University of the Western Cape: Hundreds of UWC EMS faculty students receive life-changing assistance through Project Making a Difference

Trying to complete a degree is an incredibly challenging reality for students the world over. Trying to complete that same degree without the required study material, travel funds and on an empty stomach is almost impossible. To address these fundamental needs, the non-profit organisation Project Making a Difference was established within the Economics and Management Sciences (EMS) faculty at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

The National Student Financial Aid (NSFAS) provides South Africans from underprivileged backgrounds with funding for tertiary education. However, if a student fails – and considering the myriad of daily challenges they face – which is often a reality, they no longer receive NSFAS support.

Professor Venicia McGhie, an academic development practitioner in the Faculty of Economics and Management Sciences saw and responded to the needs of these students. She has witnessed the reality of this challenge through her work in the faculty, with UWC traditionally serving those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“In addition to losing funding when they fail, the NSFAS does not contribute towards daily living expenses, travel allowances and accommodation,” explained Prof McGhie. “Most students take six to eight years to succeed because they haven’t had the same social and educational grounding afforded others. The need for student funding goes beyond the registration and course costs.”

Understanding the desperate need among her students, McGhie wanted to do more than just research, so she decided to rally staff in the EMS faculty. She walked from office to office, asking staff members to donate whatever they could from their salaries every month – whether R10 or R20 – to help the students. As a result, 40 staff members agreed to support the initiative.

Based on the findings of Prof McGhie’s PhD study, and with the vision of combining these individual contributions into something sustainable, in April 2012, Project Making a Difference was established. The following year, it was officially registered with the Department of Social Development as a non-profit organisation (NPO).

Chantel Oppelt, Executive Director of the Institute for Applied Alchemy (IAA), alumnus of UWC and supporter of the project, made a decision with the IAA to produce a documentary highlighting the incredible work being done to support these students. Oppelt explained: “Project Making a Difference reintroduces the dignity of having your basic human needs met. The systemisation of support allows students to quieten the angst and doubt about basic survival and enables a voice of potential and possibility to arise.”

The project started by supporting eight students in 2012, but word quickly spread and those in need stepped forward, seeking assistance from Prof McGhie. To date, the project has financially supported more than 500 undergraduate students in the Economic and Management Sciences Faculty at UWC. By 2019, 181 of the 230 students who were supported were promoted to the next year of study. This indicates that the project is making a positive impact on the students’ academic progress and the throughput rates in the faculty.

All students who approach the project for assistance undergo an interview process which continues throughout their studies to monitor their progress and the level of support needed. The project also adopts a ‘pay-it-forward’ approach where the academically strong students in the project are called in to assist those who are struggling.

Because every student’s needs are different, the project has four categories of financial assistance which can work as a once-off or ongoing form of support, with some students requiring various kinds. These are divided into:
Category 1: Course readers and study materials
Category 2: Monthly or weekly travelling allowance
Category 3: Printing and photocopying
Category 4: Food and living expenses
The need for student support is large and continues to grow, which is why Project Making a Difference is looking to create a sustainable funding model that can support more students in future. By relieving the students of ongoing financial stress, the project is empowering more students to achieve their dreams of successfully completing their degrees and enjoying the future they deserve.

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