I was recently interviewed about my career by the UK magazine Kix. The interview is now a little bit down the page so if you scroll down you will find it. Alternatively you can read a transcript below.
My career path has been anything other than straightforward but I am testament to the fact that if you are willing to learn, you can do almost anything.
Born in a tiny town in South Africa to a factory worker father and a housewife mother, I was educated at a Catholic convent, the first multi-racial school in apartheid-era South Africa. Every time the government closed the school down, the nuns just opened up again, saying they answered to a higher power. Our schooldays form us more than we think – isn’t it strange how more of us remember a good teacher than a bad one?
Neither of my parents had any higher education so it was important to them that I went to university. They had scrimped and saved to pay for my first year of study. I began a BA degree in English and Journalism at Rhodes University in 1980. Coming from a sheltered convent environment, life at a liberal university in South Africa in the 1980s was a shock. Studying journalism was far from what I had imagined. Arrests, demonstrations, constant harassment by the security police, learning about press freedom in a country in a state of emergency with no freedom of speech…. at one point most of my university class and almost all the lecturers were in jail. There were police spies in our classes but we did not know who they were. The male students were either shell shocked and hardened from two years of compulsory military service or dodging conscription. One of my lecturers, Guy Berger, was jailed for three years for possessing banned material. A fellow student almost died in detention.
Coming from a sheltered convent where I had excelled because of my photographic memory, I battled to cope with a university environment where you were required to analyze facts and argue a point of view. The politicised environment shook me to my core. My parents died and I battled to pay my university fees.
I graduated with my BA degree in 1982 and began my Honours degree in English. However the years of studying had taken their toll so I took my savings and travelled the world for two years. Six months after I returned to South Africa I was offered a job in the United States by people whose deck I had scrubbed in Hawaii. I moved to Ohio for two years. I was forced to return in 1987 when the US implemented sanctions against South Africa and I lost my work permit.
I returned to Rhodes University where I worked as a typist (one useful skill learned while training as a journalist). I ended up at the Information Technology Division as temporary secretary to the director. He told me on my first day that he would wait to do all the accounts until his secretary returned from maternity leave because the computer spreadsheet package would be too hard for me to learn. I taught myself to use it and did all his accounts. When I presented them to him he almost fell off his chair. He told me ‘if you can learn a graphics package well enough to teach it I will give you a job as a computer consultant’. So I did and he did.
He told me afterwards that if he had seen my CV he would never have given me the job and that I should learn to sell myself better. The university paid to train me in hardware and software support as well as Novell network management and I fixed computers and taught people how to use them for almost six years. I loved writing computer and course manuals and discovered an ability to teach. Rhodes University brought the internet to Africa so it was a fantastic place to be at the time. It is not often there is such a huge revolution and it was great to be there as it happened!
At this point Guy Berger returned to Rhodes University as Head of the Department of Journalism. He offered me a job teaching computer aided journalism. Until this point the internet had been of interest mostly to academia but Guy saw the potential for the media world as well. By 1996 I was teaching Computer Aided Research and Reporting from first year to Masters Degree level I also travelled all over Africa to newspapers teaching staff about the new media. I taught myself HTML and started putting my students’ work online. In 1998 I was nominated one of 50 women to know in new media by the Online Journalism Review.
I trained Nelson Mandela’s staff in internet research. A Swedish journalist who had put the first newspaper in Europe online saw my work and asked me to present a paper on the impact of the internet on journalism and democracy in Africa.
I flew to Stockholm and presented my paper. And fell in love with the journalist who had invited me. I married him a year later and moved to Stockholm. Unfortunately my South African education and experience meant nothing. I battled to get a work permit. I did not speak the language. I did not know the media. So…..I had to start again. Again.
In my 30s I retrained as TEFL teacher in Dublin, Ireland and then studied Swedish and Swedish Political Science at Stockholm University while working part time teaching journalism. Kudos to Sweden for investing in free lifelong education.
I sent my CV to many companies in Stockholm and was soon fully booked as a freelancer with five language companies, training business English. I decided which one I liked best and asked them for a full-time job. Soon after they had a staff member leave and offered me a full time job. I have been there for 11 years.
My job is different every day. I specialise in politics, media and writing. I translate from Swedish to English, I write speeches, I mentor and train political and public sector leaders and diplomats. I design and create English courses. I moderate discussion forums and have a blog. I write textbooks. I learn new things every day.
My dream of being a journalist did not quite come true but who’s to say what I have now is not better? I turned 50 last year and celebrated by doing the highest bungy jump in the world. I am living proof that the ability and the willingness to learn gets us far.
1. Think of education as a journey, not a destination. It is a lifelong voyage so enjoy the ride.
2. Learn to touch type. This is a skill that will stand you in good stead.
3. Don’t think of any job or task as beneath you – everything is an opportunity to learn.
4. A TEFL course is a really good investment in your future.
5. If you are a native English speaker and move to another country – learn the language.
6. Learn to sell yourself – a good CV is a must. No spelling mistakes!
7. Age is less and less of a factor these days. It is never too late.
8. Travel and learn as much about other cultures as possible.
9. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
10. Develop your tasks within your job and take initiative.
11. Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom again.
12. You can’t love every minute of every job.
13. Be curious.
14. Build and maintain your networks.