Paving the way – Ronelle Carolissen

6Ronelle, an associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch, was recently appointed as Vice Dean (teaching and learning), in the Education Faculty. Prof Carolissen is a formidable academic who has published a combined total of at least thirty-five articles and book chapters, has co-edited two books and has supervised nine doctoral dissertations and over thirty masters theses.

Working within academia is very competitive, it is a difficult environment to work in, but simultaneously, it is a very enriching space to occupy. One is continually exposed to new ideas and phenomenal innovative students and colleagues.

In 2005 she was awarded the Stellenbosch Outstanding Teachers Award and in 2006 she received an award for best academic article at Stellenbosch University’s Annual Teaching and Learning Conference. Her work has also been nationally recognised by the Psychological Society of South Africa. She is the recipient of their Teaching Excellence Award, 2016. International acknowledgement of her work occurred when one of her articles was selected as the best academic article at the Higher Education Conference, in Australia, 2007. Prof Caroli, as she was referred to by some of us as students, has managed to excel, both as a lecturer and a researcher, a balance that is often difficult to achieve.

Peaks of excellence last only for a short while, then you must continue and do something else that is impressive. It is almost like being an elite athlete.”

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Ronelle and I both came to Stellenbosch University in 2002, I as a first-year student and she as a lecturer. Our paths eventually crossed in 2004. I was sitting amongst 200-plus third year students, attentively listening to Ms Carolissen explaining the values of Community Psychology. I was too much of a ‘goodie two shoes’, to skip class but not entirely a saint that I always payed attention in class. Once, we decided that we are going to count how many times Ms Carolissen says uuhhmmm during a lecture.

In my 4th year/honours, Ms Carolissen became the coordinator of the B. Psych course that I was enrolled for. During that same year, 2005, she made a conscious decision to become a permanent academic, and consequently started with her PhD. “I never thought that I would become an academic, the plan was to work in NGOs as a psychologist.

Ronelle's PhD graduation

Ronelle’s PhD graduation

By the end of that year, I still owed the University a lot of money and was therefore unable to access my results. I knocked on Ronelle’s door and shared my story. Now, I have become more than just a number, a number I cannot even pronounce 1379…, she knew about me. I needed to know what my results were so that I could apply for my master’s. Moreover, I had to find money in order to graduate.

Most wealthy people cannot comprehend what the fuss created by Fees Must Fall is about. One often hears: “It is all those lazy students protesting again…” Well, I understand. I come from a single parent household, where my mother earns a salary far below the tax bracket. In spite of having a few distinctions on my academic record, and without ever failing a subject, it was not at all easy to obtain bursaries. Every year it was one big struggle. (Thankfully, many people helped throughout the years, including Ronelle. By God’s grace I managed to graduate, not once but three times.)

Anyway, I was fascinated by the field of Community Psychology and Ronelle appeared to be approachable, and to be honest, she was one of two lecturers of colour that I encountered across my undergraduate studies. It might have also been a factor as to why I chose to knock on her door. Ever since, she has been writing reference letters, all written with care. So, in 2006, I asked Ms Carolissen to be my academic supervisor for my Master’s thesis, which I completed December 2007.

Ronelle graduated with her PhD in March 2008. In 2010 Dr Carolissen successfully applied for an Associate

Professor position in the Educational Psychology Department. From 2011-2013, Prof Carolissen was the head of this department. Meanwhile, our journey continued as she agreed to supervise my doctoral thesis. December 2016, I finally graduated, Dr Bee…    

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Ronelle’s story, however, started long before we met. She was born in 1966, a notorious year in Cape Town, as it marked the start of the forced removals in District Six. As with the year of her birth, many other pivotal political events in South Africa contributed to the person that she is today.

Although Ronelle never imagined becoming an academic, her passion for teaching was in her blood. Both her parents were primary school teachers. The family profession, however, started with Ronelle’s grandmother, Helena Lottring in the Moravian village of Goedverwacht. For Grandma Helena, being a teacher during those days was unheard of for a woman of colour. She was one of the first set of teachers produced by Wesley teachers’ training college in Salt River.

My parents’ vision was for us to receive a good education. They always said: ‘education is the only thing that they cannot take from you. It is one of the few things that will help you to maintain your dignity’.

Teaching was not the only passion that Ronelle’s parents conveyed to her. They both formed part of the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA) that was affiliated to the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). The movement emphasised the importance of education and knowledge as a highly politicized commodity, with a motto ‘let us live for our children’.

In 1972, Ronelle started school at Hawston Primary, in a small Afrikaans speaking fishing village. After completing standard six/grade seven, Ronelle and her siblings continued high school at Harold Cressy in Cape Town, one of the Non-European Unity Movement schools. Her parents insisted that they continue their education in English as they believed that it would broaden their opportunities under the oppressive Apartheid regime.

