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A surprisingly regular academic achiever

- Wits University

A switch in 2nd-year from an LLB degree to Sociology paved the way to a rewarding career as Professor of Demography and now Senior Director: Academic Affairs.

Professor Nicole De Wet-Billings, Senior Academic Director at Wits

Professor Nicole de Wet-Billings, just under 40, has had a stellar career as a scholar and administrative leader all attained at a young age. One wonders where she would have been had life unfolded as planned.

De Wet-Billings was trudging along in her law studies when she found herself, at the insistence of her friend, sitting in a sociology class. Minutes before that, De Wet-Billings had unsuccessfully tried to convince her friend to hangout on the green lawns, as she had a free period. Her friend, however, reasoned otherwise and the reluctant attendee soon found herself enthralled with sociology.

“That 45 minutes was enough for me to change course. I found myself connecting better with the subject so I decided that I would complete the first year of law studies and then change to sociology the following year,” says De Wet-Billings.

 Embracing this newfound passion, the then-Yeoville resident transitioned to Humanities, setting the stage for a dynamic career in academia. In 2006, she completed her Bachelor of Arts majoring in Sociology and International Relations, followed by an Honours degree in Demography and Population Studies, a master’s earned with distinction for her dissertation titled Domestic violence and child health outcomes in Zimbabwe.

By then it was already clear that she was a scholastic rising star; she had won awards at local and international conferences, which are vital accolades when ascending the knowledge arena. She completed her PhD within three years, deepening her knowledge in the discipline of demography and population studies with a thesis titled Levels, causes and determinants of adolescent mortality in South Africa, 2001 to 2007.

She attributes her success to simple practices. “For me personally, gratitude plays a huge part in my success formula and realising my privilege at every point. How these opportunities were not afforded to my family and generations before me. As a result, I'm very grateful for the opportunities and for that reason, I don't engage in anything that I know I can't give my full attention to at that time. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it properly because it's the least I can do for being given the opportunity.”

Awards and Disappointments

Prior to assuming the position of Wits’ Academic Director on 1 January 2024, De Wet-Billings was the Acting Head of the School of Social Sciences, and co-Assistant Dean for Research in the Faculty of Humanities. She is the past Head of Demography, and Assistant Dean for Postgraduate Studies in Humanities. She is a Female Academic Leadership Fellow (FALF) and a graduate of the Consortium for Advanced Research and Training in Africa (CARTA). She was the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) Women in Science 2016 first runner up in the Young Distinguished Women in Humanities and Social Sciences category. In 2018, she was named one of the Mail and Guardians Top 200 Young (under 35 years old) South Africans within the education category. Her valuable scholarly contributions also earned her research grants from the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, the South African National Research Foundation (NRF), British Academy, and the Mellon Mays Foundation, among others.

While her CV portrays a meteoric rise, De Wet-Billings admits that she has also tasted disappointment along the road. The rejection of academic papers is something familiar to all academics and she has not been immune to this.

“It's painful every time, especially the more invested you are and convinced that it’s groundbreaking work and it is going to change the field.”

While this is a bitter pill to swallow, she’s grateful that the University has created a supportive environment and encourages resilience. After all, publishing is expected of all academics and pulling oneself by the bootstraps is a must. On her side, De Wet-Billings has over 65 journal publications and she has successfully supervised more than 30 Master of Arts (MA) and two doctoral students. She is also an invited commissioner on the upcoming Lancet Commission for Adolescent Health and has served on editorial boards for several journals.

She also credits the Department of Demography and Population Studies and her mentor Professor Clifford Odimegwu for her achievements.

Directing the Wits Teaching and Learning Plan: 2025-2029

The year 2024 marks the final year of implementation of the Wits Learning and Teaching Plan 2020-2024. The four-year plans have always served as a framework for ensuring the University delivers a world-class education. One of her major tasks for this year is to develop the next teaching and learning plan that will take Wits to the end of this decade – the Wits 2025-2029 Teaching and Learning Plan. Collaborating with various stakeholders and seeking input from across the University, she aims to create a roadmap that responds to the Wits 2033 Strategy.

Wits prides itself on academic rigour as well as growing the next generation of change-makers and global scholars. This legacy is facilitated by academics and support staff who keep abreast of knowledge frontiers in various disciplines and services. To sustain this, the overarching strategy identifies seven focus areas: increasing flexible and life-long learning opportunities; enhancing academics as University teachers; strengthening institutional capacity for curriculum development and renewal; diversifying assessment methods; expanding postgraduate education; expanding innovative formal and informal learning spaces; and using data analytics to promote student success.

De Wet-Billings’ leadership experience will be valuable as the teaching and learning plan considers both the needs of staff and students in promoting effective teaching practice and student success. Added to this is her background in population studies.

“I've always had a research interest in youth and youth development, and that research has extended to education, living conditions etc. And while it's always been very quantitative, the link with the academic affairs position is that it is youth-centred and links to my area of expertise,” she says.

Her immediate team includes colleagues in the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CLTD), and the Quality Planning and Academic Office (QAPO), Student Academic Support and the Wits Writing Programme assisted by Business Intelligence Services (BIS).

Other key structures in the University with which she will engage in this role include the Student Success Committee comprising representatives from various schools, while external partners such as the Council for Higher Education (CHE) and the Department of Higher Education and Training remain critical stakeholders and regulatory partners in ensuring that Wits upholds high standards.

Travel and family

Beyond her role in academia, De Wet-Billings enjoys travel and her preferred companion is her husband, Dr Brendon Billings from the School of Anatomical Sciences. An avid reader, she confesses to being a book nerd and always has a book on her. “I go through phases. Right now, I'm in a fiction phase. But I went through a biography phase but now I'm kind of just hooked on general fiction. And it just helps me to clear my mind.”

She chuckles that this at least makes her interesting to her family and friends who are not immersed in academia.