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Dr. Jaclyn Oehley Lotter, Academic Dean at SACAP, talks leadership in education in SA

Dr. Jaclyn Oehley Lotter, Academic Dean at SACAP, talks leadership in education in SA

Written by Staff Writer

July 12, 2021

By Charndré Emma Kippie


Dr. Jaclyn Oehley Lotter is the Academic Dean at SACAP (South African College of Applied Psychology) and as a 35-year old female, holding this position in education leadership at such a young age is incredibly rare – it’s traditionally a male dominated role. With 10 years of tertiary study that took her on a life-changing journey, and a successful track record both in teaching and private practice, Dr Lotter is now bringing her unique outlook to the leadership team of one of the country’s foremost private tertiary institutions, known for its progressiveness. She holds a BA (Psychology and English), BA Honours (Psychology), MA (Counselling Psychology), PhD (Psychology), and is a Registered Counselling Psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. 

Dr Lotter’s rise into leadership in education in South Africa has been organic, and is testimony to her openness to life’s experiences, and a determined focus on making a difference in the country. As a student hockey player growing up in a Bloemfontein family of sports achievers, she travelled South Africa, and internationally as a competitor. During a gap-year stint as an abseiling instructor in England she found purpose in helping others as she got eye-to-eye with at-risk youth from the African diaspora. Some years later, as the only SA PHD student selected to attend the Child & Youth Institute in Dakar, Senegal and collaborate with her peers on a CODESRIA book project, she found herself faced with unvarnished, significant race and gender politics. It was a substantial reckoning with the privilege she had grown up with as a white South African that was to impact forever on her sense of self and her responsibility as an African.


Please tell us a bit about your role and responsibilities as Academic Dean at SACAP (South African College of Applied Psychology).

I am the Academic Dean at the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP). SACAP is a Private Higher Education Institution that was established in 1997 and boasts campuses in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and Online. SACAP initially offered qualifications within the Applied Psychology space, but has subsequently expanded to include qualifications in Management and Leadership, as well as Social Work and Community Development, with other exciting growth opportunities on the horizon.

In the context of Private Higher Education, the role of a Dean is often one that intersects education or academia, with business. In the case of SACAP I form part of the Executive Team responsible for the strategic growth and leadership of the College. From an academic perspective I am responsible for the overall academic integrity of the institution, inclusive of the quality of the overall teaching and learning strategy and delivery. My role intersects both the strategic and operational realms. I am fortunate to work with an inspiring and forward-thinking group of people who are truly interested in removing bureaucracy for the sake of innovation and progress. 


Please could you tell us a little bit about your upbringing, and how you eventually decided that this would be the right career path for you? 

I was born in Bloemfontein in the Free State. I spent the first 16 years of my life there, decided it was time to spread my wings and so went off to school in Australia when I was 16 on an exchange programme. After school I took a gap year in the UK and travelled Europe on my own. I spent the next 11 years in Grahamstown, before eventually moving to Cape Town about 7 years ago. 

Higher education was not something that many people in my close and extended family had the privilege of undertaking. Because he had never had the opportunity, my father was determined to allow us the chance to go to university. I guess at the time, he never imagined I would study for 10 years, but he has always been extremely supportive of my studies and academic career. 

There have been multiple events in my life that have influenced my career in Psychology and Higher education.  I think one of the first events was an experience I had even before I started studying. After I completed Matric, I applied to study and was accepted to study physiotherapy. However, at the last minute I told my parents that I wasn’t 100% sure and so I asked to take a gap year. I spent the year volunteering as a rock climbing and abseiling instructor at a youth centre in England. During this time, I was exposed to a group of youth who were from African families who had immigrated to England, but who had somehow come into conflict with the law. A lot of these youngsters came from difficult circumstances, they were struggling to make sense of their identity in this new country and culture and were extremely angry with the world. But despite their tough exterior, there were moments at the top of that abseil tower, where they were hanging over the edge and all their defences came down. I was able to connect with them and their vulnerability in those moments and create a sense of connection that might not otherwise have been possible. It was after this experience that I realised that although I’d always known I wanted to be in a helping profession, I wanted to make a difference using emotional connection and intellect, over offering physical help. 

