I think this is one of the most common questions among the world’s youth. Graduation, from high school or university, is one of those moments when we are faced with making decisions about where our life should go or what we should do from that moment onward. In fact, those decisions are a fundamental part of how our societies and economies work, but in general we don’t pay much attention to their importance for development. I bet even you haven’t really thought about it!
When a youth decides to study a specific degree not because he or she likes it but because professionals from that particular area get paid better salaries or because his or her parents think that area is better than anything else, that youth is less likely to finish his or her degree, find a good job, start companies or make a difference really! Also, the moment of graduation from university brings a lot of uncertainty and anxiety because it’s not easy to find a good job in economies where salaries are very low and unemployment is high. Usually young professionals choose a job more out of desperation than because it’s what they like and, once they have a job, the adaptation process is long and not necessarily pleasant.
In the third trip I did as part of my consulting job I got to see how some universities in the Caribbean region of Colombia are integrating these life decisions into the education process with three specific goals: 1) to increase the likelihood of students finishing their degrees, 2) to improve their graduates’ access to better life opportunities, and 3) to increase the impact of their undergraduate degrees on society. It was great to witness the change process in which Colombian universities are seeing how these initiatives work on the ground. I decided to present the first and the last university I visited during the mentioned trip as examples of this work.
The first city I went to was Sincelejo, the capital city of the departamento of Sucre. The university I visited is undertaking a project that involves helping first semester students figure out how their higher education studies fit into their life plan (or proyecto de vida in Spanish as you can see in the picture I took that day). Research has demonstrated that working on this diminishes the probability of students dropping out of school, because they would know and understand why they are studying instead of just following what their parents want or what society thinks is good for them. The day of my visit students were showcasing their life projects at a fair organized on the university’s campus.
The last university I visited is in Valledupar, the capital city of the departamento of Cesar. Its project involves finding out what the region’s business people think about the university’s graduates. The partial results that the university’s project team presented to us were really interesting: business people say that soft skills like teamwork are more important to them than general hard skills (pdf), the ones on which usually universities focus. The importance of these findings is that the university plans to apply them in their auto evaluation processes, to improve their education programs and hence help the students who are about to graduate have a better chance of getting the job that they want.
It’s amazing to think how development is really the sum of all our lives’ experiences and choices. By improving specific lives, like the ones of students who are benefiting from these programs, better quality of life and development can be achieved at a macro level in our countries.