I am Vukosi Marivate, a proud alumnus of the University of the Witwatersrand School of Electrical Engineering (BSc Information Engineering 2007, MSc Electrical Engineering 2009). Currently, I am a PhD student and Fulbright Science and Technology Award Scholar in the Department of Computer Science at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in the United States of America. Getting here has been a long journey- one in which the University of the Witwatersrand has played a crucial role. When reflecting on how my time at Wits has shaped what I do now, I chose to break it into four parts (analytical engineer writing!), i.e., academics, my friendships, leadership roles, and opportunities.
While studying for my electrical engineering degree at Wits, I was challenged more than I could ever have imagined before. The academic programme was enlightening and interesting, and I looked forward to each coming year knowing that at the end of it I would have acquired new skills. Most importantly, the programme encouraged critical and independent thinking, so I developed a sense of wonder about the world around me. I soon began taking science and mathematics and using them with an analytical mindset and imagination in order to create my own art (designing electronics and programming). When I moved to the United States to pursue my PhD in computer science, I realised the worth of the invaluable training I had received at Wits, which allowed me to deal with the pressure of competing in classes populated by large numbers of bright international students. Even more important than competing was the ability to express, share, and develop ideas with colleagues and other researchers; an interpersonal skill that I had developed while working on numerous Wits projects. While my shift from an engineering background to the field of computer science did constitute a slight challenge, I have taken it as an opportunity to get a dual view of the computing world that fascinates me. I still work with electronics within my lab (RL3, Rutgers Laboratory for Real-Life Reinforcement Learning) but I have developed a much deeper understanding and appreciation of both computer engineers and computer scientists. I continue to hunger for knowledge and also simultaneously seize opportunities to be adventurous (or “foolish” as Steve Jobs might put it!) in trying out new things within my work.
During my time at Wits, I made many close friends who have impacted my life. Most importantly, I met my wife who is also an electrical engineer. Other friendships at Wits blossomed either through debate, or while trying to gain an understanding of other disciplines. Interactions with other students, learning about their backgrounds, their aspirations, and even their respective degrees, helped me broaden my horizons as well as my understanding of the world. I am currently involved with community work in South Africa, as well as student leadership work in the US. My sojourn at Wits encouraged me to get more engaged within the student community. I profited from opportunities at Wits to serve on councils such as the Electrical and Biomedical Engineering Council (Chairperson 2006) and the Postgraduate Association (Convocation committee member, 2008). Through these experiences, I gained an appreciation for leadership and also an understanding of policy-making. The decision-making, realisation of ideas and interpersonal skills I developed, thanks to these activities, have equipped me with skills that go way beyond the classroom.
I was exposed to many different kinds of wonderful opportunities and people at Wits, for example, my extraordinary final year and Master’s degree supervisor and mentor, Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala, and the opportunities I received to present some of my work at local and international conferences. I applied for and won the Fulbright Science and Technology Award Scholarship for study towards a PhD while I was still a Master’s student at Wits. After graduating from Wits, I volunteered as a consultant at the Wits Office of Alumni Relations, working on their new venture in delivering information to alumni via social networking platforms. Here I had the good fortune of working with Peter Maher, Director of Alumni Relations, who has become a good friend (and who came and visited me here at Rutgers in 2009). In 2009, at the end of my volunteer year with Alumni Relations, Wits won awards for “Best SA University Website” and “Best University Social Networking Campaign for 2009,” achievements that I shared great joy in due to my involvement in them as a Wits alumnus, volunteer and consultant. Although this was my only experience, until then, in working with social media, I learned a great deal from this experience and continue to work on social networking campaigns for non-profits and community organisations.
My experience at Wits will always be something I look back on with pride. Learning, growing and ultimately emerging as a grateful alumnus who not only understands and appreciates at many levels the work that Wits does, but also the broader positive societal impact Wits makes, is something for which I believe we all should strive. I recently got together with other Wits alumni in New York, where I enjoyed learning and sharing our experiences, stories, and hopes for Wits. As to my own vision of Wits, I see it as a South African institution that has its heart in Johannesburg but has touched and shaped the hearts of thousands who are now all over the world. In appreciation of the values inculcated in us at Wits, I believe that we should always strive to make a positive social impact through our careers and lives, continuously working towards leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Wits prepares the next generation of South Africa’s leaders, professionals and citizens, we alumni must always work towards positively impacting our world - one that is rapidly changing and requires that we all look beyond today.