One of the challenges for a person who comes from Hawston is transcending the perceptions that people have formed about people born and raised in this coastal town.

Prof Ronelle Carolissen with Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, and Prof Yusef Waghid, acting Dean of the Faculty of Education,

These perceptions often concern teenage pregnancies, overcrowding, poverty-ridden homes and of course, abalone poaching and gang warfare.

“We need to hang on to the good things that come from Hawston too,” says Prof Ronelle Carolissen, Vice-dean of the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University and the first professor to be produced by Hawston Primary.

Ronelle recently delivered her inaugural lecture to a crowd that included family, friends, colleagues and people from her home town, including Mr Julius Swart, current headmaster of Hawston Primary, and several other teachers. Ronelle’s Grade 5 teacher, Mrs Alma Bucchianeri, as well as her Grade 11 and 12 Biology teacher from Harold Cressy High School, Mr Lionel Adriaan, also attended the event.

“It was a very special occasion,” says Ronelle. “Professionally, because it is the culmination of many years of hard work. Given the statistics on the number of non-white, female professors in South Africa, I’ve achieved a remarkable thing. But also personally, if I think of where I come from and about everyone who played a role in my life.”

In the late seventies, when Ronelle completed her primary school education, there was no high school in Hawston. Learners’ options were to drop out of school, risk taking the often non-functional bus to Caledon to attend Swartberg Secondary School or to move in with friends or family closer to the city to complete their education in Cape Town. As the children of two teachers who attached significant value to education, Ronelle and her three siblings all matriculated from Harold Cressy High School in Cape Town. “My parents were very involved in the Teachers’ League of South Africa and their motto was: ‘Let us live for our children’.”

After school, Ronelle obtained a BA degree with English and Psychology as majors, as well as an honours degree in Psychology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She followed these degrees with a Higher Education Diploma and masters degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Cape Town.

She obtained her doctoral degree from Stellenbosch University (SU) where she has worked since 2002, first in the Department of Psychology and later at the Department of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Education. As a lecturer, Ronelle aims to create an enabling environment in the classroom, so that any student – no matter who they are and where they come from – can participate. “My aim is to teach in a socially just and inclusive way,” she emphasises.

As she prepared to deliver her inaugural lecture, Ronelle reflected on the importance of supportive parents, family and friends and the context of the community you come from. She is hesitant to call herself a role model as she acknowledges the support and encouragement she received.

Not only did her maternal grandmother act as a role model by being one of the first teachers produced by Wesley College in Salt River, but her parents – both teachers at Hawston Primary – also actively encouraged their children to pursue tertiary training.

Her father, Hennie Carolissen, who was headmaster of Hawston Primary until his death in 1982, used to say that the fish in the sea will disappear one day and that people should qualify themselves for other jobs too.

“It is important to surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart. That person does not necessarily have to be a family member. It might be a teacher or a sport coach or someone else in the community,” says Ronelle.

Her message to the young people of Hawston is to dream big and to find ways to make their dreams reality. “You will have setbacks but with support you will be able to overcome them. Spread your wings and see what the world has to offer, even if you would like to settle in Hawston eventually.”

Ronelle’s mother, Katherine, now 89, as well as several other family members, still live in Hawston and she tries to visit the town at least once a month.

Mr Julius Swart, headmaster of Hawston Primary, is very proud of this former learner’s achievements. “Prof Carolissen comes from a small fishermen’s village where poverty and unemployment are rife, but this didn’t hold her back. As educators we want to teach our learners that there is a world beyond this town and that they can be successful if they put their mind to it.”

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