There are 50 million people in the country of South Africa. Of these 50 million, 79% are Black Africans, 9% are White, 9% are Coloured, and 2.5% are Indian. One million of these individuals are in the South African school system, but only 100,000 (10%) qualify for admission to college. Of this number, less than half graduate from college after five years. This statistic contributes to a significant problem in the country—a 25% unemployment rate.
Since 1994, the South African government and its universities have been concentrating on enrolling Black students. There have been some positive results, yet, as noted above, only half of all undergraduate students graduate within a reasonable time frame. In recent years, the focus has shifted from one of access to one of success.
This past week, I participated in the Salzburg Global Seminars, which have taken place in Salzburg, Austria, since 1947. The seminar’s theme is “Optimizing Talent – Closing Education and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide.” One speaker at the seminar was Zeena Richards, who is the project manager for the Transformation Student Equity Project in South Africa. Her presentation focused on a program at the University of Witwatersrand that is aimed at increasing access for underprivileged students and ensuring their success in college.
The Targeting Talent Program, which supports nearly 275 future college students, has had huge success. More than 73 percent of the students have passed all their classes. According to Richards, the program focuses on growing talent and identifying it in places where few others have looked. In her words, “When we ask the question of who is talented and who is not talented, it says as much about our values as it says us about the person we are labeling.”
Some of the strategies for success used by the Targeting Talent Program include a flexible curriculum, which focuses on strengthening students’ pre-existing capabilities rather than imposing tradition notions of capabilities on students. The program also capitalizes on indigenous knowledge, which fosters social belonging among students.
In addition, the program includes foundational courses that are directly related to student needs. Lastly, Targeting Talent integrates African languages as a medium of instruction. In effect, the program engages the talents and skills that students already possess and uses these to increase retention and move students forward in the learning process.
Although the demographics in the United States are vastly different than those in South Africa, there are important lessons to be learned from the approach used by Richards at the Targeting Talent Program. Assuming talent on the part of minority students and engaging them in ways that complement their experiences rather than detract from them is advantageous to learning. Research shows that a combination of positive role models (with many of these being same race), a positive belief in potential, and academic support services are key to success among students of color.