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5 Ways to Help African Students Pursue their Passion

Sara Idohou | September 2, 2015

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
– Nelson Mandela

Passion is the excitement we feel in doing something. I found mine via the organization I founded in 2012, Young Leaders Corporation (YLC).

From grade school through university in Benin, I felt that at every opportunity, my parents enrolled me in programs that put me on the path to becoming what they wanted me to be—a doctor or lawyer—without asking, or helping me to determine, what I wanted for myself. This prompted me to establish an organization to help young people discover their talents and passions at an early age, and eventually find a career where those talents and passions intersect.

In schools and homes across Africa, where students are not always encouraged to pursue their passions, an innovative education program can make all the difference. At YLC, we help youth discover their passions and learn about leadership, entrepreneurship, and mentorship through an innovative curriculum. Our results so far reflect a clear difference between young people who have participated in our programs and those who have not.

Based on my personal experience and as founder of YLC, I’ve identified five key elements that should be part of any education model in order to help students pursue their real passions through education and, in doing so, fully maximize their contributions.

1. Offer extracurricular activities:

In many African countries, school systems, parents, and even students themselves fail to value the importance of extracurricular activities such as art, writing, music, drama, and sports. Such activities boost student self-esteem, providing space for them to discover new abilities.

As a Mandela Washington Fellow, I recently visited the Science Center at Arizona State University, where I witnessed children learning about science through hands-on activities where they were encouraged to pursue their curiosity and ask questions. Such learning opportunities could have huge relevance to African students, especially if expanded beyond science to include art, music, literature, farming, and more.

2. Help students identify their passions:

Students often need help discovering their passions. While extracurricular activities are a great start, teachers and families must be watchful to make sure that students have the confidence and opportunities to exercise their curiosity and pursue their deeply-held interests. Students should be given personal guidance on how to further develop their passions and practice them in concrete ways. That could mean introducing them to a school gardener if they are interested in farming, or providing them with books to learn more about a favorite subject.

3. Instill entrepreneurial mindsets:

Community leadership, entrepreneurship, and even public speaking should be taught as early as primary school to equip students to think differently about non-traditional, passion-driven career paths. These topics would help students adopt a spirit of volunteerism early on, learn how to use their ideas for social and economic benefit, and communicate powerfully. These tools are important for personal and professional growth and unfortunately, they are not yet part of the curriculum in most African schools.

After earning my bachelor’s degree, I realized I was lacking these skills. I took additional courses in entrepreneurship, leadership, and public speaking, which helped me become who I am today. Looking back, if I had the opportunity to learn these skills in primary or secondary school, I would have had more confidence in pursuing my own vision of success.

4. Teach multiple languages:

In order to promote knowledge exchange and help students take full advantage of international opportunities, we should be teaching 2-3 international languages. This model could include language-focused reading clubs, discussions, and movie sessions, where students can improve their language skills and become bi- or trilingual.

My ability to learn and become proficient in English, even though I come from a francophone country, is one reason I was selected for the YALI program. Regardless of my leadership skills, I would have lost this opportunity if I was unable to express myself fluently and write in English. Being bilingual is helping me to pursue my passion and access more opportunities for development.

5. Provide mentoring:

In some African communities it is far-fetched to pursue a passion and students may feel lonely doing it on their own. Mentoring is the best way to help an African student to pursue what he or she is inspired to do, whether by friends, family members, role models, or even teachers.

For me, having mentors has meant being surrounded by the right people who are beside me at every step of my journey and who have supported my career and character development. My mentors have always been my first support, often before I call on my own parents. They always remind me they believe in me, sometimes much more than I believe in myself. They listen to me, give me advice, tell me the truth, and keep me motivated to move forward. I believe all students should have this kind of support, especially as they pursue passions that may be dismissed by others.

I strongly believe that combining one’s passions, skills, and talents is a key factor for success and happiness in life. In the next five years, it is my goal to create an innovative institute which will integrate the five elements above as a model to shape education in Africa. I am open to building consistent partnerships for the realization of this project—if interested, please email me.  

Sara Idohou is a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow (YALI) currently completing her Professional Development Experience at the International Youth Foundation (IYF).

Want to hear more from Sara? Join her Twitter chat on Thursday, September 10th at 10am EDT. Sara (@SaraIdohou) will host a conversation on gender equality in education titled Girls’ Education Starts with Boys’ Education. Join in using #Boys4GirlsEd.