When a child is learning how to walk they could be supported by an adult’s hands. When the child gets more stable on their feet the adult’s hands can be withdrawn. But if the child misses a step and starts to stumble, the adult’s hand is usually there to get them back to balance.  Like a child, a learner is learning a new skill. On one hand, most universities offer support in the form of availing teachers and resources to the learner. However, more often than not, the second hand is usually missing; the hand of mentorship. As Professor Wainaina indicated in his blog post, ‘our youth are forced to grow without role models, mentors and benefactors.’

Perhaps it is common knowledge that a good education goes over and above good grades. Indeed, the product of a good education is not a Doctor, but a Doctor who is compassionate to the patient. The product of a good education is not a Poet, but a Poet who feels and believes in the lyrics they write. The product of a good education is not a Teacher, but a Teacher who lives the true calling of teaching. The product of a good education is not a Scientist, but a Scientist who truly understands the problem that needs a new invention. Hence, it is not enough to just graduate students who toss their graduation hats in the air and listen to yet another speech. Once the hats come down and reality sinks in, it is our hope that the students have been molded to all-rounded contributors of the society in whatever their calling might be.

Every year when KCPE and KCSE results are announced we are bombarded with pictures and media interviews of jubilating teachers and students. When the students are asked what they would like to be when they ‘grow up’, we could almost predict the answer with at least 95% certainty. Anyone would be excused to think that the only careers that ‘grown ups’ should pursue are Doctor, Engineer, and Pilot. Be that as it may, it might be excusable for students not to aspire to be teachers, what with the reality of low pay and more strikes a year than a clock strikes midnight in 48 hours. I wonder, have we as a society perhaps contributed to the image that certain careers are not ‘grown up’ enough?

I recently conducted a survey among 30 students to find out if they have been involved in any mentorship program while at university. 85% of the students indicated that they had not been involved in any mentorship program. While this is a small sample and may not be a correct indication of the general student population, it gives an indication that there is a gap that needs to be addressed. Further, I asked the students what they would expect from a University-based mentorship program. The expectations included: to gain exposure outside the classroom; to learn soft skills; to gain information and knowledge about scholarships and grants; and peer-to-peer support. Such reasons motivated the start of a mentorship program that I run.

Learners are extremely self-aware and observant that they would know when a teacher does not care beyond the classroom door. Learners can tell the difference between a teacher who is there to pass the time and one who is there to give them his or her time. Learners can tell the difference between a teacher who does not know the content of the course and one who took the time to prepare and master the course. Importantly, learners crave for a nudge and that extra push towards the right direction. If experience has taught me anything, it is that most learners respond to teachers who care. And once learners care, it becomes the golden opportunity to nudge them towards the right direction.

Having said these, it is difficult for institutions to provide mentors to their learners if the people they hire do not really want to be there in the first place. Indeed, there are many things that one can fake till they make it, but genuine mentorship is not one of those things. This is because a mentor is not only someone who cares enough to spend time listening to a learner beyond the classroom, but also one who exemplifies the gospel that they preach. A mentor is not just yet another teacher with an advanced degree, but one who is able to challenge a learner to pursue and reach their potential. A mentor is one who can and has gone out of their way to look for opportunities and to guide the learner to pursue opportunities of their interest. A mentor is one who can correct a learner with as much firmness as with care. A mentor is one whose path a learner can aspire to follow because the mentor spends the time to continually learn, gain and improve themselves. It is difficult for a child to learn how to walk if the adult holding their hand is also not walking.

While it might be noble and opportunity-driven to build and start institutions, mentorship is always an after-thought. While it is correct for Universities to hire only those with postgraduate degrees, the ability and experience to mentor is never a requirement. While it is expense-driven to expect monetary compensation for the extra hours spent on a learner or two, you cannot put a price on the life-long impact one can have on a learner who was shown and embraced the right path. While it meets a business model to graduate learners after every four years , the graduate will be more indispensable if they bring more than an ‘A’ to the table of employment. While it might be enough to produce a graduate who can recite the value of pi to twenty decimal places, it might be better if said graduate has also learned logic and comprehension as life-skills.

Surely, it would be a shame if our children had to learn to walk by only holding onto tables and chairs with no adults around to offer a loving hand. Worse, it is such a shame that an adult who supposedly spent four years at a learning institution ryts emails lyk dis that bgin with ‘hae’.