PhD candidate and UKZN lecturer, Ms Zoleka Mkhabela is back in South Africa after spending a semester abroad in SiedIce, Poland.
Mkhabela was selected for the Erasmus + mobility scholarship for the Spring semester and was placed at the University of Natural Sciences and Humanities in SiedIce.
She found the experience “life-changing” and enjoyed lecturing master’s students on Early Childhood Development (ECD) Pedagogies. ‘This experience allowed me to step out of my comfort zone. Teaching in a foreign country, where English is hardly spoken, allowed me to develop a culturally relative mindset,’ said 30-year-old Mkhabela. ‘When you are far from home, you understand your true strengths; it has been an enormous boost for my mind, soul, spirit and self-confidence.’
The five months she spent in Poland allowed her to grow personally and professionally. ‘I learned to appreciate the balance between solitude and meeting new people. On a professional level, lecturing abroad has contributed to my new skills. “Each one, teach one” was the principle I used in my classes, as together with the students, we taught each other,’ she said.
Mkhabela, currently a lecturer in Social Sciences on UKZN’s Edgewood campus, enjoyed the opportunity to work with academics at the International Scientific Conference on the Multidimensionality of the Education in the 21st Century which was held in Chlewiska, Poland. ‘I had an opportunity to co-write and co-present at this conference. Through this, I have connected with numerous scholars from across Europe. I connected with different individuals who changed my perspectives on many issues.’
‘The language of instruction was Polish as hardly anyone speaks English there, so phones were often used for translation. Yes, I attended a class for two weeks on just the words I needed to get by,’ she said.
‘I learned the power in owning who you are, in not being afraid to step out of your comfort zone and just be.’
She was able during her stay to travel to different parts of Poland. ‘A highlight was visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau – a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. ‘Learning about the holocaust and being within the vicinity gave me the shivers,’ she said. On a lighter note, she also visited other parts of Europe. ‘I was in Paris, which was breath-taking – like scenes in a movie.’
Mkhabela grew up in a household in KwaMashu where education was regarded as the key to one’s future. Her mother, Mrs Sonto Mkhabela, was a social worker and her father, Mr Paundi Mkhabela, who had a master’s degree in History Education, was a teacher until 1991 when he became a farmer. ‘So, I was raised to believe that we needed to always exceed what our parents had achieved – especially because they studied during apartheid. My parents believed education puts you on the path of self-discovery, leading to self-belief, adding meaning to life, providing the means to achieve lasting success,’ she said.
‘The most heartbreaking part is that the last thing I told my father before he passed away earlier this year was that I would be going to Poland. Not being able to share this experience with him has been difficult, but I’m consoled by the fact that he is watching over me.’
While studying abroad can be challenging for many students, Mkhabela enjoyed the support of her mentor and fellow students. ‘I was surrounded by such an amazing mentor, Professor Anna Klim-Klimaszewska, who is the Director of the Institute of Pedagogy, and her team. Hence, I did not face many challenges – I was well taken care of! I also made friends with international Turkish students, and we formed a “family bond”, so I was surrounded by love.’
Mkhabela plans to complete her studies in Education, be an agent for change within her community and grow her small family and ‘be a present mom.’
‘One piece of advice I would give incoming students: Enjoy every moment and be present. Live in the moment and embrace it.
‘You will never leave the Erasmus programme unchanged – you can never go back to your old dimensions,’ she added, quoting American jurist and legal scholar who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.’
Click here to view an informal interview Mkhabela had with Professor Vincentas Lamanauskas who is based at Vilnius University in Lithuania.
Click here for a short video of Mkhabela’s students in class.