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Picture of Nokwanda Ndlovu Grava Nokwanda Ndlovu Grava, a 3rd-year PhD student in the College of Education, traveled to South Africa during the summer of 2021 to recruit high ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds to graduate school at Purdue University as part of her winning grant, Mentoring First-Generation African Students during the Graduate Application Process.

November 15, 2021

Social unrest in South Africa underscores graduate student’s mission to mentor prospective students


In June 2020, The Graduate School at Purdue University launched the Advancing Social Justice and Diversity in Graduate Education Grant Program to support graduate students’ actionable ideas for advancing social injustice and diversity in graduate education at Purdue. A number of compelling proposals were received and reviewed by a graduate student panel. Three winners were selected by the graduate student community via popular vote. This is the first in a series of updates to highlight the progress and impacts of the grants.

 
Nokwanda Ndlovu Grava, a 3rd-year PhD student studying counseling psychology, traveled to her native home in South Africa during the summer of 2021 to recruit high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds to graduate school at Purdue University.

During her visit, a period of social unrest led to the worst violence experienced in the country since the end of apartheid. For Grava, the difficult experience underscored the need to “level the playing field” for disadvantaged students and reinforced her resolve to continue her mission. 
 
The trip was a focus of Grava’s winning grant, Mentoring First-Generation African Students during the Graduate Application Process—a project funded by the Graduate School’s Advancing Social Justice and Diversity in Graduate Education Grant Program.

Grava, whose project is advised by Amanda Case, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies in the College of Education, is using her time, resources, and funding provided by the grant to mentor South African students through the graduate school application process.

Many talented Black Africans would like to study abroad, according to Grava, but multiple barriers prevent them from pursuing graduate school. A lack of encouragement and social support from a trusted mentor, lack of access to the internet, and the complexity of applying to a foreign graduate school all can cause incomplete applications from qualified students to “fall through the cracks.”

Grava had firsthand experience of applying to graduate school abroad without the support of a mentor and doesn’t wish the experience on anyone.

“I had to do it all on my own. That was something I always opened with when I was meeting with students. I don't want them to go through this process alone. I want them to have someone to guide them through it,” Grava said.

While in South Africa, Grava organized several meetings with administrators at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and info sessions with prospective students. She held three in-person info sessions and two online info sessions, in total meeting with approximately 60 prospective students who hope to come to Purdue for graduate school.

Grava said she spoke about Purdue’s groundbreaking research, resources available to support graduate student success, and the global perspective she has gained while in graduate school.

“It was just so incredible for me to talk about these opportunities, and the students were just so appreciative. I feel like that was really the best part, seeing students be so excited for these opportunities,” she said.

Following the info sessions, Grava said she received many inquiries from enthusiastic prospective students and was asked by administrators at the University of KwaZulu-Natal to offer follow-up sessions about Purdue and the application process. 

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“It was just so incredible for me to talk about these opportunities, and the students were just so appreciative. I feel like that was really the best part, seeing students be so excited for these opportunities.” —Nokwanda Ndlovu Grava  

Then in July, social unrest in South Africa erupted.

“We had a really rough time towards the end with the political unrest in Durban, and it started in my hometown of KwaMashu. It was really unexpected. It was right in the middle of everything, and in addition to meeting students, I was also doing my own research, which I had to put a pause on when the unrest happened,” Grava said.

“It was just such an important moment, and the fact that it happened during this project is very significant. These are people who have been oppressed for years rising up and stating their needs and making a point to show everyone that this has been going for far too long. It just highlights how much we need to be supporting and highlighting some of these issues that affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Grava said that the work she is doing with this grant as well as her nonprofit and graduate studies is to “level the playing field” for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Grava is co-founder of a nonprofit, Intsikelelo, which works to improve the lives of vulnerable individuals in South Africa by developing and supporting community-driven initiatives. Intsikelelo’s projects include children's homes, after-school programs, and community centers. Grava’s work developing interventions to support the emotional needs of children in South African orphanages inspired her to build a mentoring program that has helped 14 first-generation students pursue tertiary education in South Africa.

“The reason I ended up at grad school is because I was working with these children who were, I felt at the time, just getting their needs met physically, but not emotionally. A lot of these children had been abused. That really pushed my passion and interest for pursuing graduate studies, because I wanted to know what more could be done to make sure that we are meeting their emotional and social needs.”

While many students are interested in the coaching and financial assistance that Grava is able to provide through the grant, ultimately the grant enables her to support only four students through the application process.

Among the 60+ students she met in South Africa, eight students were selected to advance to an interview stage. These students were invited to attend an online session led by Grava in early October that was designed as a mock interview to help prospective students prepare for meetings with faculty members in their graduate programs of interest.

The final four students will receive financial support from the grant to pay for internet access and phone calls between South Africa and the U.S. for additional mentoring by Grava, as well as incidental education-related expenses.

Grava hopes all four South African applicants will be accepted to Purdue for the coming year. While the grant would be fulfilled once the students submit their applications, Grava plans to continue to mentor students who are accepted to Purdue.

“From my own personal capacity, I would like to see the students through. I think that the first year away from home will be very important for them to have the much-needed support.”

Ultimately, Grava would like to see Purdue build on the relationships she established with South African universities to continue recruiting high-ability students from the country to Purdue.


Source: Nokwanda Ndlovu Grava, ngrava@purdue.edu
Writer: Korina Wilbert, kwilbert@purdue.edu


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Mentoring First-Generation African Students During the Graduate Application Process

Three grants for Advancing Social Justice and Diversity in Graduate Education awarded to graduate students

Announcement of Funded Proposals for the Grant for Advancing Social Justice and Diversity in Graduate Education

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