Someone to talk to

2008-10-16 00:00

GETTING clinical psychologist Khanyisile Nyembezi to agree to an interview took some persuasion. But once the deal was struck and I was finally ensconced in her office at the Student Counselling and Careers Centre (SCC) at the university’s Pietermaritzburg campus, she displayed an engaging openness, moving to sit in the chair next to me, rather than letting the coffee table come between us.

“I accepted this post somewhat reluctantly,” she says of her position, since April, as director of the SCC, a job which took her out of her “rich and rewarding work” in private practice.

“To be able to connect with people through their deeper struggles was incredibly worthwhile, but I was overstretched and setting limits is a challenge. Physically, I could feel the job was starting to take its toll.”

No stranger to the university, where she’d worked for several years as a residence warden and senior counsellor in the centre, Nyembezi had no illusions about the challenges facing a large public university still getting to grips with its post-merger identity and having to respond to internal and national transformation imperatives.

She was also aware of a sense of fear and uncertainty among some staff members about their futures, particularly in light of the growing pressure on academics, not only in South Africa, to “prove themselves”.

“I’m not sure they are always warranted, but these perceptions are there,” she says.

Nyembezi takes a long view of the changes. “I’ve seen research which suggests it takes about 25 years to complete a merger. But the challenges are not unique to this university; they face higher education in general. The real question is: in the context of change, how do we find sufficient energy for our students?

For Nyembezi, the move back into the institution was something of a personal challenge that she hoped would capitalise on her experience outside the university, not only as a private therapist, but as a consultant for a variety of large South African companies on issues ranging from diversity management to employee assistance programmes.

“It sounds like a lofty ideal, but I thought I could perhaps bring a sense of optimism. I thought maybe I was at an age at which I could make a contribution, in a leadership position, during challenging times.”

Changes in the university and the country have, of course, been mirrored in the kind of student taking advantage of university education, with increasing numbers hailing from disadvantaged backgrounds. This, in turn, has implications for the work of the centre.

Nyembezi says she’s been shocked by the degree of challenge facing the centre’s current interns, compared with her own experience as a student counsellor in the nineties. “Then, most students seeking help were in need of career guidance or were having trouble with relationships. They needed help redefining relationships with parents or they were generally questioning traditional value systems. There were occasional cases of sexual abuse or eating disorders.”

Today, the word “disadvantaged” doesn’t only refer to a lack of money, a widespread problem which in some cases means some students are unable to feed themselves. Nyembezi says students are also disadvantaged by having no family support, partly because of the impact of HIV/Aids. Some have witnessed the trauma of multiple deaths in their families and most come from a schooling system which is gradually disintegrating. Others are physically compromised by HIV infection, which has implications for academic performance.

Then there’s the reality of South Africa’s high incidence of rape and abuse, and growing numbers of refugee students facing “severe” circumstances.

“People are battling at all levels,” says Nyembezi.

And yet expectations on students are at an all-time high, with university education being seen as a door to financial security, not only for the individual graduate, but for his or her family as well. “Assisting students in this context is a massive challenge and the university is working at streamlining the process of support and advice available to them. But it means staff have to understand who they are dealing with.”

“That’s the battleground. I don’t want to have to think of it in these terms, but we have to delve into our personal resources to meet the challenges.”

Having sketched the challenging terrain, Nyembezi pauses: “It’s important not to become overwhelmed. There’s always a way of supporting someone, some element of resilience in a person ... the trick is to learn to tap into these.”

To reach as many students as possible — and those for whom a visit to the centre may signal distress which may result in stigmatisation — the centre has a strong outreach component which sees its staff taking awareness drives on issues such as sexuality and gender violence to residences and areas where student traffic is highest. The centre is currently in the process of a branding exercise which will assess how it is performing and how it is perceived. Understanding the needs of disabled students is also a “major growth area” for the centre.

Part of Nyembezi’s vision is to have the centre become a place that students see as enhancing their opportunities at every level and a place that staff see as an indispensable resource.

“I’d like students to be able to say that the centre adds value to their lives and that it’s part and parcel of their university experience, not just a place they go when they have problems.”

The making of a psychologist

Khanyisile Nyembezi knew that she and her siblings were expected by their mother and father — an Edendale nurse and doctor, respectively — to become professionals of some sort. “I knew that I didn’t want to become a doctor. I saw the strain my late father suffered.”

As a student at Fort Hare, she took psychology as an elective and was fascinated by it. “The rest, as they say, is history,” she says.

But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. After finishing her studies at Rhodes, Nyembezi worked first in Komani mental hospital in Queenstown and then at Fort England Hospital in Grahamstown. Both were government institutions and, at the time, heavily segregated. That phase was the most difficult of her career.

Being black, Nyembezi was given access only to the largely Afrikaans-speaking coloured inpatients. Whites were off limits and there were no inpatient facilities for black, Xhosa speakers. “It was difficult, but I was offering mainly supportive therapy, so I managed.”

Harder than the language barrier and apartheid was the environment itself. “After that experience, I knew I could never work in a mental institution,” she says. “It was a cold, inhumane place, little better than a prison. It was a question of simply surviving it, getting through.”

In those days, a black female psychologist was a rarity. Today, it’s a little more common and Nyembezi says demand for psychological services, given the massive changes seen in South Africa over the past decade or so, is “huge”.

“People may go to priests or other religious leaders to talk, but it’s not the same as a psychologist who is completely detached, not someone you meet every Sunday.”

Nyembezi says she sometimes feels guilty that she’s no longer available for therapy, given the seismic shifts taking place in society and its value systems. A mother of three children, she sees the value in therapy around issues such as parenting and the increasing demands on women in the workplace. The impact of HIV/Aids on marriages and relationships is another big issue.

But Nyembezi believes societal changes have brought positive trends too, like society’s growing commitment to “lifelong learning” and self-improvement. Her own commitment to learning is reflected in her membership of boards such as that of the South Africa Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals and local children’s foundation Thandanani. As of last month, she took on the role of UKZN’s acting deputy dean for students, which will give her a “broader perspective” on student life.

“I accept these positions to learn and to offer the best service possible. I’m a workaholic. As I tell my 11-year-old daughter, boredom doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.”

To relax, Nyembezi meditates, reads and enjoys nature. “I was raised a Christian, but I am drawn to Buddhism and have found it possible to marry the two belief systems.” She says part of the reason she likes Pietermaritzburg is the city’s serenity. “You can find some peace here, grow spiritually.”

But she also has another, surprisingly different, interest. “I’m fascinated by ... how do I put this ... the meaning of money,” she says. “I come from a background where actively pursuing money was seen as distasteful and education was important. As a result, I never paid enough attention to it. But now I feel I want to know more about it. I think there may be personality clusters which determine attitudes towards money.”

Does private practice still beckon? “I don’t see myself not going back one day.” But it would be good to work with other psychologists, rather than solo.”

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