Adjusting to tertiary study involves significant challenges for rural learners, many of whom have never been to their campus before and a significant number of whom are the first to attend these institutions. Newly appointed Careers Officer, Sive Mda, works with partner organisations Jabulani Rural Health Foundation and Sihamba Sonke on a gap year program that aims to help young people in Zithulele navigate the tricky transition beyond school.
As part of this project, Sive works with 19 men and women between the ages of 19 and 21. She helps them choose a career path, gives them the know-how to get there, and equips them with the tools to navigate the challenges of tertiary study once they arrive at their chosen institutions. These may include getting lost, learning to use a computer for assignments, adjusting to academic jargon, and financial barriers.
Falling into the so-called “missing middle” and not able to qualify for NSFAS funding, finances were one of the biggest challenges in Sive’s own university journey. She recalls a time during third year at Walter Sisulu University when the debt she owed had grown so much that her student number was simply blocked. Late registration was by then familiar to her due to ongoing financial difficulties, but that year no one could get her onto the system at all.
Stuck in that position, Sive kept thinking of an older family member who had spent five years after varsity unable to work in her field because unpaid debt meant the institution would not release her certificate. “I knew I was going to go through the same route. I didn’t want that. I knew I had to do something,” she said.
Together with a friend, she ventured boldly into the secret heart of the university admin building, eventually finding a door that seemed to hold promise…
“I remember it was an old father. When we entered he said ‘What are you looking for?’ and we told him. He was like ‘Are you guys crazy?? Because no one has ever come straight to me!’”
This daring move was a turning point. Assisted by the sympathetic staff member and aided by a fortuitous availability of funds in her department, after several calls and trips Sive found herself with a bursary that cleared the debt and covered her final year’s costs.
“I registered for that last year with no problems. I registered on the registration date. It was not my thing to register on the date!” she jokes. Though the experience is one she can laugh about now, her reflection is also a very serious one about the tenacity it took to keep trying when doors were closing around her.
Sive uses her wealth of experience from university as well as her background in Social Work to coach the gap year students and prepare them for the opportunities that lie ahead. Though it cannot change the systemic affordability problem of tertiary education nor fully bridge the preparation gaps of a highly unequal secondary education system, having some sense of what to expect and a set of skills for dealing with obstacles can help learners. There are three focus areas in the gap year students’ weekly sessions: exposure, personal development and applications:
To help the learners choose their career path, Sive hosts ‘Exposure’ sessions. Sive looks for a wide range of professionals with different levels of qualification to come and talk to the group. The idea is to open their minds to the variety of different opportunities that are available and accessible to them with a varying range of academic results.
During Personal Development the group covers topics that concern youth at their age: drug abuse, public speaking, professionalism, self-confidence, time management, etc. “We are trying to limit the amount of dropouts in university. Many of these young people suffer from a severe lack of confidence,” Sive explains. “Going to big cities is such a challenge. So in personal development we try to get them to understand what it will be like when they leave Zithulele.” Simply having the confidence to admit to a stranger that you are lost and need help finding a specific building on campus can be a hurdle.
The third and final piece of the puzzle is the actual applications. “I let them use the skills they are learning in their computer sessions to do their applications. I monitor them as they apply and help them if they get stuck on something particular. I do not want to do it all for them.” Encouraging agency and self-reliance is such a vital part of the gap year program. “I do sneakily capture all of their information in case I need to fix it,” Sive admits .
Helping these young adults through this difficult yet crucial phase of their lives is not easy. Thankfully for Sive, she is in her element. “The best part is inspiring them and their interest in the world around them. As people who are just younger than me, I know that it is so hard for them to understand the world around them. They are in a phase where they are emerging young adults, but the world treats them like children. I love inspiring this age group. They are full of challenges, but also full of power to change the difficult situations from which they come.”
*Interview and writing in collaboration with Kyla Hazell