Youth Day, celebrated in South Africa annually on 16 June, commemorates the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which students in the Soweto township during the age of Apartheid protested against Afrikaans as the language of instruction in their schools. An estimated 20,000 students took place in the protests, which became violent. Hector Pieterson, a black schoolchild shot by the police, became the icon and manifestation of Apartheid government brutality.
Within SPARK Schools, the network of South African primary schools where I serve as Director of Schools, we celebrate Youth Day with a University Day program. Like many charter school networks in the United States, SPARK prides itself on nurturing a “university culture,” where students begin talking about and considering university and careers of their choice from their primary school days. Our academic program and character development initiatives are nurtured with a long-term view in mind, which is unique in the South African context. Most South African students aim for “matric,” or high school matriculation, and little else. Our University Day program exposes students to the universities their teachers attended and features talks from parents and other community members about their careers. In a country with an official unemployment rate of more than 25% (some estimates are up to 40%!), this sort of focus is sorely needed, especially in underserved communities.
All of this has made me think about the privilege inherent in education in general, in higher education, and in attending William and Mary. The students to whom I taught 2nd and 3rd grade math at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School graduated from 5th grade this week. They are, unfortunately, outliers in their San Jose community, a place where demographics all too often limit opportunities, even in elementary school. But buy-in from their parents and greater community will support them on their trek through high school and into universities.
I believe that the Tribe (current and alumni) have a role to play in extending opportunities for all. I believe that the service attitude developed at the College can have a massive impact wherever alumni may find themselves after graduation. And I believe that all students across the globe deserve an opportunity to attend a place of higher education that is so genuinely devoted to helping its students reveal their own capacities and potentials.