Most of the leadership of the Teachers’ League of South Africa taught at the Unity movement schools which focussed on critical, political education that extended beyond the curriculum.  Harold Cressy was situated in a white area in Roeland Street, Cape Town and its presence as a coloured school in this group area was relentlessly challenged throughout the Apartheid era. Today, the school is a heritage site.

Apart from all the political turmoil and boarding with multiple families, her high school years were also marked by a huge personal tragedy. One morning in grade eleven she was asked to go to the principal’s office. There was an urgency in her teacher’s voice which made her feel nervous. When she approached the principal’s office and saw her brother leaving the office with tears in his eyes, a knot formed in her stomach. Her dad passed away unexpectedly at the age of 55 from a fatal heart attack.

After high school Ronelle moved to Durban to do a BA degree, majoring in English and Psychology at Natal University (now the University of KwaZulu Natal). Intrigued by the field of Psychology, she continued with an Honours degree in Psychology.

In 1984, R2000 was enough to cover my annual university fees. I received the bursary for three years. My sister and brother-in-law provided free board and lodging in return for my doing the family ironing over the weekend!”

Due to her heightened social consciousness, she became very involved in voluntary work. She joined NGOs such as Rape Crisis where she helped with trauma counselling. She also joined the Natal Health Group, later known as the Organization for Appropriate Social Services that provided psychological support to political detainees and their families. On moving back to Cape Town she did a post graduate teachers’ diploma at UCT while continuing her voluntary work. Her voluntary work helped her to decide that she would like to pursue a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. She enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1990 after a 6 month teaching contract at the University of the Western Cape. 

After obtaining her professional qualification as a psychologist, she continued working in the NGO sector for about seven years until she reached 40. “The NGO sector does not always provide a solid career trajectory or benefits like medical aid and pension. Being a mother of two, caused me to reconsider my career options.

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Lauren's graduation

Lauren’s graduation

An hours counselling session, reports to be written, articles to read, chapters to study, and of course the thesis – second year clinical master’s is no joke. In the same breath, off to the church she went and married John Hess. “I think that it is very difficult to be successful if you are in a relationship where you do not feel supported.” They have two beautiful daughters, Lauren (22) who graduated last year with an Honours degree in International Studies from Stellenbosch University and Melissa who has just started grade ten.

Ronelle places a high priority on her family. I remember coming out of the conference room, stuffed after the huge lunch served at the Emperor’s Palace, Johannesburg, and legs still wobbly as I just finished my presentation. A big hug, “cheers, I will see you in Stellenbosch. I have to catch the next flight home, I have to go and bake a cake for Melissa’s birthday”, and off she went.

Ronelle with her husband and two daughters

Ronelle with her husband and two daughters

{At her office} “Maybe do some more reading on Citizenship” her cell phone rings. “Sorry, I am quickly going to take this call, it is John, my husband”. Her husband wanted to know where Melissa’s costume was for a dress up party. I was astonished at the precise instructions given to him on where he could find the costume. A few seconds later, he found the costume and we continued with our conversation. How does Ronelle maintain being a housekeeper and a kick ass career woman at the same time? And, I even heard her organise to go to Hawston to clean her 87-year-old mother’s carpet herself. I guess it’s to do with values and operating within the capacity given to you by God.

I take a keen interest in my children. I think if I did not have a family, I would have been a workaholic because the work in academia never stops. My husband and daughters bring balance to my life.”

Her job excites her, probably that is why she is so good at it. I get so much pleasure from the work I do. Within academia, one is a student for life, and I like that.” As a matter of fact, she likes a lot of things. Her hobbies range from, gathering with family and friends, travelling, gardening, swimming, cooking, to watching the crime channel. At school, she participated in discus and shot putt and is known by fellow schoolmates for being a discus thrower. In her earlier years as a teacher she also played Soft Ball for Thornton’s Club in Athlone.

Many paved the way for Ronelle to be the academic that she is today. Grandma Helena, who passed away at age 98, left a strong legacy of being courageous enough to take the first step for her family and broader community in which to continue. Ma Catherina followed and so did dad Henry, who later became the principal of Hawston primary school until his death in 1982.

With every step that Ronelle took in her career, she demonstrated to me that it was possible for me to also reach those heights. I vividly recall walking into her office, utterly dismayed. The process of my PhD so ruthlessly challenged my own concepts of identity and belonging and was starting to take its toll on me. I just wanted to quit. As I raised my head, and looked up into her eyes with all the strength that I could find, all that was staring back at me were eyes communicating belief, “yes, you can!!, and you already have come so far…”

Ronelle Carolissen has been paving the way for many women, particularly women of colour.  I will forever be grateful for all that she has personally done for me.

“I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.” (John 4:38)


I am enough – Fanie van der Merwe


Nothing significant – Aden Thomas


  1. chrChrissie

    How inspiring! I truly enjoyed this piece! Women of strength I salute you!

  2. chrChrissie

    How inspiring! I truly enjoyed this piece! Women of strength I salute you!

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