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Ideas & Debate

Characteristics that make the ideal university graduate

Graduands at a past graduation ceremony. Universities have a role to develop  students to become thinkers who can write, speak clearly and are confident. FILE
Graduands at a past graduation ceremony. Universities have a role to develop students to become thinkers who can write, speak clearly and are confident. FILE 

I recently participated in the graduation ceremony of KCA University, where for the last few months I have been chairman of its council.

As council members gathered in the vice chancellor’s office before the event started, conversation turned to examining what makes an ideal graduate of the institution.

A fellow council member emphasised the need for students to develop their ability to think and to write. How true.

As I look back into my distant past as an economics student (I became an undergraduate exactly 50 years ago), I still appreciate the way my professors challenged and stretched me.

Yes, I studied economics and other related subjects, but the serious lasting benefit of my university years was that I became a much more rigorous thinker and a far more fluent speaker and writer, someone who could clearly and convincingly share my thoughts with others.

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How far away this is from environments where students sit passively listening to their lecturers, and later merely regurgitate the product of their rote learning.

The next challenge to the development of our “leaders of tomorrow” is to complement their intellectual development with building their emotional intelligence.

Those particularly studying technical subjects such as IT, engineering or accounting are likely to pay insufficient attention to working on their social skills, to their great regret later in life.

Another of my council colleagues suggested the need for graduates to be at ease socially among more senior people in society.

“Are we talking about the knowing-how-to-use-the-right-fork kind of fitting in?” I asked.

Well, that’s part of it, I was told, but of course it’s much more than that.

So many university students arrive on campus “from the village” having not been exposed to more Western urban environments, and it can be quite bewildering.

Employers too would wish their new young recruits to be socially adept as they mix with senior people, and those from diverse countries and cultures.

Understandably they would rather be saved the effort of running etiquette classes given that they are already obliged to help fresh graduates with English and other more basic skills.

Little wonder that when learning institutions like Nairobi and Lenana schools were built, their designs incorporated golf courses: they were unabashedly preparing their charges to join the elite of society, the establishment.

The British Public School systems focused on breeding proper gentlemen whom one could “take anywhere”, with the motto of one (Winchester) being “Manners maketh man.”

But wait a minute. If universities like KCA are to go in for this kind of development, couldn’t it be accused of being a bunch of snobs?

Those gathered in the room were more than aware we’d have to do better than simply turn out golfers who knew how to handle silver cutlery. So now talk turned to a second, equally vital aspect of producing our ideal graduate.

In addition to being at ease with sophisticated seniors, our young men and women must feel equally at home back in the village (or in the slums).

Bad enough that an increasing number no longer speak their vernacular language or know the slightest thing about their cultural roots. As time goes by they feel more and more awkward on the odd occasion they visit their places of origin.

So we must help them bridge this gap too. We must have them spend time in a village, both in their own area and in some different environment and ethnic group. They must make themselves useful and they must be friendly and humble.

Going back to my own student days, I value the vacation time I spent in various mundane jobs, including as a clerk in a tax office and driving a van for a hospital — those oxygen cylinders I hauled in and out of my vehicle were awfully heavy, I remember. I equally benefitted from my AIESEC internships in France and America.

I worked in a coal mining company and in a cereal factory, getting to know people I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to meet.

As we chatted in the corridors and the canteens I was able to appreciate their hopes and concerns, and I know how helpful this has been in feeling as much at ease with blue-collar workers as with those of more similar backgrounds and outlooks.

Lack of curiosity

In the 1960s when I was going through these experiences, two things struck me about the contrast between my own approach to life and that of many of the workers with whom I interacted.

Whether in Britain or France or America, I was aware of their lack of curiosity to find out more about me; and I noted their expectation that their future would be pretty much the same as their past, toiling away at relatively mundane and unskilled work.

The world has changed greatly since then. But I merely share these reflections on my experiences from those days to confirm what a profound impact they had on me. Soon the time came for us to don our fancy academic robes and parade ourselves in front of the graduating students.

And what a joyous sight it was, to see all those bright young faces, equally robed, proudly being awarded their degrees.

Just one final point though. As they filed past us to shake our hands and have us congratulate them, we noticed that hardly any among them made eye contact with us.

Was it a sign of respect for their elders? Mere self-consciousness? We could only speculate.

But now we added one more element to our list of characteristics of the ideal graduate: in this contemporary world of ours, eye contact is everything, for it speaks of confidence.

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