An African Academic Cinderella story

This post is looooooooooong overdue but I finally got around to it.

A few months ago an alumni of the department of Library and Information studies (where I am currently doing my Masters) came to visit and give a short talk. All Masters students were encouraged to attend his presentation and those of us that had class at the time of his presentation were allowed to play hookey for the day.We were told that he was a current employee of the United Nations (UN) so we figured whatever he had to say had to be of some importance.

After preliminary introductions by one of the department’s staff members he took to the podium. He began by detailing his educational background from high school and then relayed to us, in as much detail as he could, how exactly he got his job at the UN. The short of it was that he saw an vacancy for a Records Manager from Botswana (they UN tries to represent all member countries within its workforce) on their website, sent in the application and the rest is history (said history consists of a couple of examinations and a series of interviews before he was finally hired).

The aim of his trip was to inspire those of us who have become content with doing enough to get by: get the Masters degree and get a job. Majority of us, unless academically inclined, are not really interested in doing anymore than we have to. I don’t know if it is a cultural thing because (at least based on the opinions of visitors from the western world) things here tend to be a bit slower and less inspired, or if it’s a habit fostered by the school systems we have or if it’s just a random personality trait we posses. He challenged us to write articles of publishable quality in our field of study and promised to sponsor any student who produced such an article so that they would be able to present their work at the relevant conferences around the world. He even offered to pay for access to certain journals that are not free, for students who needed them for research. And all this from his own pocket as he was not doing this as a UN employee but as an alumni.

His personal educational background stunned me because I don’t know many people that would have pushed as much as he did. Due to poor results from his High school exams he was not accepted into a degree program like his peers so he applied for a certificate program instead. After completing his certificate, he began his diploma and through a dizzying combination of work and school he managed to put himself through school up to Masters level. And upon completion of his Masters, the UN opportunity presented itself. (It wasn’t dumb luck however, he had the habit of constantly browsing through the UN website which is where he discovered the vacancy) During his presentation he showed us the website, how to navigate it, the UN Twitter page and gave us an insight into how the UN hires people and the types of jobs available. I will not delve into that because this post will then turn into an essay. Towards the end of his presentation he gave us some advice that any recent graduate or student will find important:

1. READ!

It is often said that black people do not like reading. Truthfully, we have no culture of reading. African societies depend on oral communication. Go to any village and you’ll see that the word of an authority figure bears more weight than that of a book. We are not known for our amazing ancient libraries or literary history, that’s what the Romans or Greeks did best. We tell stories through song and dance, and that’s how we traditionally preserved and passed on our knowledge. So reading has always been an adjustment for us. Our government schools do not emphasize it as much as they should (funding issues may play a part in that as well) so generally we are not readers. In the academic world however, reading is everything.  If you do not read, you do not know. He encouraged us to read journals, articles, book, blogs, anything related to our field of study, or you get left behind. Being one that came from our society of non readers, he emphasized that he was once like us: reading just enough to get by. But when he moved to the US after becoming a UN employee he found that there was a strong culture of reading there. He stated that people there read all the time: on the bus, on the train, at the coffee shop etc. and that it’s a habit we need to foster.

2. Learn any international language (Mandarin, French, Portuguese, Spanish, etc)

The world today is often referred to as a global village and to increase your employability in certain parts of this village, it is imperative that you learn some international languages-especially for international organisations such as the UN.

3. Develop a Lifelong learning habit

When he got his job at the UN he did not then relax put up his feet, he continued to take short courses to add to his knowledge and continue making himself an employee worth keeping or promoting. He said every year graduates are being produced by the best Universities/ Colleges in the world and every year his qualifications get a year older. He has to continue learning to stay on par with the younger generation or his knowledge eventually becomes obsolete.

5. Keep up with social media

Various organisations now use social media to communicate with the world. If you want a job at the UN, follow their Twitter pages, Facebook page and blog. You never know what opportunities you may come across.

The main reason I wrote this post was because I was struck by the fact that someone who had come from our situation, our very environment, came back to try and get more of us out of the lull we’re in. How many of us would do that? I’m sure when he tells people where he works they immediately assume he’s some kind of genius, but in actual fact, he’s just determined. He wasn’t the brightest in high school and couldn’t even get accepted into a degree program with his results but now he’s working at the UN. If that isn’t the makings of an African academic Cinderella story, I don’t know what is.


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