Everyone has a landmark day or event that defines a breakthrough moment or turning point in their professional or personal lives. Interestingly, I have never learned the distinction between professional time and personal time; as though the transition between the two was triggered by the flick of a switch – when living becomes a resolute pursuit of purpose, then behaviour and time can only be personal.
A landmark day or event – that moment which clearly marks a distinction between where one comes from and where one is heading, from obscurity to significance, and very often from impossibility to hope, especially in the socio-economic climate of modern South Africa.
For me this day was graduation day, Thursday 16 January 2003, at the Great Hall at Wits University.
I am amazed at how American cinema portrays student life as wanton enjoyment of youthful recreation – sorority and fraternity groups, abundant free time, adventurous volunteer activities, and other extramural activities. I do not identify with Hollywood’s depiction of student life. While I had my fair share of play at university, reading for a civil engineering undergraduate degree at a prominent school of civil and environmental engineering was demanding and extremely difficult. Suffering is a strong word, but at the time that is what it felt like.
Graduation day was a manifestation of the joy of suffering.
Being a civil engineering student was a disciplined and focused four years, of arduous academic training and development. I also noticed that it was not the smartest students in the class who passed, but the ones who applied themselves consistently and demonstrated commitment to study. They did the basic things – attended all lectures well prepared, respected punctuality and time, paid attention in class, reviewed the day’s lecture notes on the same day, completed tutorials, and asked questions in class and in tutorial sessions. On completion of the four strenuous years, I proved that I had the potential to advance to engineer status.
Invariably, students who do not put in the effort and time fall by the wayside, but there are those who appreciate the sacrifices required and who immerse themselves in the struggle to graduate. Sadly, not all students reach graduation day. From my visits to universities across the country, and engaging with HoDs and Allyson Lawless, author of the often cited Numbers and Needs books, I have learnt that only 12% to 30% of current students complete their qualifications in engineering in the minimum time allocated for that specific qualification. The reasons are known – poor maths and science at high school level, students having social difficulties and the lack of consistent and reliable funding.
It is particularly disconcerting when students who complete the required courses do not graduate because they are unable to secure appropriate in-service or experiential training, which is a key requirement of the UoT (Universities of Technology) engineering curriculum. Without experiential training, there is no graduation, and subsequently unemployment and the depressing demise of the hopes of an individual, a family and a community. Parents, often single parents, from meagre blue collar wages make incredible social and economic sacrifices to provide student fees. Students study till the early hours of the morning, sometimes by candlelight. They take several taxis hours before class begins, trying to be punctual. They go through exam stress, and they pass those exams. Only to learn that there is no employment. No graduation day.
The state of unemployment for students extends to graduates – recently a prominent civil engineering company released 15 of its students from their contractual bursary obligations after they had graduated, simply because the company could not provide employment. During the presidential branch visits, I have met numerous directors of small- and medium-sized civil engineering consulting firms who complain that they are unable to employ because of the lack of sustainable projects.
In a country where 25% of our working population are unemployed, and more than 40% of young people under the age of 30 are unemployed, surely this situation should not prevail – definitely not in the construction industry.
SAICE has some 2 700 civil engineering students on its database. At the six universities and eleven UoTs in South Africa, SAICE has ten student chapters in operation. Chapters are usually run by a committee comprising civil engineering students, supported by an obliging lecturer who is usually active in the local SAICE branch. The branches engage with the chapters on issues relating to professional development, bursaries, employment, SAICE special events and other student-related issues.
I invite senior engineers throughout the SAICE network and civil engineering companies around the country, who are not already engaged with student development in the form of mentoring, coaching or formal training, to adopt a student civil engineer as your little project. E-mail me your stories of graduation day.
And for those hundreds of students who have shared their plight with me, and who find themselves in what appears to be a hopeless situation, I would refer you to the experience of countless other engineering graduates around the world, and more so to what the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, said when he was invited to Harrow School on 29 October 1941 to address the learners. Churchill stood before the students and said: "…. never give up. Never give up. Never, never give up."