The Wits School of Accountancy, where Naledi Nkhi is a senior lecturer, recently received $10 million from an anonymous alum. Accompanying the donation was a request that the school be renamed after Margot Steele, the first female head of the school. ‘That shows the influence that educators can have on society; the power we have to shape the future leaders of our industries and our country,’ Naledi says.
As an educator herself, Naledi cherishes this influence and is committed to using it wisely. It’s just one of the many things in her career that bring her joy. ‘Teaching has always been the role I am most comfortable in,’ she muses. That’s perhaps not surprising, given that she comes from a long line of educators: her grandfather headed a school in Katlehong and her uncle was Vice-Chancellor at TUT, while several aunts have worked for the Department of Education.
Why, then, did she study accounting? ‘I had a cousin who had studied general commerce and greatly regretted not doing his CA. I was just 16 when he told me that if I studied accounting, the world would be my oyster – there would be no industry, country or dream off limits to me with this qualification. That conversation stuck,’ Naledi replies.
Academics meet accounting
The marriage of academia with accounting came about as something of a happy accident. Naledi admits that she hadn’t considered lecture halls as part of her career plan until her articles, when she found she had a natural knack for passing on the knowledge she had acquired. This nudged her to apply to work in graduate programmes, until she realised she could achieve the impact she desired as a lecturer.
Naledi admits that, as with any career, the first few months came with challenges. ‘When you’re studying, your life is planned for you. As an academic, you become a creator. Now, you have to lay your own path – and there are so many to choose from. You could become a career academic, focusing on either research, teaching or both; or even a career academic who practises.’
With characteristic energy, Naledi has decided to try her hand in all areas – although she is ‘heavily dedicated’ to teaching and has a special interest in her third-year and CTA students. ‘One of the things I love most about teaching is that as the teacher, you are able to see the best version of the student long before they can see it themselves. I love being able to unlock that version.’
New generation, new worries
This has become increasingly important at a time when students seem to be carrying more stress and anxiety than ever before. Naledi points out that the professionals of tomorrow are facing a fairly unique set of circumstances, not least of which is the security of their jobs. ‘We talk a lot about the data revolution and how AI will impact our jobs, and although the upside of automation is that we should have more time to spend on tasks like data analysis – which some might feel is more stimulating than, say, data collection – some students worry that there are only so many data analysts the world needs. That brings up the question of job scarcity.’ The answer, Naledi says, lies in providing clarity about the future – as far as possible – and this, in turn, requires updating frameworks to create a clearer picture of what the CA of the future looks like.
At the same time, Naledi says that many of her students suffer from Imposter Syndrome: ‘It seems that many carry the belief that they haven’t earned the right to be here,’ she comments. The problem is that this affects their ability to give of their best and to ‘fail confidently’, as Naledi puts it. She explains her meaning: ‘When you’re a student, you see failure as the worst thing possible. From the objective vantage point that comes with age, you’re able to see that failing can, in fact, provide valuable lessons.’ She worries that this fear of failure stands in students’ way of being able to pivot; to understand why the way they do things isn’t bringing results and to change it.
She’s proud of the steps that the school has taken to address issues of mental wellness, which include individual and group sessions hosted by the Career Counselling and Disability Unit, as well as the Road for Success: a programme which helps students plan their year so that they don’t become overwhelmed. Individual tutoring and academic consults are also offered – but, even so, Naledi worries that students do not yet have a handle on the self-care techniques that will help them overcome these challenges.
Her own approach to dealing with the stresses that accompany her multi-faceted career includes ‘being kind to myself’. ‘I exercise regularly, eat healthily, and speak to myself in the same voice I would use to talk to someone I care about – I am not hard on myself. I try to maintain a healthy balance between friends, hobbies and family.’
This is what supplies the energy to stand in front of the classroom, while also investing several hours in research (and the travel to conferences and industry conventions this often requires).
Going forward, Naledi says she would like to consolidate her efforts in the area of research because, although a complicated and challenging avenue, it allows you to follow and develop your specific interest. ‘I’d also like to advance to professorial level. It’s a privilege to play a role in shaping the next generation, and one I am approaching with compassion so that I can help these people realise what their lives could, one day, look like.’
Naledi’s tips for self-care
Naledi says that one of the biggest mistakes we make when ‘relaxing’ is failing to take a proper rest – and, no, binge-watching a series doesn’t count. ‘Rest should be pre-planned, and should involve a total system shutdown. It’s also important to create a strong foundation of support, so build your network of peers and friends.’
Author Lisa Witepski & Lynn Grala | Photographer Theana Breugem