There have been other moments that have influenced my career in both psychology and education, but perhaps that was where it all started. 


Why are you so passionate about Social Sciences education, and how do you hope to make a difference in the sector?

I have always been passionate about walking alongside people as they grow. This has been true from my early days as a swimming and hockey coach in high school, all the way until today, both as a psychologist, a leader and as an educator. 

I believe that the value of the social sciences has generally been underestimated in the past. However, I believe there is a shift in acknowledging the value of the type of skills which a social sciences qualification empowers students with. With the fourth industrial revolution now our current reality, as well as the new demands of the changing world of work – more and more skills such as critical thinking, creativity and the ability to collaborate and communicate are going to be what is required to succeed. Furthermore, the ability to be adaptable and resilient in the face of constant change, and the ability to learn and unlearn, these are the skills that I believe are going to be of most value in the future.


How has studying Psychology enhanced your leadership in the education space? 

Psychology is ultimately the study of how people think, so having a background in the field helps you to better understand how people’s thoughts influence their behaviour. It provides you with insight into what drives and motivates people and provides you an ability to effectively communicate with others. Most importantly I believe that the value of any psychology qualification is the ability to practice empathy. I have learnt that success in leadership and business doesn’t require aggression or other ‘masculine’ qualities often associated with strength. That true strength lies in authenticity and that empathy is critical to my success and is a strength in and of itself. Compassion and strength are not mutually exclusive. 


What advice do you have for businesses in terms of being more involved in youth development? 

I have a particular passion for youth because I have a strong belief that if you want to create better solutions to the world’s problems, the most hopeful place to start is with its youth. 

I think that increasingly the intersection between education and business is going to be critical. Simply leaving education in the hands of providers of higher education is not aligned with the way the world of work is changing. More and more there is an acceptance that learning is not something that happens within a finite amount of time, but is instead life-long. As a business it is important to understand that you are going to need to be recruiting graduates for roles that don’t yet even exist or are just beginning to be identified. Therefore, I think it is going to become important for businesses to develop partnerships with education institutions to deliberately produce graduates for a life-long learning journey in a constantly-changing world of work. 

  • Flexibility is key when dealing with change.  In times of uncertainty people look to control the situation, it’s human nature, but it’s crucial to accept the things that are out of your control and focus on what you can control, even if it seems small in comparison to the pace of change. 
  • Something which is in our control is always being willing to learn. And open to constantly learning and growing as a person is crucial. So my tip would be to always approach the world with an inquiring and open mind. 
  • Finally, I would say that self-insight, an awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, your triggers and blind spots, means that you have an ability to be reflexive and deliberate in the face of change. When everything in the world is changing, it is really important to know who you are. 


What have been the major obstacles in your career and how have you overcome them? 

I think like many graduates, finding employment was the greatest challenge when I first finished my masters in psychology. What made this worse is that rarely in our training as mental health practitioners are we skilled with the knowledge and business acumen required to start and run our own businesses. This was something I had to learn.

Furthermore, industry doesn’t really understand the value of psychology in spaces outside of therapy. Psychology graduates have so much value to add in terms of understanding people: what motivates them, what drives their behaviour, how to maximise their potential. They have the ability to look at things from a systemic perspective and understand how changes in one part of the system may affect another. There is so much value that can be added to any organisation or business, but I quickly learned that unless I was going to educate the industry, they weren’t going to understand the value I could bring.  Both of the above challenges required me to develop an entrepreneurial spirit. This is not something I had previously realised I had or was interested in. But I quickly learned that I needed to become my own “brand ambassador” if you will, and that having a Master’s degree certainly didn’t equate to getting a job. I also learnt the value of authentic networking. 

Both in my role as a psychologist and as a young academic, I struggled with people underestimating my ability as a result of my age. This was particularly evident when working with children, which was my focus as a practicing psychologist. Psychology is an interesting field, as although maturity and life experience are really important, for me maturity and age have very little to do with one another. Furthermore, you don’t need to have gone through something yourself to be able to put yourself in another’s shoes and try to see it from their perspective. I have however learnt to embrace my age and understand that it often gives me an edge. I am an “old soul”, but I have an ability to relate to young people and this has been of great value to me in my career, both in psychology and education. 

