Profile with Merridy Wilson-Strydom

Merridy Wilson-Strydom (South Africa-at-Large & Lincoln 1999) is the Assistant Director in the Directorate for Institutional Research and Academic Planning (DIRAP) at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She holds an MPhil in Developmental Studies from Oxford and a PhD in Higher Education Studies from the University of the Free State. Merridy is married to Dr Francois Strydom (South Africa-at-Large & Wolfson 1998) and they have two sons.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: I call Bloemfontein home now, though it hasn’t always been. I grew up in Pietermaritzburg, and then after Oxford I lived in Johannesburg for a few years before moving to Bloemfontein in 2006.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: Many different things, but as a young child I wanted to be a teacher and then as a young adult, a physiotherapist.

Rhodes Project: Was your experience at Oxford intellectually fulfilling?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: Very much so! I did the MPhil in Development Studies and at that time there were only about ten students from all over the world. Our discussions were very helpful; there was such variety of points of view and life experiences. It was also intellectually stimulating to attend lectures given by people whose books I had read during my studies before going to Oxford. One of the significant professors I was fortunate to learn from was Prof G.A. (Jerry) Cohen, who was a political philosopher. I had studied his work in the past, so it was particularly exciting to attend a whole seminar series of his.

Rhodes Project: What’s the best part of your job now?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: My institutional research is great as it’s a mix between theoretical and applied research. That distinction is important to me. I want what I do to have applied value. I’ve also been working with high school students on the transition from school to university, during their last three years of high school and once they arrive at university to help the university better understand what works and what doesn’t in supporting students during this critical transition phase.

Rhodes Project: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: The challenge is how you actually convert the lessons emerging from research into meaningful interventions of some sort. That is a particularly challenging and rewarding part of being an institutional research and planning context, you can feed the information you discover back into institutional processes and hopefully in the long term have some impact on students’ lives.

Rhodes Project: What is the biggest challenge currently faced by higher education in South Africa?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: The extremely high dropout and low success rates. Given that it’s only the top- performing school leavers that go to university, the fact that so few get through and graduate is very worrying. 

Rhodes Project:  Some people say that the internet age – bringing with it dependence upon social media, use of online games and instant information dumps – has intrinsically diminished children’s ability to learn, retain information and focus. How would you respond to this?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: I would probably agree. We see that in many different ways in the university context: for example the difficulty many students have writing fully-formed, well-constructed sentences instead of “texting” language or being able to read and engage with complex texts from start to finish. Sometimes I wonder whether these fears are exaggerated and that in reality we just don’t properly understand how to make use of new media to support learning in a meaningful way.

Rhodes Project: How would you characterize the kind of education you’d like your sons to have?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: I would like them to have an education that assures they’re well-grounded in the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics – this is something that is currently quite a major issue in South Africa – but also I want them to have the kind of education that opens them up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world as opposed to one that focuses on rote learning and performing well in standardized tests. I’d like them to be enthusiastic about learning, to be creative and curious about the world, about different points of view. That often gets lost when you’re teaching for a test or trying to achieve a performance target.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: People who are principled and who are not willing to compromise on those principles depending on the context they find themselves in. I think that too many people speak of their principles, but then change them depending on their contexts. My children also inspire me. They have amazing energy and enthusiasm for life. They often ask me questions about things I completely take for granted and make me reconsider my position.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Merridy Wilson-Strydom: I recently submitted my first book proposal and that’s an exciting prospect. On a more personal level, my sister gets married in August. I have family in different parts of the world and many are coming back to South Africa for the wedding, so it’ll be a bit of a reunion.

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