They were all frowning with concentration, at their desks, writing notes and drawing their poster. The team of young men and women were invited to present a time of strength in their life and to describe in detail what they felt particularly proud of. Their quiet concentration gave me a chance to look at everyone. To try and read the faces half hidden by the masks. One young man’s expression showed maturity beyond his years, some lines maybe a mark of hardship. He was the one to jump up, keen to be our first presenter. He could not wait to share his story.
He had grown up with two siblings in a happy family. ‘Our life was good,’ he said, ‘Until both our parents passed away…’ There, his poster shows the three child figures surrounded by wild animals. ‘We felt we were in the jungle, with dangerous animals around us,’ he continued. But he had found in himself the strength to take charge: ‘We decided to be happy again. That is why I draw us sitting together here, each wearing a crown. Like in the Lion King, we are the kings of the jungle!’ He turned to us, flashing the widest smile that lit up his whole being.
His peers gave him a spontaneous round of applause for sharing something so touching: this young man, as a child, already manifested the leader in him. His empowering example set the tone for our career strategy workshop. Each one stepped forward with their own riveting story.
Sometimes it seems that, after so many years of working with disadvantaged communities, I‘ve heard it all. But not so! There are ever new testimonials of resilience and youthful heroism. This dynamic group showed such hunger to further themselves in life. They impressed me with their confident, well-spoken presentations. They all showed glowing appreciation for the transformation the ‘iGems programme’ was creating into their life.
I had met an equally engaged group the year before Covid. I knew that i G E M S stands for Incubating Great Engineering Minds. That it is a programme under the Unity in Africa Foundation.
Now, upon hearing that the 1st 7- year iGems programme had come full circle, I visited the initiator of the project, Berenice Rose. ‘Indeed,’she explained, ‘the graduates who were snapped up by industry in their internship a few years ago, will be eligible for full time employment at the end of 2021!’
I asked her to please explain her method behind this success. She pointed to the programme’s diagram and walked me through its stages. Have a look at the intensive and dedicated work that is needed to make these 7 years yield ‘gems’:
In essence iGems is an education-to-employment trajectory. Its two key objectives are to increase the number of technical and engineering graduates from disadvantaged communities – here in Nelson Mandela Bay – and then to place them in permanent employment.
Against the brutal facts this niche programme is critical: over half of the young people in SA are unemployed. Plus the country faces a serious skills shortage –- specifically technically trained professionals are hard to find.
Engineering studies are tough: large numbers of students drop out. The 4th year of training is only reached by 10% of those who originally started. Something is lacking in the preparedness for such demanding studies. In the list of 148 countries, the World Economic Forum ranked the teaching standards of mathematics and science at SA government schools last… Girls and boys from disadvantaged communities depend on these schools. How much of a chance do they have to ever graduate as professionals? Keep in mind that many children live in homes without basic infrastructure and often no meals on the table.
Against such odds, the success of iGems is remarkable. I asked Berenice: ‘How do you do it?
‘Everything started with a vision…’ she said. ‘I felt very strongly about this programme and approached our local industry with my proposal. The companies were interested and brought the start-up capital to the table. Fundraising remains my ongoing concern, but all of us, staff and volunteers, are enthusiastic. We are committed to educating our students holistically. It is not only about bridging their knowledge gap in maths and science – we look into their personal development and material wellbeing. Every year, we start afresh, finding the next group of potential candidates. Our ‘roadshow’ visits 40 to 50 schools in Mandela Bay and the selection process begins. Every year 200 boys and girls filter through. Psychometric tests and practical workshops follow. Then with the candidates who show aptitude and motivation, I have a 1-1 conversation. This is crucial in our decision about which 25 out of 50 will come on board.’
She describes these threshold moments of gaining insight into a young person’s motivation to succeed. The full 7-year cycle both encourages all participants and holds them accountable. Through sharing the journey, the teams experience a sense of belonging to their own special family. A family that can give them a future.
When thinking about what strikes me most in my iGems workshop encounters, it is a sense that the candidates are driven by something beyond the hunger for material success… By a desire that comes from the heart.
It is difficult to define ‘desire’. It is the deepest moving force that sets our course toward our cherished goals and sustains us to persevere.
My afternoon with Berenice and her staff made it clear that they, as responsible guides and mentors, are also driven by precisely that. They set the living example that inspires their future gems to sparkle.
Learn more about the iGEMS programme here.