I am going to interrupt the relating back of my vacation experiences to write a blurb on an event tonight on campus. The event was a Careers Evening, put on by the South African Institute of International Affairs. The format was pretty standard: come in, grab some brochures and talk to some organizations, and listen to a presentation from 4 present practitioners in the general field of international affairs, followed by a q & a session. In this case there were 2 presenters from government, both civil and foreign service, 1 presenter from the private sector and 1 presenter in media who is a director and broadcaster on one of the news channels here.
Some of the presentation was very similar to what I’ve encountered back home. Build up your skill set, with important skills being writing, networking, adaptability, communication, research, etc. Understand that your career path may take many different turns as it’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer, where you pretty much know what job you’re going to be doing for your entire career. Yes, I’ve heard this all before.
What was more striking to me were issues that were more specifically African, as well as some of the attitudes that were presented. As an outsider it gave me incredible insight into what people like me are facing here, and the ways in which they approach career building and job searches. Africa, and here specifically South Africa, are different from America in that the economies, government and countries are still relatively new compared to the rest of the world. There are amazing opportunities for young people as the economy and different sectors are expanding. Especially skilled labor has a unique opportunity to grow quickly within a career in a way that isn’t as easily achievable in America. At the same time, entrepreneurial activity is skyrocketing on the continent. Uganda has the highest percentage of new entrepreneurs this year in the world, and South Africa is fourth on that list, according to one of the presenters. Entrepreneurs are something that can easily be associated with American business, but Africans are making it into their own beyond just business into things like social entrepreneurial efforts.
Yet everybody in the room had the same concerns that we all do. How do I get a job? What do I do if I don’t get a job? How can I help a career to grow and adapt while still doing my best work? The most humbling experience for me was the presenters looking at this group of students and telling them to lose their sense of entitlement. They made it quite clear that you’re going to have to start from the bottom, copying briefs and making copies in order to move forward. And if you’re not able to immediately get a job in the arena that you want, maybe you have to go flip burgers or shovel fish (the presenter’s words, not mine, haha) until you do get an opportunity to use your education. Whoa. They are addressing a room of South African students, many of whom have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have been able to acquire an education for themselves. Many of them will be supporting their families with whatever job they manage to get, and in an economy where unemployment is at least 30%. And yet, they are being told to understand where they are in their life and be willing to build from the bottom.
I wish more Americans had been there for this seminar. I know that sometimes I fall into a trap of entitlement, and I’m sure that my colleagues at GW, who mind you are very well educated and experienced but often still young, feel the same way. And yet our unemployment isn’t even half of South Africa’s, the opportunities available to us are considerably more diverse and better paying, and even the crappy jobs aren’t actually that crappy. I was grateful for the reality check that I received, and once again am reminded that it takes hard work, humility and a little bit of luck here and there to get where you want to go. I’m fortunate to be where I am, receiving an education, studying in a foreign country and learning from the diverse group of people around me. I hope that I can bring a little bit of that back home to spread around.