Change the world

#Trailblazing - finishing the journey

Dr Bridgette GasaI’m originally from Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal. I came to Port Elizabeth to study Architecture at the then University of Port Elizabeth, now NMMU where I graduated with my PhD in Construction Management in 2012. I chose to study here because of the Department of Architecture’s excellent reputation.

I started my undergraduate degree in the historic year of our democracy, 1994. That same year NMMU’s Department of Architecture was officially recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), which is the highest global status you can achieve. The Department has unconditional validation from the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) and the Commonwealth Association of Architecture (CAA).

Contributing to the Eastern Cape’s skills pool
After graduating in 1998, I worked for Ngonyama Okapanum Hewitt-Coleman (NOH Architects) and settled in Port Elizabeth. Ten years later I started my own architectural, infrastructural development and construction business, The Elilox Group.

I really enjoy the quality of life in Port Elizabeth and I felt driven to plough back the skills that the University so generously gave to me.

I am committed to being part of the Eastern Cape’s skills pool because so many of the best leaders were born and raised here, but once they qualify they often leave and go and settle in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. I would like to consider myself part of the skills pool that remains in the Eastern Cape and contributes to the province’s development and improving the lives of its people.

My Mom had to work unbelievably hard
I was fortunate that my late Mom, Faith Xolile Gasa, who was a member of parliament, paid for the first four years of my degree, but this meant that she had to work unbelievably hard to support me, as well as my four siblings. My late Dad, Dr Enoch Gasa, was unable to work following a severe car accident that rendered him paraplegic. In my final year I received a bursary from the KwaZulu-Natal Government.

Throughout my degree I worked at ZAI Architects, a KZN architectural firm during my holidays to assist my Mom. Some people would say this is too much for a young person to take on, but for me it was a blessing in disguise because by the time I got to my fifth and final year, I already knew how things worked in an architectural practice.

I have always helped to fund students
It breaks my heart to see students who simply do not have the means to complete their studies, and who do not have anyone to support them.

I am participating in the Trailblazing campaign because I have always helped to fund students and I would like to encourage more corporates, companies and individuals to do the same.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have had someone open doors for us, need to open doors for this generation. We need to help deserving students to graduate and we need to create opportunities for them after they graduate – from mentoring them to become entrepreneurs to offering them their first job to set them on their life path.

Battling for a break
I battled to find a job after graduating, and only after six months of endless applications did I receive a job offer from Tim Hewitt-Coleman of Ngonyama Okpanum Hewitt-Coleman Architects and Associates in Port Elizabeth. I worked here for eight months until I was given an incredible break by the then Minister of Public Works, Stella Sigcau, who was looking for young women with experience in the built environment to pursue postgraduate studies while working for public works.

During this time I completed my Master’s in Construction Project Management through the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Working for public works was an incredible experience. I am deeply appreciative of the breaks I received from people who saw potential in me, and this is part of why I am so passionate about helping young people today.

You can dream but …
I know what a difference it makes to students who come from an environment that says ‘you can dream it but you can never have it’. I want them to have it, and I passionately believe in assisting young people who show determination and drive to have it. Sometimes they need funding for education, sometimes it is mentoring. It unlocks something amazing in their psyche and ability.

One such person is Manka Kariuki, now the Project Manager in my company, who graduated with a BSc in Construction Management from NMMU. She initially worked for a firm that went insolvent and while looking for another position, she worked as a waitress at the Radisson Hotel. She kept contacting me and asking if she might meet me and I decided to give her a chance. We have never looked back.

She had the drive
She had the drive I look for: that something in some people that defies the status quo; that something that manifests in people who go all out to own their destiny, irrespective of the type of background they come from.

I understand what it takes to overcome the difficulties many students from disadvantaged backgrounds face, from inadequate schooling to raising enough finances to study at university to the added difficulty of being away from home.

I knew no one when I arrived for my first year and, being 1994, campus was highly charged. We were transitioning to the new democratic era and there was a lot uncertainty, fear and excitement.

The first cohort of black architects
I was part of the first cohort of black architects studying at the then University of Port Elizabeth, and there were only three of us in my class. I felt inadequate initially because I came from a school in Nongoma where we were never offered subjects like technical drawing. I worked twice as hard to make up for it, as architecture is a difficult degree. On top of this, I had to overcome the language challenge as many of the subjects were still taught in Afrikaans.

Fear and passion drove me
Fear of failure and a passion for architecture drove me. I also knew that if I failed my parents would have every right to recall me to KwaZulu-Natal. The fact that I didn’t go crazy during those years bodes well that I will never go crazy. In time, I made really good friends at University, they are still my friends today, and I made a good life for myself in Port Elizabeth. You make life where you find yourself, as the expression goes.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
In September I will find myself doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and I had better start getting fit for it. I am used to running half marathons but I have been travelling so much of late that I haven’t dedicated enough time to my training. The 12th of June was my psychological date to start getting fit.

Louis Bredenkamp, the travel consultant for the South African-based travel company that is organising our trip, called Brazilkibong, has given us a training and breathing exercises schedule. He advises we do it least one 10km stretch per week, and that we focus on hill training. There is no shortage of hills in Port Elizabeth.

Altitude acclimatisation in the gateway city
I’m a bit nervous about the altitudes we’ll encounter but Louis has reassured us that we will spend some time acclimatising when we arrive at Cusco, the gateway city to the Inca Trail. Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire, and is now known for its archaeological remains and Spanish colonial architecture.

I’m really looking forward to the cultural heritage part of the trail and to thinking and talking about the best way to fund deserving students and how to select the most deserving 160.

At the heights of Machu Picchu when there is no oxygen in our brains, I am confident that we will become creative about how to do this, and how to systematise funding for final year students going forward, because, as we all know, the 160 students are just the tip.