By JOSIE MAKKINK
As matric students work to finish the final lap of the school year, a crucial question remains unanswered for many: what next?
The notion of planning has been swiftly reimagined as ‘wishful thinking’ by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the gut-punching words of writer Amy Shearn, “Talking about the future is so 2019, anyway”. We are forced to live moment-to-moment, trying to catch a breath between each improvisation. For high school students, issues falling outside of the here-and-now anxiously await attention. Choosing a career path is one of them.
The Rhodes Counselling Centre recently teamed up with Vuli’ndlela, an educational outreach project run by the Rhodes University Community Engagement division, to offer students career guidance. Three interns at the Counselling Centre, Mihlali Simukonda, Staci Francis and Lerato Manyike, were involved in the initiative. The need they saw in the community was immense.
Simukonda explains that many learners did not know about application fees, the Admission Point Score (APS) system, or even what they wanted to pursue after school. Simukonda comments that there is a lack of knowledge from parents, and schools have done little to help learners build for the future. She says that Grade 9 subject choices, an early and significant career-related decision, are ill-informed – learners either plumb for the ‘easy’ subjects or succumb to parent-enforced ‘difficult’ ones.
As part of the project, the intern trio conducted career assessments with nine matric students. The assessment battery consisted of tests relating to personality, personal values and occupational interests. The students were also interviewed to discuss their strengths and interests. In the end, each student received a comprehensive report and feedback.
Simukonda says that it was infeasible to run the assessments online, given that many of the Vuli’ndlela students do not have consistent access to Whatsapp or Zoom. In the cases of those that do, data poses an obstacle. Students who want assistance can visit the Rhodes Psychology Clinic, a freely available service that offers career assessments and guidance.
The Vuli’ndlela and Counselling Centre team also provided a career workshop to Grade 10 and 11 learners. The workshop discussed the application process, career options, funding schemes and alternative paths such as TVET colleges or employment. Asive Dywili, a grade 10 student, says that the workshop opened his eyes to the many careers he could pursue, leading him to reevaluate his initial choices. Lukhanyiso Khanyile, a grade 11 student, says that she found the career site links the most useful as she can check what career options align with her subject choices.
The workshop also invited two guest speakers, Lazarus Kgagen and Buntu Sixaba. Both speakers share similar backgrounds, schooling and financial challenges to those of the Vuli’ndlela students. Sixaba is completing his Masters in History at the University of Cape Town, and Kgagen is studying Politics, Linguistics and Organisational Psychology at Rhodes University. Kgagen explains that he only had one family member working and sometimes had to walk barefoot when he grew up. He did not have enough money for application fees to university and so took a screen-writing training opportunity in Johannesburg. He is now a promising film-maker and has since begun studying at Rhodes with NSFAS funding.
Despite these stories of hope, the discussion surrounding career and study choices should not overlook a harsh truth. In these times, a requirement for almost all jobs and study is digital access and proficiency. As much as subject choices and passion matter, you can no longer get far without the ability to navigate platforms like Zoom and email. Famously face-to-face activities, such as therapy and medical consultations, have been forced into the digital realm.
The pandemic has transformed what careers look like, and digital competency has become a primary gateway. This won’t change anytime soon. We are living through a pandemic era, with the risk of further pandemics higher than ever. Even if we escape this, many sectors of the working world have adjusted to the ‘new normal’, and the digital approach is likely to persist.
Students need to prepare themselves for online study and online work. “Can I do this from home?” should be a deal-breaking question, given the devastating effects of lockdowns on both education and employment. A 2021 article published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal found that, unsurprisingly, social class is a strong predictor of digital disparities. Students from upper-middle-class families are more familiar with the digital tools and resources that would allow them to study and work online.
The article makes an interesting observation about the effects of the cultural mismatch between upper/middle class and working-class families. Distance learning encourages autonomous, independent learning. This approach is compatible with the family socialisation of the upper-middle-class, which tends to promote cultural norms of independence and individuality. In contrast, working-class contexts are characterised by scarce economic resources and stability, and individuals see themselves as interdependent and members of a community.
The discrepancy between the interdependent culture in working-class students and the independent norms pushed by educational institutions has negative consequences for academic performance.
In light of this, career workshops should be accompanied by digital proficiency and independent learning workshops.
Digital resources, such as laptops and data, should become part of the studying and working infrastructure, given to students/employees the same way that lecture halls and offices are. Only multifactorial interventions can overcome the material and cultural barriers faced by most of South Africa’s youth. Facing the future should not be unmanageable, especially if only for the terrible mistake of being born without privilege.