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19 February 2021 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Sonia Small
Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS.

The matrics of 2020 certainly had their share of hardships, hurdles and challenges. But sometimes the very thing that tries and challenges you, also equips you for a specific role, writes Prof Francis Petersen in this open letter to the Class of 2020.

Dear Matriculants 2020

Unusual. That is a word often used when describing the journey of your matric year. A year that is normally filled with colourful ceremonies, rituals, traditions, and milestones that you have probably been looking forward to your entire school career. And which no doubt turned out to be quite different from how you envisaged it.  

President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged this when he wished you well last year just before the examination: 
“The class of 2020 has had to endure conditions their predecessors never had to confront. They had to adapt in real time not just to finish the curriculum, but to catch up with the learning hours lost,” he said.

Add to this the stress that uncertainty brings, the trauma of dealing with loved ones getting sick or dying, the isolation from friends and often pressurised domestic circumstances, and you have a year that, instead of cherishing, you probably want to forget as soon as possible.

Born in 2002

Most of you were born in 2002. It was a comparatively stable time on the national and international historical timelines, with no major wars or significant global turmoil recorded.

Thabo Mbeki was still president. And in the United States, George W. Bush had taken over the reins from Bill Clinton. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry had just become the first black actors to scoop the Oscar Awards.
On the global health front, AIDS was probably the most pressing concern, with the South African government finally announcing an anti-retroviral roll-out plan in August 2002.
Fast forward from 2002 to 2020, and the reshuffling of twos and zeros has brought with it unprecedented and dramatic change. 

Most of you have probably watched with your families as President Ramaphosa gave that first televised address on 23 March 2020. You heard him utter (what was then) unusual words and phrases such as ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’, and ‘curfew’.  Words that quickly became part of the everyday lexicon for all of us, and that defined the matric year for all of you.              
That year is now behind you

But the challenges have probably just begun.

The challenge is on

The World Economic Forum (WEF) released a special report on the road to economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. This is how WEF founder and executive chairperson Klaus Schwab summarises the challenges that now face us:
“The crisis has also further accelerated the effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) on trade, skills, digitisation, competition and employment, and highlighted the disconnect between our economic systems and societal resilience. In this moment, it is crucial to not only reflect on how best to return to growth, but also, how to build back better economies that improve outcomes for people and the planet.” 

As our future leaders on the political, business, health, educational, agricultural, and environmental fronts, you certainly have your work cut out for you. 

Skills needed in future world of work

So, what is it that you will need for these daunting challenges? Take a look at what the WEF forecasts to be the top 10 skills that will be needed in 2025 for the job market – which will be round about the time many of you will be entering the job market, hopefully with one or two tertiary qualifications under your belt: (1) analytical thinking and innovation; (2) active learning and learning strategies; (3) complex problem-solving; (4) critical thinking and analysis; (5) resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility; (6) creativity, originality, and initiative; (7) leadership and social influence; (8) reasoning, problem-solving, and ideation; (9) emotional intelligence; and (10) technology design and programming.
Quite a mouthful, but you could be closer to ticking them off than you may think. 

How your experiences in 2020 equipped you for the challenge

If you think about it, much of what you have experienced during 2020 has actually worked actively towards achieving many of these skills. 

You most certainly had to adopt new learning strategies. You were forced to do problem-solving – often all on your own, without teachers and tech-savvy parents to guide you.

And as you had to cope with the stress of a constantly changing environment, you certainly learned to be resilient and flexible, learning new ways of dealing with prevailing academic challenges.

The long hours spent alone, isolated from friends, have certainly been tough. But it has in all likelihood forced you to mature a bit quicker, to delve into your own inner resources where you may have discovered an emotional intelligence and strength that you never realised you had. 

And by embracing technology and applying it in new, creative, and innovative ways in the learning environment, you have prepared yourself for a future where this will become an almost daily requirement. 

Changes in tertiary education

In the process, you have also prepared yourself for a new tertiary education landscape that has been irrevocably changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here at Kovsies, for instance, we have opted to continue with an online/blended learning and teaching approach during the first semester of 2021 for first-year and senior students. This means that certain classes will be online, some in contact or face-to-face mode, and others a combination of contact and online – an approach endorsed by the Council on Higher Education. 

We have also concluded that a laptop is no longer a useful learning device but an essential one, and we have put measures in place to ensure that all our students have access to one.

There has been a global shift towards integrating technology in learning and teaching, and like other tertiary institutions, the UFS has embraced it.

Sense of solidarity

A COVID-19 consequence of particular importance for us here in South Africa, is how hardship often breeds a sense of unity. It is this kind of unity that outdated – and now banned – initiation rituals at schools and hostels in the past attempted to superficially achieve by subjecting newcomers to orchestrated and often harmful ‘hardships’. 
Your hardship has been real. And so are the bonds formed through this shared experience.

Where our past has been marked by difference, division, and diverse, seemingly incompatible experiences, we now have a significant shared experience – difficult as it may be. When you arrive at one of our tertiary education campuses this year, you can look at any of your fellow first-years and know that no matter what town, city, school, culture or background they are from, you have something remarkable in common: you have just lived through Matric 2020, and emerged the stronger for it.

That kind of solidarity can make your year group a force to be reckoned with.

Embracing technology

One of the most important aspects that students and learners had to embrace during 2020 was the use of technology to enable them to study. The default has always been a face-to-face classroom setup. All of a sudden you had to adapt to not going to school and participating in activities at school, online classes, remote contact with your teachers and friends, and optimally making use of technology to study. 

The future is yours

You, Matrics of 2020, have become pioneers of a new learning environment, characterised by rapid and irrevocable technological change.  

But take heart in knowing that your difficult matric year journey has equipped you with skills that can form a vital platform from which to negotiate the storms and challenges of the world of work that no doubt still lies ahead. 
Your 2020 experience can in the end be extremely useful and valuable.

Because in unusual times, the usual skills, experience, and attitude is simply not going to be sufficient. We need the unusual. And the extra-ordinary.

We need you. 

Prof Petersen is a firm believer in the resilience, resourcefulness, and adaptability of the youth of South Africa.

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