Phenyo Maumula enjoys subjects ranging from philosophy to politics to biology. But as she plans her career, she is laser focused on one thing: improving disadvantaged areas in South Africa. Thanks to a nonprofit organization committed to increasing educational opportunity for South Africa’s youth through corporate support, she is building the foundation she needs to become a global problem solver.
The daughter of a domestic worker and part-time plumber, Phenyo was raised in a South African squatter camp with her two brothers. Hard working and resilient, she dreamed of going to university, but the odds appeared stacked against her.
South Africa’s struggle to improve its public schools since it became a democratic society in 1994 is well documented. But by many measures, it has one of the lowest-performing educational systems in the world. For example, of 100 students who start school, only 50 will make reach Grade 12, 40 will pass, and only 12 will qualify for university. According to research from the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, 49 percent of all Grade Six pupils in Limpopo province, where Phenyo is from, are illiterate.
Despite these obstacles, teachers at Phenyo’s school recognized her potential and introduced her to the Student Sponsorship Program (SSP), a nonprofit trust that helps talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend high-quality secondary schools.
Thanks to contributions from corporate and individual sponsors, SSP awards five-year secondary school scholarships to academically distinguished students. Phenyo is one of 10 SSP scholarship recipients who were sponsored by Cisco in 2014.
With her scholarship, Phenyo attended St. Stithians College, a secondary school outside Johannesburg. Like all SSP scholarship recipients, she participated in a one-year bridging program to prepare her for the academic rigors of Grades 8 through 12.
During four years at St. Stithians she lived on campus and visited her family back home periodically. She received academic awards in music, art, geography, and economic and management sciences and demonstrated the leadership qualities that first made SSP recruiters take note. For example, as head of her “house,” she organized activities in sports, music, and drama for 100 girls.
“I just wanted to experience what it was like to be able to lead people,” she says of the role. “It helped me build my confidence and self esteem.”
Phenyo also got a taste of her future career in 2013, when she participated in a youth conference in Kenya.
“We focused on impoverished people, what they were struggling with, and what they needed,” she explains. “We came up with solutions for how youth could help them, and brainstormed how we, as teenagers, are able to help people in our community.”
In 2015, Phenyo beat the odds of her country’s education system. She graduated from St. Stithians and is now enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce degree with a double major.
“Being able to attend St. Stithians has given me so many opportunities,” Phenyo says. “Without it I think I would just be another ordinary girl with a dream but not know how to realize that dream.”