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Reflections of our EGS student attendees of the Society of South African Geographers Student Conference 2015

This year we managed to sponsor five of our postgraduate students to attend the SSAG Student Conference. Below they offer their reflections on the experience.

Claire van Wyk (Masters)

Emma, Londeka, Zac, Claire, and Lorna taking a group selfie at the gala dinner.

Last week I was given the opportunity to attend the Society of South African Geographers (SSAG) annual student conference. This year the conference was hosted by UNISA, and took place at the UNISA Science Campus in Florida, Johannesburg. This was my first academic conference, so I thought I'd share my personal highlights, lowlights, and lessons learnt!

The conference took place on Monday and Tuesday, with registration on Monday at 08:30. I very "cleverly" decided to fly up to JHB early Monday morning to save on accommodation costs. That meant I started the day at 03:45 on Monday to catch a flight and arrive in JHB by 07.30 and make my way to the conference by 08:30. Business people do this all the time right? Easy. By the time I got to the conference I was exhausted! And not really feeling my bright-eyed self! Next time I will definitely fly in the night before and get a good night sleep before the first day of the conference, lesson learnt!

The conference opened with a motivational lecture by UNISA's vice-president of research and innovation, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. Prof Phakeng set a tone of enthusiasm across the lecture theatre, and it was clear that the students really appreciated her words of advice and encouragement. From there, the formalities were put aside and we were free to attend whichever presentation sessions appealed to us most.

There were many students at the conference, and most of them were presenting their research. Students from all the top universities in South Africa presented their research, be it their findings or their project proposals. I must admit that one of my highlights was seeing so many of my own lecturers from UCT's EGS department referenced in other student's research presentations! My fellow UCT colleagues noticed this too and we all felt really lucky!

Over the two days I attended a number of student research presentations, some of them were research project proposals and others had results already. Overall it was great to hear what other students were up to and have the opportunity to engage with them and their research. I presented my Honours research in a poster presentation, and was very happy when representatives from the event sponsor, ESRI, asked if they could have a photo with my poster and me.

For me, the highlight of the conference was a keynote lecture by Prof Gregory Breetzke. Prof Breetzke gave a light-hearted lecture, filled with loads of useful advice for young emerging researchers.

A summary of the advice he gave for entering into the world of academia:
  1. Always be cynical because then you can only ever be pleasantly surprised.
  2. Don't take the highs too high and lows too low.
  3. Back yourself, believe in yourself.
  4. Work to live, don't live to work.
  5. Learn to manage your time.
  6. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and acknowledge that you don't know or understand something.
  7. Be yourself.
  8. "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." [Winston Churchill]
  9. Have fun!

Another highlight was getting to know and befriend fellow UCT students who also attended the conference. Sometime being a postgraduate student and working part-time can result in a rather solo experience. It was awesome hanging out with fellow students and sharing the experience of a conference together. We had loads of fun together and look forward to attending our next conference!

Zachariah Glasser (Honours)

The 2015 SSAG conference was an incredible opportunity to mix with other geography students from all over the country, and experience the true diversity of the discipline. It was extremely well run with many helpful administrative staff on duty. There were 16 universities represented at the event. This broadened the scope and focus of the research presented, making every presentation unique and interesting, including aspects of physical geography, human geography, political geography, GIS and much more. The students were friendly and welcoming, keen to discuss their projects, interests and passions within geography.

My highlight of this event was an incredibly humbling one. Many students who presented their research over the course of the two days really emphasized the importance of their literature reviews, and on a few occasion current UCT EGS lecturers were mentioned. I felt so privileged and blessed to be apart of a Geographic Department that has not only been represented by its students over the years but by the professionals who look after it, shape it and share their passion and knowledge with its students.

I have come back with a rekindled passion for the environmental and geographical sciences and am incredibly grateful to the EGS department and university for making this experience possible.

Keynote lecture by Professor Breetzke.