And then possibly one of my greatest challenges which I have had to overcome numerous times in my career, has been my own self-doubt and how that can sometimes be the greatest hurdle of all. I don’t think this is something that you simply overcome once off, it takes constant work and self-reflection. Understanding your value, but always engaging in the world with humility. With every promotion or move in an organisation, comes new doubts and questions and that is okay, but it’s important not to let it define your success, but rather work to grow through each new challenge. 


What major milestones have you achieved in your career thus far? 

A significant milestone in terms of the influence which the experience had on my career was being selected as the only South African scholar to participate in the Child and Youth Institute as a young PhD student at Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal. 

This was a truly life-changing experience, both on a personal and professional level. I was faced with significant race and gender politics in a country which felt truly foreign and in which I could not speak the official language nor the local dialect. I was forced to reflect on my position as a white South African, trying to write about the lives and experiences of Black orphaned and vulnerable children and families whose lives had been profoundly impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. My motivations were questioned by some of my fellow attendees, while others struggled to accept me as a fellow African. Overall, my time in Senegal was a profoundly life-changing experience which forced me to reflect on my professional and personal position of privilege and responsibility as a white South African and African.

The completion of my PhD in my late twenties was another personal achievement, as early on in my career I had set myself the goal of obtaining my doctorate before the age of 30. During the course of my PhD, I worked extremely closely with 7 children and their siblings, growing up in grandmother-headed households as a result of having lost their mothers to AIDS. I spent these years deeply involved in the lives of these families, spending time in their homes, at the children’s schools, at family events and even at the grandmother’s places of work. I witnessed moments of loss of loved ones, of job insecurity, of abuse and sickness and death. But I also experienced moments of great resilience and joy and triumph. The small role I played in the lives of these children was humbling and has evoked intense guilt and despair, as well as significant joy. My PhD is ultimately the story of these children’s lives. 

Finally, being appointed as Academic Dean of SACAP feels like a pivotal moment in my career. It’s the culmination of a journey in psychology and education, as well as strong interests in business and leadership culminating in one role. I feel privileged to be able to combine my strengths, interests and passions on a daily basis. Having the opportunity to engage in higher education as a student and its associated experiences were profoundly life-changing for me. I feel inspired by providing others the opportunity to experience something similar on a daily basis. Although I don’t get into the classroom nearly as often as I would like, knowing that through my work with SACAP staff and educators we’re impacting the lives of countless, students, their families and communities and helping to train and equip a generation of social scientists who are positioned to apply their learning across our country for the benefit of its people is what gets me out of bed in the morning. 


Have you read any life-changing books?

Any book! Reading is powerful! I feel changed by every book I encounter. However, a book I can highly recommend and which I recently really enjoyed is Educated by Tara Westover. I think the book means different things to different people, but for me it in part reflected my own journey with higher education and how through the ‘enlightenment’ it offers you, it also lays bare difficult questions about where you have come from and some of the problematic beliefs which have shaped you. It vividly portrays how even though formal education opens your eyes to a whole new way of seeing the world and is deeply liberating, it has the ability to ask difficult questions and cause inner turmoil. The book certainly asks universal questions, such as how much of ourselves we should give to those we love, and how much we betray them when we forge a new path for ourselves as adults and is beautifully written, by a highly talented and unique writer. 


Nelson Mandela was very passionate about access to education. What special message do you have for South African’s celebrating Madiba month this month? 

I feel very ill-equipped to say anything in Madiba’s name to be honest. As a little girl growing up in post-apartheid South African I always dreamed for becoming Nelson Mandela’s speech writer, he was a true inspiration to me and so many others throughout the world. I honestly couldn’t think of a greater example of someone who used education as a force for good in society.



*Interested in discovering more on women in leadership? Check out the 16th edition of the Standard Bank Top Women Leaders publication on Issuu – Digital Publishing Platform – here.



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