09 March 2021 | Story NONSINDISO QWABE | Photo Charl Devinish
The editors of the book Leadership for Change: developing transformational student leaders through global learning spaces, René Pelser and Dr WP Wahl.

Set during a transition from one era to another, the book Leadership for Change: developing transformational student leaders through global learning spaces best captures the University of the Free State’s (UFS) journey of transformation through this project. 

The book is a deep scholarly reflection of experiences, teachings, and lessons learned by those involved in the two intersecting co-curricular programmes initiated by the UFS, namely the First-Year Leadership for Change (F1L4C) programme founded in 2010; and the triennial Global Leadership Summit (GLS) in 2012. The programmes ran for close to ten years, coming to an end in 2018.

The editors of the book, Dr WP Wahl and René Pelser, who are both part of the Division of Student Affairs, said the book revealed the journey of how transformation had to be interwoven with student leadership development and global learning in order to be most effective.

Dr Wahl, Director: Student Life, explained that before the start of the programmes, the university was reeling from deep-seated trauma following the 2008 Reitz incident that shook the university community. In an effort to redefine and transform itself, the programmes were established to create a new identity for the institution, with students playing an important role in the project.

Book highlights sensitivities and complexities of transformation

“The campus was segregated, with high racial tensions, and during that period there was a huge objective to humanise the environment and facilitate the kind of environment where students can find one another on a human level, with deep respect and openness towards one another. The book certainly highlighted the sensitivities and complexities involved in institutional transformation,” he said.

The two programmes were transformational experiments, and the compilation of the book came about as a way to best capture all the data gathered throughout the programmes, providing views from different angles and narratives from different partners around the globe. It demonstrated how student leadership development and global learning was experienced by both staff and students.

“The book looks at the good and the bad. The aim wasn’t to just put these programmes on a pedestal and praise them for how valuable they were; instead, different opinions were portrayed that did not always focus on the positive. It speaks to the rationale behind the programmes, how they were designed and implemented, and how they were experienced by staff members and students alike,” said Pelser, Assistant Director: Student Life.

Dr Wahl indicated that the vast majority of literature looks at student development and global learning spaces for students from a Northern Hemisphere perspective, which makes this book unique due to its focus on and origin from the Global South.

The aim of the book was to provide a deeper understanding of how the UFS F1L4C and GLS programmes have enhanced student leadership development through global learning, especially in the context of higher-education transformation. 

Student involvement critical to change agenda

“These programmes have not only created diversity in terms of leadership groups on campus, but they have also broken the mould of our society and exposed students to international global learning spaces to bring in a different layer of diversity, further developing students. We saw the results very early – that students who went through the programmes from their first year actually became connected and involved in leadership positions, which had a good reciprocal effect on the campus environment and the transformation project of the university at that time.”

“It therefore becomes essential to involve students and student leaders in transformational projects, as universities often wish to transform themselves, but through a top-down approach that often excludes students. Students were involved from the onset, which had a positive effect. It also implied a number of systemic challenges of which the book is not ignorant, but student involvement was certainly a huge component,” Dr Wahl said.

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