Lorna Born (Honours)

The SSAG Geography in a Changing World conference proved to be an interesting experience. The talks given and posters presented by various honours, masters and PhD students were fascinating and UCT was well represented. The subjects of theses varied vastly from investigating disposal of medical waste to exploring mountain precipitation regimes. Professor Phakeng addressed us with an inspirational speech that provided numerous pearls of wisdom. Her advice and insights will undoubtedly help us in our academic careers. Engaging with scholars from all around the country was a valuable experience and it was interesting to gauge the fields of geography that are most studied by other universities.

Emma Broadway (Honours)

Touching down at Lanseria Airport at 10:30pm and trying to get a cab that we (mistakenly) thought was trying to kidnap us, was certainly an experience I won't forget in a hurry. However, all fears subsided when we finally arrived at UNISA, after misreading Google maps and getting lost (ironic- top notch geography students?). I was both surprised and really impressed by the enormity of the UNISA Science Campus, and the creativity of its new architectural innovations. But the most impressive aspect of my conference experience hosted by UNISA, despite the free sherry at the gala dinner-always a plus, was certainly the overwhelmingly accommodating and friendly staff who greeted and accommodated us throughout the conference. The staff really went out of their way to make sure that we all knew what was going on, where we were going and that we were aptly fed at all times- which was fantastic.

I found out on the first morning that I had to present in the huge auditorium later that afternoon- naturally my stomach was fluttering with the magnitude of a million butterflies. Despite this, I was actually really excited to share my research with people who were also doing projects in human geography, and after my presentation I received wonderful responses about my project, especially from the Rhodes students who were super interested in it and came to chat to me about it afterwards. That was definitely a conference highlight for me because it reassured me that I wasn't the only one who though my project was interesting and that I'm on the right track for my final presentation!

Overall, the conference was a fantastic learning, engaging and networking experience, which I am so grateful for! As UCT students in particular it was incredibly humbling to see how our work fairs in comparison to other institutions' and to realise just how privileged we are to be a part of a Department that is so progressive and influential in South African geography. It was honestly such a privilege to be able to go and represent the EGS Department at the conference and I am really looking forward to getting feedback from the adjudicators about our presentations!

Hellen Manku (Masters)

I treated the SSAG conference as a research tournament. I wanted to see what other students were contributing to the field of geography and judge whether or not my work was up to standard. I would have enjoyed the conference a little more if we were given appropriate audiences. For instance organising students according to their research fields, the like with the like. On the other hand I did learn about new topics which I knew nothing about so that was a bonus. UNISA was a great host and some judge/s believed that I gave the best Masters Oral Presentation for Human Geography.

Londeka Mahlanza (Masters)

On the 7th of September 2015, the Society for South African Geographers held its 46th annual geography student conference at the UNISA Science Campus, Johannesburg. The three day conference titled: "Geography in a Changing World", brought together students from all of South Africa's dynamic environmental departments, including UCT's department of Environmental Geographical Science.

The first day kicked off with an electrifying key note from Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng. Her message on our visibility to the world as African researchers, through excellence and rigorous research, got spirits motivated for the first series of sessions. It was interesting to see what my peers from around the country have been up to and to engage with their work as a curious spectator, and a contributor through the Q&A session that followed each presentation.

The topics presented over the next few days showed how diverse a research field geography can be... Geography is indeed, "anything and everything". The presentations show cased work on both physical and human geography, other presentations looking at a more political and economic aspect, that I was yet to encounter in this field.

On tea breaks and lunch time, the Mapungubwe examination hall held the more social conversations, with all the students getting a chance to network and exchange contacts for future correspondence. These networks and informal moments of knowledge sharing are perhaps the most treasured part of any conference set up. The Mapungubwe hall was also draped with poster presentations and information points from the conference's main sponsors i.e. ESRI South Africa and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. This made this area of the venue a popular point of conversation and interaction.

As my first conference, the SSAG Student Conference surpassed the very little expectations I had for this type of gathering. I enjoyed being amidst like-minded people from other University's in the country, that I otherwise would have never had the chance to engage with. I also appreciate that all proceedings ended off in the same high note they started with, making it a reasonable assumption that many of the faces I met at this year's event, will definitely be seen again at the next SSAG.

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