African Parents and Career Choices

May 1, 2012 1:23 pm

Every now and then, I spend some time browsing the net for things to take my mind off school work, and provide an avenue for humor. Sometimes, this sees me going through memes. I mean, who doesn’t like to see some common conceptions of society being ridiculed or trivialized. Today, I saw two which piqued my interest in the sense that it resonated with something I have thought about of late: African parents.
One of them said “African Parents urge you to follow your dreams: Of becoming a Lawyer, Doctor, Engineer, Accountant or Politician”. The other said “You can be anything you want. Anything= Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer, Politician or Professor” Upon seeing this, I allowed myself a grin.
Throughout my secondary school education I always said I wanted to be a lawyer and/or politician. (Right from Year 7, I couldn’t wait to get into Year 10 where I would finally be able to study Government) and have some understanding of the institutions of Government. I remember in 1999, when Nigeria was transitioning to a democratic government for the first time in my lifetime, I had taken interest in reading the newspapers and would happily sit in on my father and his friends’ arguments, gaining knowledge whilst chipping in when I felt expressing my opinion was important.  I was happy to spend hours debating over some proposed legislation or reading on my political heroes.

Upon moving to England, I started to have second thoughts over studying Law. I wanted to go to a great university and it dawned on me that getting a place to study Law would be more difficult than say Sociology or Politics. I would need an A* or two. Not to mention the fact that the school I was passionate about going to only offered 6% of applicants’ places. I like to see myself as more of a realist than pessimist and thought I would be better off going for a less competitive course. The next hurdle would be running it round my parents. I had it planned in my head. On Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, I would tell them my plan and seek their approval. It made perfect sense to me to exploit the festive period as I saw it as a guarantee that they would be in good spirits. On Christmas Eve, whilst on our way home from some event, I told them “I’m not sure I want to study Law again. I think I’d rather do Sociology or Politics”. My mother said out rightly “Socio kini? What job can you get with that? Please no, it’s not possible”. My father, ever the voice of reason and wisdom, said “At the end of the day, you can study what you want. As your parents, our job is to guide you and I’m of the opinion that you are better off with a defined career line”. After some reflection I opted to continue with Law, not out of compulsion, but persuasion.
A couple of months later, I was reflecting on what had happened with my older cousin. He pointed out to me “There are some double standards going on with our parents. I had the same thing when I wanted to study Politics and they were pushing me to do Law. I ended up studying the Law and then it dawned on me that my Dad’s first degree was in French. Your Dad, wasn’t his first degree in History? You see. It’s so crazy. They can be so rigid.”
I know an experience like this isn’t limited to me.  Amongst African parents, there’s an air of apathy towards ‘untraditional’ areas of study.  To a lot of them, if one isn’t studying Engineering, Law, Economics, Accounting or Medicine then you’re pretty much wasting your time in education. It seems the degrees mentioned are the benchmark for success and the biggest indicator of where one’s prospects and ambitions lie. Occupation is a defining factor in many ways. In social terms, it’s the key factor in the stratification of society. A lot hinges on one’s occupation. When you meet parents of acquaintances and friends, it’s not uncommon to be met by a “What’s your name?” If the surname doesn’t stick out, next is “Who’s your father? What does he do?” A sensible response would earn some leeway.

During a period of my life where I struggled academically, my mother never hesitated to remind me “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. If you’re doing well, everyone would claim you as their friend left, right and centre. If you fail, no one would want to be your friend.” We all want to be closely associated with successful people and brands. Which mother doesn’t want to boast to her friends “My son just graduated from Princeton with first class honours. He’s been offered a job with KPMG already”.  It’s natural that some people would share in the joy whilst some would be overcome with envy. Some of them would begin to ask “Ah! Does he have a girlfriend?” whilst plotting a hook up with their slightly younger daughter or niece. It is probably felt by our parents that those traditional occupations provide the safest routes to the lives of self-sustainability and comfort that we all seek to achieve for ourselves and the ones we love. As parents, they owe us a duty of care and it can be argued that being more experienced, they have a better idea of what could possibly work out for us and this is what influences what we might view as instances of them being overbearing.  To their credit, some of them are willing to reach a compromise where the first degree takes the traditional route to please them after which one could then take up their preferred choice at Masters Level.
Then again, all this is understandable to an extent. After all, who’s the person paying the school fees? Education is the most significant investment parents make in our lives. It’s not irrational for them to insist things are done on their terms. It’s not like you would invest in the stocks of a company you didn’t think would bear any return?
However, it’s also important that some of our parents step out of the bubble in which they live. There needs to be a more open minded approach towards less traditional choices. I know someone who was driven towards studying Mathematics. Upon mentioning, she was constantly met by “Maths? What can you do with that besides Teaching?” Another who’s presently studying Fashion Design said “It’s such a struggle getting Nigerian adults to understand that my doing Fashion Design entails way more than sewing native. They can be so narrow-minded”.

Narrow-mindedness is intolerable. We really need to stop victimizing people for not conforming to our idea of what is normal. Moreover these days, less emphasis is placed on what one studies. The class of the degree is most important. At an Insight Day, I was met by a couple of lawyers whose degrees were in courses like Economics, History, French and Politics (They did have to take conversion courses in order to practice Law).  Banks and Accounting firms aren’t limited to taking people with degrees in Economics or Accounting, although you do need to know more than simple conversions, which, in fact, can be found online at Unit Chefs. As long as you get a 2’1, you’re good to go. You’ll be subjected to training programs to suit their needs anyway. People shouldn’t feel compelled to take courses they don’t want to, because they’re trying to please their parents. Personal satisfaction is essential and is something that shouldn’t be compromised. Even in cases where hindsight might prove one has made the wrong choice, calm should be kept and it should be remembered that it is very likely that there would still be some path into the preferred field.
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