In Conversation with Caitlin Graaf from Imagine Scholar!

Caitlin Graaf works at Imagine Scholar, a South African NGO that supports rural students’ education in her home country. R:Ed sat down with Caitlin at Reimagine Education in London to discuss her work and the education system in South Africa, Imagine Scholar was also awarded “Gold” in the Arts & Humanities category, “Silver” regionally for Africa, and “Silver” for Innovation in K12 education.

R:Ed: Could you give us a short introduction to who you are and what work you do?

I am the Strategy and Engagement Manager at Imagine Scholar. I’ve been with the organization for almost four years now. I actually come from an environmental background and found the organization when I was looking to shift my career to learn more about the impacts of ecotourism on local communities around South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Imagine Scholar is positioned about 30 minutes south of Kruger National Park’s Malelane Gate in South Africa. The organization does not have any interaction with the tourism industry. It’s an education organization. Imagine Scholar was started when our Founder, Corey Johnson was working as a consultant to identify students to be recipients for university bursaries. What he found was that there was a disconnect between what the public education system was able to prepare students for and then how they actually have to perform. Corey met students who were frustrated with a lack of access to opportunity, poor education infrastructure, and now, 10 years later, Imagine Scholar has incrementally grown and grown. Our model has always been student driven, really coming from what students want to do with their lives as opposed to being prescriptive. I think that’s translated into a curriculum that’s very holistic and lets students choose their own pathways in life. That’s the thing that really grabbed me; the way Imagine Scholar is this oasis for education.

R:Ed: The scholars that you support have the curriculum that you talked about, and they attend all these activities in addition to their government schooling. Could you talk a bit more about how Imagine Scholar as an organization interacts with the South African government’s education system? Is there anything that you would perhaps like to see changed in the way that the government curriculum is designed going forward?

The short answer is there isn’t much interaction. South Africa has a very complex educational policy landscape;  that has limited clout with employers. Since the National Qualifications Framework and the State’s governing bodies have gone through numerous structural changes,  they can be very complex and hard to understand. For these reasons, we exist outside of the government’s education structure. We do have relationships with the schools that we source students from and would like to continue to build productive working relationships with local teachers and principles. So we don’t engage that much with the governmental education system, but this might change over the years. Right now, though, even from a curricular standpoint, we sit quite separate.

R:Ed: These issues that you’re talking about mainly relate to primary, middle and high school. Do any of these issues also carry into higher education as well? Is there any specific way in which you would like to see the South African higher education system evolve both for graduating Imagine Scholars and in general?

South Africa’s higher education system has been through a bit of a roller coaster over the past few years. The #FeesMustFall campaign in South Africa brought about some changes to the pricing structure that made higher education more accessible by reducing fee increases. This is great, but also for a lot of South African students, and I think this is a phenomenon across Africa, students find a lot of status in studying abroad in the UK or the US and then returning to Africa. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of our students; some study abroad outside of South Africa, whether that be at African universities, including the African Leadership University, or outside of Africa. In terms of things that would be nice to see change – I think ultimately it’s a political question, not an educational question. And until that happens, we as an organization are biding our time and trying to set our students up for the best outcomes for them. Whether that is studying in South Africa or abroad really depends on each student and what their career goals are.

R:Ed: The prestige, as you mentioned, from studying abroad is often discussed alongside the brain drain phenomenon. That is to say, people go to university abroad, whether that’s elsewhere in Africa or beyond, and then they don’t return to their home country and their areas specifically within their home country. Maybe they’ll return to South Africa, but they go to Johannesburg and not the rural areas they are from. As an organization, how do you combat that? Or how do you think that should be combatted in the future?

Yeah, this is really important to us because we operate in an area that is particularly susceptible to this. We are in a rural area, in a closed labor market, so it’s very difficult for students to find jobs where we are because there’s a lack of industry. There’s primarily tourism and there’s sugar in our area, so typically students who become highly educated leave. With our program, if we’ve been successful, we’ve set students up with opportunities so that they will go on to higher education, but then there’s nothing for them to come back to. I think at the end of the day, it’s difficult for small organizations to have conceptual clarity over what the goal is. Is our goal to equip students with the resources and opportunities they need to thrive individually or is our goal to actually revitalize a community at the end of the day? I think we sit somewhere in the middle of those two things. We don’t want to limit students’ freedom to the point where we mandate that they must come back. However, we try to build as much structure around allowing them to come back as possible. This happens in a few different ways. Probably the most powerful is trying to instil a culture of paying forward the types of opportunities that they have had. This is in the fabric of the culture of the organization. It’s very familial program as well, which taps into a strong cultural ethic in South Africa. We’ve been happy to see that a lot of our graduates have expressed an interest in coming back to the program and coming back to the community and doing something in this area. In 2020, we are also hiring back our first alumni who just graduated from university in Johannesburg. As we launch and expand new campuses in our area, our hope is that we can create an internal hiring mechanism where we create jobs in the community for students to come back to.

R:Ed: That sounds great, and to wrap up, who or what inspires you personally, in your day to day life?

I’ve been pretty lucky to work with very inspiring people and amazing coworkers. I’ve learned a lot from our Executive Director at Imagine Scholar. He has done a good job of being very focused on creating the best “product” without sacrificing a positive work environment. I think it’s that kind of culture that’s permeated the whole program: a culture of kindness and an area for blue sky thinking, and that trickles down to the students. We use the term ‘playful excellence’, that everyone’s held to a very high standard, but it’s still really fun. That’s been an incredible mindset to cultivate in a growing organization as well. Our programs work really well and we feel really proud of the work that we’re doing, but this doesn’t come with any ego attachments and I think that has been really personally powerful for me.

To learn more about Imagine Scholar, visit our Facebook page or get in touch with Caitlin on LinkedIn.

Right for Education


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