Do you have a funding family?

I sit here at the end of an incredible weekend. One of learning, new friendships, valuable connections, fantastic discussions, endless possibilities and, last, but certainly not least, a well-exercised brain! Those are just some of the many things that I am left with as another DAAD (German academic exchange service) scholarship holders meeting comes to an end. This weekend was the 6th of its kind; the In-country DAAD scholarship holders meeting, which took place in the lovely (and very picturesque, albeit cold!) wine capital of South Africa. Yes, we partook in a great deal of product quality checking, and I’d say we are leaving very satisfied! Every year at this time DAAD SA manages to pull off a smooth, well-executed and VERY German-like event. In other words, things work, they run, and boy do they run well! German-time is a thing people, and I think I may be in love with it….This is my 3rd time attending such an event and each time I leave more enlightened and grateful than the last. I have been fortunate to receive DAAD for both my MSc and PhD research, meaning I am a veteran at these events (AKA a fossil), but luckily they keep letting me back!

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Do not let the term scholarship fool you though. This is so much more than a very generous allowance of money to help you get by. You see, DAAD is a family, and while this may sound very cliché, it is not something you can fully appreciate until you have been to one of these events. DAAD actually cares. I think so often you have funding agencies that are quite happy to throw money at students. A kind of, give them things and lets hope-for-the-best kind of attitude! The DAAD does more than that. They are involved, and they make an actual, tangible difference in the development of those they fund. During today’s closing presentations we heard from one young women, funded by the organisation: She spoke of her experience as a scholarship holder and, having come from the rural Eastern Cape (one of the most poverty stricken regions in SA), how this opportunity improved hers, and the lives of ten of her family…think about that for a moment. This bright, talented lady supports ten family members as she fights to make a career for herself in her chosen field. I think that is quite extraordinary and I am sure there are many such stories.

I can only talk of my experience, though I am sure attendees will all attest, to being a truly special one. We all arrive here for the weekend excited, but unsure of what awaits us. Many of us are scientists after all, not well-known (in general, stereotypes are dangerous!) for our expert social skills. I for one am a very shy person, but during these weekends I cannot help but come out of my shell because I am surrounded by like-minded people. I am surrounded by people who want to learn, who want to make a difference in the world, and who I believe will do just that. You need only look at the things some of these people do! At times you might be left feeling overwhelmed, unsure if you even belong here amongst these incredible people, but everyone has their role to play. We all do what we can. One of the truly exceptional things these events allow you is the chance to network, and more than that form strong friendships with amazing people, that I look forward to seeing again soon! Somehow it is easy to do here. DAAD seems to choose a great group of people! I was surrounded by people from so many different branches of science and humanities and each is unique in their own special way. I can assure you, the conversations I was lucky enough to be a part of here were deep and profoundly wide-ranging. From politics to religion, sexuality, morality and even the situation in our country (and of course all the fun stuff in between). What makes these discussions special is that being from different backgrounds everyone has a unique point of view, BUT, we also share a common thread, the ability to debate…no one gets offended, we can talk openly, we can present our views and we can have our minds changed. This, to me, is glorious! I learnt so much, not just about science and being a postgrad, but about life. I get excited by discussions like these as I have never really experienced anything like it before. Not at this level. I think it is because the DAAD brings so many different people together. It is a special kind of interaction and one which I think really is priceless!

During the weekend we also partake in workshops, some of which are presentation skills (science slam style, do yourself a favour and google this!), scientific writing, the postgraduate experience and CV and interview skills. DAAD brings in accomplished facilitators for each of these aspects. One workshop in particular that I found exceptionally good was that of, “The Postgraduate experience”. First off, the individual who ran it, Dr Janet Viljoen is amazing! It might sound mundane but in the workshop we were challenged to think about things that do not necessarily come easy to oneself. What it means to be a postgraduate? What is the perception of ourselves versus how society sees us? (no, we are not the unemployed, time-wasting, scared-of-the-working-world individuals some of society would have you believe). It allows you to think about your choices for doing this, to reflect on the challenges you face, your strengths and also your weakness, and then make these work for you. You know all those things you think of daily, the “Why am I doing this”, the “I am not smart enough”, the “Everyone else copes better than me” mental scoldings you give yourself? Yes? Well guess what, everyone experiences these thoughts! The difference between people is how they deal with them and whether someone has told them it is OK to feel like this. I feel like DAAD gives you the tools to deal with this and many other of the challenges you face during your postgrad life. More than that, it gives you another group of people you can call on to help you through these times.

We were also treated to talks by some DAAD alumni funded over the last four decades. To see what these people have achieved is inspiring. To see what kind of people they are is even more so. I’d go so far as to say that I am sure the opportunity they were given to pursue their dreams is a big contributing factor.

Once you are in you are in. You are part of the DAAD family. And this is something that brings me great joy. I feel very privileged to be a part of something. I know the next few years of my PhD will only be improved by my association with the DAAD and the incredible SA team, scholarship holders, new friends, and important connections.

DAAD gives you the skills to be a better postgrad, a better academic, and a better person. I suggest that where ever you are in the world, you go out and find your own funding family. Preferably visit the DAAD office near you!

I guarantee it will enrich your life in ways you wouldn’t believe.

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