Pink Panache Mabokela2

Dr. Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela, the University of Illinois' vice provost for international affairs and global strategies, talks about the lack of women in STEM studies in her office Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Champaign

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URBANA — When Reitumetse Mabokela began her research into equity in higher education, she discovered that historically, white universities in South Africa had abysmal numbers of African students.

Just 30 percent, on average.

“Equity was still contested terrain,” she said. “And in many ways, it remains contested terrain.”

But Mabokela, the UI’s vice provost for international affairs and global strategies, said some encouraging changes have happened in the aftermath of apartheid.

These days, more than 70 to 80 percent of university students in South Africa are black. Unfortunately, she is quick to add, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“As you go up into the honors level, master’s and doctoral, there is significant under-representation of women and black students,” Mabokela said. “We’ve had an entire generation; we’ve had 25 years (since apartheid). But the question I always ask is that clearly there’s not a shortage of students, so why is this happening?”

That question has been at the center of Mabokela’s work for the past two decades. For her writing and policy recommendations around early literacy-, secondary- and higher-education mentorship and research in Africa, she was nominated for the Global Impact award by the local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the first such group established by and for African American college women.

As part of Friday’s 19th annual Pink Panache scholarship benefit gala in Champaign, Mabokela will be honored for her impact on global society through her volunteer activities.

Devoted firmly to advancing historically marginalized groups through oft-difficult terrain at historically white institutions and fields of study, Mabokela’s recommendations have always focused around getting more African Americans — especially African American women — into fields that have lacked representation.

“When we’re talking about representation of teachers, for example,” Mabokela said, “pick any state in the U.S., and one of the issues you’ll find in the teacher education field is the concern for a shortage of teachers, number one. And number two, where there are teachers, there is an under-representation of teachers of color.”

What that means for students of color, Mabokela said, is that they’re often not taught by people who look like them, think like them and have the same cultural background as them.

She said it’s “not at all unusual” for children of color “to never have had a teacher who looks like them.” Getting more people of color to become teachers has been a challenge, but it’s one Mabokela said she has taken on. Another is the under-representation of women and women of color in engineering, a field dominated by men.

“The National Science Foundation has invested significant resources over the past 30 years in diversifying STEM disciplines in this country,” Mabokela said. “But the needle has only moved an inch.”

It’s a similar story, she said, in South Africa and other parts of Africa, so it’s clear to her that “the U.S. hasn’t done that much” in diversifying the STEM field. But with scholarships like those given out by Alpha Kappa Alpha, along with policy prescriptions that advance under-represented groups, Mabokela is certain these inequities can change.

“I have never been in a sorority, but the fact other women who do a significant amount of service and leadership have elected to honor me in this way is truly significant,” she said. “Sororities in the African American community have played a significant role to fill in the gap in some ways and provide opportunities to young women to realize their potential and support them toward excellence.

“They will be helping those academically talented students who face challenges because they need that bridge to make it to the next level.”

Reporter

Aldo Toledo is a reporter covering local government at The News-Gazette. His email is atoledo@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@aldot29).