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rondebultA 18twenty8 career day and motivational workshop for grade 11 and 12 school pupils from Rondebult High School.1 August 2012 – How would the lives of many adult women in South Africa have turned out if they had been guided by older professional women during their school years? This is the question behind non-profit organisation 18twenty8, which gives poorer young women the chance to explore different life and career choices.

Founded in 2008, 18twenty8 is the brainchild of leading South African actress and philanthropist Refiloe Seseane, whose personal struggles as a young woman inspired her to set up the organisation.

At the age of 28 Seseane found herself working as an investment analyst in Cape Town, unfulfilled and frustrated with her life. She decided to move back to Johannesburg and review the decisions of the last 10 years of her life – hence the name 18twenty8 – and so began her work in acting.

Since then she has flourished, appearing in popular soap operas such as Generations and more recently The Wild. But as her acting career took off she began to hear a separate calling: to help young women facing the same frustrations she did, women needing guidance in finding the right career.

“I had a willingness to give back to the community, and wanted to make a difference with my life,” she says.

18twently8 helps young women secure study loans and bursaries and, when their education is done, helps them with job applications. The organisation also runs guidance workshops on career development and education issues.

But the programme Seseane is most proud of is the Big Sister Network, in which older, more experienced professional women mentor younger women, most aged between 18 and 28.

“I always thought that if I had guidance and advice when I was a young girl, my life would have turned out differently, and so would my life choices,” says Seseane.

“Parents sometimes can’t relate to what their children are going through, so they are not able to give the assurance or guidance that is needed.”

The big sisters, of which Seseane is one, encourage the young women to view higher education as attractive and necessary for their development. To be considered for sponsorship or financial help, participants have to be enrolled in an academic institution, demonstrate leadership, and show a willingness to contribute to their communities.

“Through 18twenty8, we aim to groom successful generations of women, thereby continuing our collective dream,” says Seseane. “I would like to think that, in its own small way, 18twenty8 is closing the skills, gender and race differentials in South Africa.”

Since 2009, 753 high school pupils have benefited from the organisation, with 22 of them going through the Big Sister Network.

Seseane herself has been given a boost by 18twenty8, receiving the Youth in Philanthropy Award by the Inyathelo South African Institute for Advancement in 2010, and a year later being chosen as a member of the Young African Women Leaders’ Forum, hosted by US first lady Michelle Obama.

She is now a member of Barack Obama’s 2012 Young African Leaders Initiative and was named one of 60 changemakers by Spark International, an Australian organisation for social entrepreneurs.

Realising a dream

18twenty8 beneficiary Palesa Phora (19) is in the first year of a bachelor’s degree in law and international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, thanks to a sponsorship by Deutsche Bank.

The day Phora heard her education would be paid for, she was so shocked she cried. “My mother was relieved as she had been stressing about the financial burden of putting me through university,” she says. “I have no excuse to not pass as I have been given the tools I need to get through university. I still feel a great sense of joy when I think about it. I am so blessed!”

For the first 10 years of her life Phora lived with her grandparents in Soweto, before moving to Benoni on the East Rand to stay with her mom, a single parent, and two younger sisters.

“They really look up to me and in a way, they are my mentees,” she says of her sisters.

Despite her age, Phora already shows signs of determination. She plans to specialise in international law and foreign policy, and to use her education to strengthen relations between South Africa and the rest of the world.

“I want to be in parliament one day, and I want to play a role in getting the youth active in politics, and educating our citizens about their constitutional rights,” she says. “I just want to be involved in getting South Africa to flourish because we have the potential to be a great nation.”

Phora started off with many dreams for her future but, much like Seseane, struggled with uncertainty. In high school her career thoughts ranged from journalism to business, and later politics.

“When I turned 16, my view of the world changed. I had dreams of being a very powerful and revolutionary woman and hoped to spread my influence throughout the world.” Since then she has been determined to fight for women’s rights and to represent the “universal woman”.

When she joined 18twenty8 in 2010, Phora had low self-esteem and was afraid to venture out of her comfort zone. The organisation mentoring programme and workshops helped her focus her ideas.

“It exposed me to various women who had faced similar challenges as me but still managed to make a success of their lives, and that gave me hope.”

Phora thinks South Africa’s education system pressures pupils into making big career decisions too early by forcing them to choose their matric subjects in grade 8. This means they aren’t exposed to a range of other options available beyond matric, and doesn’t equip them for the real world.

This is where mentors are a great help, she says, because they have already travelled that path and can guide younger women along it while still allowing them to make their own decisions and learn their own lessons.

“My mentor gives me invaluable advice about my degree and shows me how I will apply my skills in a work environment,” she says. “Our relationship is personal and well-rounded. She is someone I can call at any time of the day and can speak to about anything and everything.”

Phora has advice of her own for girls in difficult situations: “Education is important. If you know better, you do better.”