have shaped and in turn have been shaped by US civic organisations. The institute where she spent time focuses on training in organisational development and diversity, strategic planning and youth participation, advocacy and marginalised populations, and the intersection of civil society, government and business.
‘The fellowship has strengthened my skills in mobilising volunteers and funding to carry out community development activities,’ said Jele. ‘The various networking opportunities have helped me to build my confidence in establishing and maintaining professional and personal relationships with other African leaders and American organisations.’
An aspect of the fellowship that Jele believes is exemplary is the representation it promotes in science and leadership.
‘Seeing scientists and leaders that look like me is inspiring,’ she said. ‘The fellowship provides a diverse platform of leaders from various fields we can relate to, and offers a platform to learn and to be challenged.’
Jele encouraged other young students who would benefit from this fellowship, either by receiving leadership development to grow their businesses or strengthen their community development initiatives, to apply to be part of the 2020 cohort.
*Applications for the 2020 MWF opened on Thursday, 12 September; eligibility requirements and application details can be accessed here.
Words: Christine Cuénod