Big Brothers Big Sisters at the University of Johannesburg

By Solomon Matumba [1]

An account of the experience of University of Johannesburg (UJ) students in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa (BBBSSA) programme.


The Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa (BBBSSA) programme was introduced to VOSESA Focus readers in the April 2006 edition.

BBBSSA is a mentorship programme for youth between the ages of six and 18 who are in need of various kinds of support. After being matched, a mentor (a 'Big') and mentee (a 'Little') build a trusting friendship over a period of a year. Littles in need are children who are struggling academically, battling with low self-esteem, are abused, neglected, or infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. A Big is expected to spend a minimum of one hour a week developing a one-to-one relationship with a Little.

The mentors are volunteers who come from all walks of life, representing all races, ages and genders. The Littles are referred to BBBSSA by various children’s homes, schools and communities that work in partnership with the programme.

The BBBSSA programme provides a service-learning opportunity for first-year Social Work students at the University of Johannesburg. This article looks briefly at the impact of the programme on these Bigs who mentor the children at risk.


South African Higher Education (HE) policy places great emphasis on community service to promote civic engagement and as a tool for academic development. This service-learning approach could be regarded as an effective method for building the three points of departure of higher education transformation. These are:

  • broader democratic participation in HE activities;
  • greater responsiveness to community needs; and
  • increased co-operation and partnerships with other sectors of society.

First-year Social Work students at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) complete an internship course as mentors to children at risk, in partnership with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa programme. This is a supervised community-based learning experience, for which they receive credits towards their qualification. Students are introduced to the concept of mentorship by being paired with a child at risk from a children’s home, a school or a disadvantaged community. This article focuses on the evaluation of this programme.


It has been established that service learning takes place most effectively within a partnership context (Department of Social Work staff and students, children at the various homes, and the BBBSSA organisation). A need was identified to evaluate this mode of learning in collaboration with others, to reflect on the (service + learning) experience, and to act upon the new insights and findings to make the programme even more effective in terms of achieving its objectives.

UJ’s Department of Social Work has been in a partnership with the BBBSSA organisation for the past three years. Informal ongoing evaluations have indicated students’ satisfaction with the programme and have showed that students are learning more about, and serving, the community. A formal evaluation was considered necessary to compare the programme’s results with the general guidelines provided by the higher education policy, objectives of the course, and ultimately the National Qualifications Framework; and to evaluate the effectiveness of the state of the programme. Insight from this study will be useful in informing future plans, as well as in initiating service-learning ventures in other courses.

Aims and objectives

The aim of the study was to assess students’ learning experience in the BBBSSA programme. It sought to assess:

  • what knowledge, skills and values students had acquired through their participation in the programme;
  • students’ perspectives of the value of service learning; and
  • how participation in the programme had contributed to the students’ personal and professional development. This article focuses on the learning experience of the students.


Purposive sampling was used, as only currently registered Social Work students participated in the study. Only students who had completed the first-year internship course were considered. Thus, respondents were mainly second- and third-year students who had participated in the programme in previous years. A five-point Likert scale questionnaire with 23 questions was drafted and given to respondents to complete anonymously. Identifying particulars of students Thirty-seven students participated in the study. The majority of participants (65 per cent) were between 20 and 24 years old. Most of the participants were female (97 per cent) and 63 per cent were black. A total of 54 per cent of the respondents have completed the BBBSSA programme, while 46 per cent are still actively involved. Fifty-one percent of the participating children (Littles) live in children’s homes, while 49 per cent live at home with a family.


The results showed that the programme had made a positive impact on the students’ lives both academically and personally. Although there are aspects that still need to be fine-tuned regarding facilitation of the programme, in general, students regarded the programme positively and felt that it was a great programme to keep going and to expose more students to.

Students reported that the programme had advanced their professional development by highlighting their awareness of community needs. Their interaction with their Littles gave them a deeper awareness and understanding of community needs. The relationships between the Bigs (students) and the Littles also helped the Bigs identify their personal strengths and weaknesses, and enhanced their leadership skills. The students found that the programme made them more comfortable working with a diverse client population, and enhanced their ability to communicate with people in general. This prepared the students for the internship work that forms part of the second and third years of study.

Most students (73 per cent) found participation in the programme served as a thorough introduction to community care. They reported that the BBBSSA experience had provided t hem with an opportunity to learn about and serve various communities around the University of Johannesburg. The mentoring experience also helped students to apply their social work micro-skills in real-life situations. Although students did receive extra credits for participating in the programme, the results indicate that this was not their primary reason for participating; rather, students saw the programme as an opportunity to impact positively on “someone else’s life”.


Service learning benefits both the university and community. The results of the study were positive and indicated the value that this programme had for the students, as well as the impact students are making in the lives of the children at risk that they are mentoring. There is now a need for a study focusing on the experience of the Littles participating in the programme.

Contact details for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa (Gauteng)
Tel: +27 11 482 2740

[1] Solomon Matumba is a lecturer at the Department of Social Work, University of Johannesburg.