“I had been a senior executive at MTN for a long time, done tons of short courses and worked in nine different countries, but had no formal tertiary education,” says Zain, who is not linguistically challenged and has a language repertoire that includes Sotho, Farsi, Arabic, French and South African sign language.
How Zain faced his fear and came out winning
Having lived and worked across continents, including in a war zone or two, MTN’s Zain Reddiar doesn’t scare easily. He admits to having been petrified of one thing, though: the thought of writing a dissertation.
“The idea scared me to death”, says Zain, Human Resources Director at MTN Cote d’Ivoire and before that, in war-torn South Sudan (where shelling literally occurred outside his house at one stage).
It was during his stay in South Sudan that he faced his fear of formal study and signed up for his master’s degree – dissertation and all – through The Da Vinci Institute.
“Then MTN Group introduced recognition for prior learning (RPL) and people at the office kept saying to me, ‘You should do it.’ So I tried Unisa and my application was rejected. I felt despondent.”
The Da Vinci Institute, on the other hand, interviewed Zain and was willing to accept him as a master’s student, provided he achieved at least 60% for his research proposal. He succeeded and started out on his dissertation, which was on the topic of transforming HR from the traditional delivery model to shared services.
“Being in South Sudan, I couldn’t attend any lectures. That was very challenging because it was all new to me and academic writing was a nightmare – I’m a minimalist by nature,” Zain says. To make up for losing out on lectures, he read voraciously, doing double or triple the required reading.
Then his personal life took a dip. “My dad was diagnosed with stage four cancer and I flew between South Sudan and South Africa every weekend to see him. This shifted the priority of my studies and increased the pressure of adhering to timelines.”
Round about the same time, mid-2016, the civil conflict in South Sudan intensified, forcing NGOs, multinationals and foreign nations to leave the country. In the interest of employee wellbeing, MTN took the decision to evacuate its staff as well. This led to Zain’s move to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
Amid all this turbulence, Zain continued with his master’s studies but realised that he still needed to earn some additional marks to fulfil the academic requirement. Da Vinci suggested that he write a critical review to make up the balance of marks, and Zain agreed.
“Eventually I wrote a full dissertation along with additional reviews and no credits for RPL was granted. I earned the full qualification.”
Defending his master’s dissertation was a challenge he did not relish, though. “I was sick to my tummy when I arrived at the campus; I didn’t know what to expect from the assessing academic panel. My topic was very real to me – it was an experience I had lived – and I managed to do it.”
Zain, who graduated in September 2017, is now working on his research proposal for his doctorate, this time looking at the impact of international assignments on expatriates and their families. This is another very real topic for Zain: not only does he work for a multinational that has a footprint in 22 countries but is also away from his family based in South Africa.
Clearly, he has lost his fear of academic writing. “Once I took the plunge, I started enjoying it. It changed my perspective on the world, the way I think and the manner in which I approach things. I have become far less judgmental. Conducting research has taught me that my view is just a very small lens into a very big and complex picture. It humbles you to some degree.”