School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Dr Ntombifuthi Nzimande on a visit to Estonia during her PhD studies in Hungary.

Geography Lecturer a Product of UKZN’s Recognition of Excellence

Dr Ntombifuthi Precious Nzimande is a  UKZN alumnus-turned-lecturer who has brought back from the historic cities of Hungary expertise that will enhance her teaching of Human Geography on the University’s Howard College campus.

Nzimande completed her Bachelor of Social Sciences, Bachelor of Science Honours, and Master’s degrees in Geography on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus before a Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship saw her jet off to Hungary’s third largest city, Szeged, to complete her PhD at the University of Szeged, but it was the UKZN Talent Excellence and Equity Acceleration Scholarship (TEEAS) that she said sparked her journey to academic success.

Nzimande attended Durban Girls’ Secondary School where she found her strengths were in Biology and Geography. A passionate teacher piqued her interest in Geography, leading Nzimande to enrol in Geography and Environmental Sciences at UKZN where she benefited from an Emma Smith Scholarship during her undergraduate studies.

While a student, Nzimande nurtured her passion for social issues and their impact on the environment. Her growing love of teaching and a talent expo she attended in her third-year resulted in her pursuing a career in academia, where she is committed to research, teaching, and community engagement. Academia provided the best of both worlds for Nzimande who loves conducting research as well as sharing science.

‘Science should not be an elusive dream, it’s supposed to be for the people,’ she said. ‘I like disseminating my research, and if it’s for bettering society, who else should we tell than the communities we live in?

‘I realised I could be what I needed when I was younger to other students; as a Black female, one hardly sees Black female professors, and I would like to model that,’ she said.

Being a part of the “missing middle” (students who do not qualify for a National Student Financial Aid Scheme bursary but cannot afford to pay for their studies) and having needed support from her parents, sisters, and extended family in addition to her undergraduate scholarship, enrolling for postgraduate studies was not guaranteed.

Enter the TEEAS, which for Nzimande, who was hesitant to apply for scholarships, was a godsend. Remembering a caution from the Executive Director of Human Resources at the time, Ms Busisiwe Ramabodu, about the impact of negative self-doubt, Nzimande realised her capabilities and found that the TEEAS challenged her to consider what other opportunities might be attainable.

She completed her honours and master’s studies thanks to the TEEAS and worked as an academic mentor, demonstrator, supplemental instruction leader and residence assistant. She was also involved in the Golden Key International Honour Society, Campus HIV/AIDS Support Unit, Community Development Association, and the Black Management Forum.

While the TEEAS would have enabled Nzimande to complete her PhD in South Africa where she was expected to join academia, she chose to look further afield to gain diverse experience.

This drive resulted in her being one of only 100 successful applicants of the 6 000 from around the world granted the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship administered through the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) with the expectation that recipients would return to South Africa to provide enhanced contributions to academia here.

Nzimande spent four years in Hungary, initially setting out to explore social impact assessment policies but shifting to investigate the socio-economic impact of urban regeneration programmes as a tool of housing in a post-socialist era by comparing Hungarian case studies. This involved how views on housing and its interaction with the environment manifest. The experience of conducting this research, in a university department of geoscience, threw into contrast different experiences of and psychologies surrounding housing in South Africa and a socialist European state.

Nzimande’s experience challenged her by presenting language barriers and requiring that she become proficient at explaining research in basic terms for non-English speakers, emphasising the importance of good communication.

‘My most valuable takeaway was learning to be respectful of other people’s culture, traditions, and values and to be open to them and their experiences,’ she said.

She successfully defended her PhD thesis and graduated summa cum laude in January, becoming the first PhD holder in her family; just three months after joining UKZN as a lecturer. Nzimande looks forward to contributing to keeping academia relevant in the world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution through curriculum reform and ensuring that research is innovative, impactful, and shared with the communities it impacts.

She acknowledged the TEEAS department at UKZN, the DHET, UKZN Geography staff on the Howard College and Pietermaritzburg campuses, her family, and colleagues at the University of Szeged for their support.

She also encouraged students to think beyond current circumstances and to venture out of their comfort zones to gain experience and life skills that promote resilience and sound mental health.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied