‘Diversity is the theme of my life’

| Michaela Nesvarova

‘I’m a woman, I’m brown, I’m often the minority,’ says Sterre Mkatini, the new Diversity & Inclusion Officer at the UT. ‘But’, she adds, she is not here to be a poster child for diversity.’ I’m here to work on a more diverse and inclusive environment for everyone.’

When Sterre Mkatini says that ‘diversity is the theme of her life’, she is not lying. Her background is nearly impossible to describe with other words than ‘diverse’. Born to a Dutch mother and a South African father in the time of apartheid, she entered the world ‘stateless’. ‘My father was in exile and therefore had no nationality. My parents had to work hard to even get me a nationality,’ she explains. ‘That is when my experience with diversity began.’

All around the world

Growing up in many different countries – Zambia, Tanzania, the Netherlands, Ghana (and the list continues) -, Mkatini dreamt of joining the UN during her early days in university. ‘But I realized that this was not the place for me time. I’m a doer, I need to see results.’ And so she started a company and her own TV programme called the BE BOLD Show (Bringing Education and Building Opportunities for Leadership and Development), which aimed ‘to showcase the amazing social entrepreneurs, creative talent and opportunities on the African continent for Africans around the world’. Afterwards, she worked for the Women Fund Tanzania (WFT) in Dar es Salaam and later on for Engineers Without Borders Canada in Ghana, a job which coincidentally led her to the Netherlands in March 2020.

‘It was a wild ride,’ she says. ‘After a business trip to Canada, I was visiting my family in Deventer, but got locked down here because of the corona crisis.’ A few months later, Sterre Mkatini decided to stay in the Netherlands and applied for the position of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Officer at the University of Twente. ‘When I saw the vacancy, I got really excited. It was encouraging to see that the UT was passionate about diversity and inclusion.’

sterre mkatini

2011                    Master’s degree International Development Studies, University of Amsterdam

2011 – 2015      Co-founder & host of BE BOLD project / show, Ghana

2015 – 2016      Strategic Communications Consultant at Women's Fund Tanzania, Dar es Salaam

2017 – 2020      Program Manager Fellowships West & Southern Africa, Engineers Without Borders Canada, Ghana

10/2020 – now Diversity & Inclusion Officer, University of Twente

Roaming reporter

Now, after two months at the UT, Mkatini is settling into her new role. ‘Starting during a lockdown has been interesting, but luckily I was already used to working online because of my previous job,’ she says. ‘I actually don’t even have an office at the UT. The idea was for me to be a sort of roaming reporter, moving around and working at different departments and getting a feel for how things work on campus. Things didn’t work out exactly this way, but I have been having a lot of online conversations. I’ve been able to meet people to understand what is already in place at the university, to explore how I can bring it all together and move forward in a specific and measurable manner.’

‘This is our opportunity to put our money where our mouth is’

And her first impressions? ‘I see that there is a lot of passion for the topic at the UT, and yet it is not easy and often quite complicated to move from conversation to action. The UT is in a unique  position. As a technical university that focuses on “People First”, this is our opportunity to put our money where our mouth is. I’m here for both students and staff. The UT has created this completely new position, it’s never been done before, which gives me free rein and also gives me a lot of responsibility on how to manage expectations. My hope is that, by doing, we invent together how best to shape this position. So to describe how it’s been so far? Challenging, exciting and inspiring.’

Low hanging fruit

‘I’m trying to figure out feasible short-term, mid-term and long-term strategies for D&I. How can we create a culture where we all feel even more welcome at the UT?’, asks Mkatini, who has been appointed to her role for (at least) two years. ‘Exactly. What, for heaven’s sake, am I going to accomplish in two years? I’m starting by identifying the really low hanging fruit, the issues we should address right away. Luckily, I have found a team by joining the Shaping Expert Group Inclusion for the Shaping 2030 strategy. Together we have come up with a list of pressing issues, such as first generation students, ethnicity, religion, internationals, disability and mental health. I want us to be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement and want to make sure that we fill those Hypatia Chairs with phenomenal women in tech. I see that topics of gender and LGBTQI+ have gained a lot more momentum at the UT and of course they will be taken along as we move on.’

‘Access is not inclusion’

The D&I officer is not necessarily planning to develop new policies right now. ‘I first need to understand what policies already exist and how relevant they are. Only when we know what is there, can we see what is needed. More importantly, policies are nice but they need to be embraced by the people that need to implement them. Therefore my focus is firstly on getting familiar with all that has already been done and how existing policies cater to everybody’s needs. Because access is not inclusion. The student with a disability, Anouk Noordeloos, in her open letter to the Executive Board,  made this super clear. Let’s make sure we create policy for the people that need it, but also with them.’

‘The story of my life’

It is clear from Sterre Mkatini’s tone of voice and emotion that she is passionate about diversity and inclusion. ‘I’ve always been fighting for the underdog,’ she admits. ‘I remember standing up to bullies since kindergarten. I’ve always wanted to create a just society. We all have our own story that makes us unique. How do we create a safe and inclusive space where everyone has equal access to opportunities? Creating safe spaces where people feel welcome and have voice and visibility has been the story of my life.’

The officer now spends her days ‘immersing herself in everything related to diversity and inclusion at UT’. ‘Girl, I want to be everywhere!’ she exclaims. ‘I’ve become a member of the Ambassador’s Network, I’m talking with HR, with Student Well-Being, the ombudsperson, the University Council, with Workplace Pride and I want to be on any D&I related committee that will have me. I’m open to talking to anyone, to building connections! I want to make some moves, be part of some moves. I would like to start offering workshops to create awareness around D&I. I want to normalize changing your opinion when presented with new information. I hope that, within those two years, I can make difficult conversations easier and help make everyone feel included. I want to have a good strategic plan in place, so that we can move forward. Ideally – in time – my position will become redundant.’

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