Six years ago, if you would’ve told Lutfiyyah Patel (or Lulu, as her students call her) she was going to be a Cisco Networking Academy instructor who inspires students throughout South Africa – she wouldn’t have believed you. Growing up, Lulu wanted to be a chef; but culinary school was too expensive, even with government aid. So she supported the family business as an assistant in her father’s convenience store.
In South Africa, there are few women in tech. Despite progressive laws in place to ensure greater equality, the country was recently deemed the most economically unequal in the world, according to a World Bank report. As a result, the majority of women pursue traditional roles such as administration, nursing, and human resources. “I noticed that in my area, a lot of people did not have digital skills. And I felt the need to pursue a career in technology, as my father’s store was struggling,” says Lulu.
Challenging herself and social norms
Taking a risk by breaking away from the norm, she enrolled in a Cisco Networking Academy course at Siyafunda Community Technology Centre, in her hometown of Palm Ridge, Johannesburg. A Networking Academy partner for thirteen years, Siyafunda reaches over 200 hundred students each year in every province in South Africa, in both rural and urban communities.
After taking a few classes, Lulu quickly realized she had a knack for technology. But it wasn’t until her IT Essentials course that her life changed dramatically. Six months into the class, her instructor stepped down, leaving the class floundering. In particular, a few students really needed the instructional help, because learning the coursework was a critical component of their jobs.
“I was a very shy person and never thought about being a teacher–but I had an epiphany. I wasn’t the only person suffering without an instructor,” says Lulu. “So I went home, and learned the work, and decided I was going to try.”
She didn’t know everything, but she learned it along the way as she taught her fellow students. One of the other instructors saw her initiative and asked her if she’d like to be an instructor. Soon after, Lulu was a certified instructor and was the first and youngest female in her class to pass the instructor training.
Creating an inclusive classroom
Today, Lulu teaches both students and instructors–and no longer considers herself shy. “I used to be shy talking to my family members. Teaching made me learn how to come out of my shell,” she says.
Lulu teaches all different types and ages of students, being mindful to demonstrate how to do something in a variety of ways to accommodate the different learning styles. She also navigates the region’s 11 official languages, with the help of translators. But what’s most important to her is that she creates a friendly, welcoming environment, where her students feel comfortable asking questions and being themselves.
“She makes you feel comfortable. If you don’t understand something, she’ll take the time to help you understand. And she doesn’t take shortcuts either,” says Jozanne Govender, one of Lulu’s students and 30-year-old mom of two, is reskilling to pursue a career in technology. “It’s so rare to have women in tech. She’s really changing the standards and being a role model. She’s always encouraging us to further our studies.”
And Lulu’s students are seeing results.
“They actually improve alot in both their technical and communication skills. Most of my students start with no tech skills. Many have never seen the inside of computer, or even WebEx,” Lulu says. “But after they take Networking Academy courses, they get good jobs. Some of them get entry-level IT jobs, others become entrepreneurs.”
Learn more about Cisco Networking Academy at www.netacad.com.