Friday 8 May 2015

Late to college

In Ireland, as I suspect elsewhere, people generally go to college immediately after leaving school.  Some will take a gap year and do some travel with or without some worthy project: building huts for Cambodian villagers or teaching English to small black children. I don't think any of the students I've talked to over the last 2.5 years have taken a gap year: it's a bit of an indulgence and often funded by the Mater and Pater or engineered by them so that their Justin[e] looks stronger on the ould CV. Our students at The Institute don't seem to be able to afford a gap year, they are in a hurry to get some paper quals so that they can get a job to support themselves.  I've met plenty of students, however, who have taken a gap decade. Seduced by the Celtic Tiger, three of the best of last year's graduates left college in the middle of 1st year in about 2001 and went to become a) plumber b) steel-erector c) soldier.  They are all now doing MSc degrees, two of them partly because I yanked the chains of my network for them.  I did that because they were good copy, their experience under sinks and atop barns and reading books gave them something to talk about.  They brought something to the table.

In return for an Institute luncheon voucher, I spent yesterday volunteering to interview mature students.  What I'll do for a free lunch!  I won't say it was 'fun' but it was a morning well spent.  To qualify as 'mature' in Ireland you need to be just 23 and the second chap who presented was just that.  His transcript showed that he'd clocked an 'E' in Leaving Certificate Maths and LC Chemistry in 2010 and again in 2011. That did not bode well: if you can't do elementary maths, there are far too many science assignments you cannot complete and it's danged hard to pick it up late, ditto chemistry or physics.  Biology, as she is taught, is a bit different and I've seen several students mobilise a sense of wonder at the living world to get through Bio 101.  Now this chap had been doing an Open University course in developmental psychology for the last year and professed to be engaged and raring to get back to an academic life but his reason 'having structure would make it easier to learn' spoke of a backward step to school rather than a leap to the self-discipline that success in college requires.  I'd do a lot for an OU graduate but not-so-much for a chap who had taken one course; so he didn't get our appro for admission.  Sorry.

The next lad was a decade older.  He'd left school at 15, more or less forced out into the working world by a family that had never sent anyone to college.  He was sent to England to work as a scaffolder with an uncle in the building trade, hated that and drifted back to Ireland, eventually to become an expert spray-painter.  His ambition was to set himself up in a job that would structure his life so that his kids weren't sent out to work at 15 (16 is now the minimum age for leaving school).  That's a worthy aim, but his transcript and his ambition didn't qualify him for the grind of the first year mill.  Not only maths, but physics, chemistry, biology and lab science would all require huge efforts of intellect and self-discipline and we've seen too many dropping out in the middle of that year.  My colleague and I advised him to go back two years and take his Leaving Certificate, if he could manage that then he'd be ready for us.  If he couldn't, and I was strong on this, then he had a skill, he had a good pair of hands, which was something that I didn't have.

The first woman we interviewed, however, was a different kettle of fish.  She was from Lithuania, she'd worked in child-care and a variety of other jobs, she had three children herself and was all shiney-eyed at the idea of doing science, preferably analytical science, in a laboratory.  Her Lithuanian school transcript was weak on science, but she had taken a Cambridge Aptitude Test (whatever that is) and scored 95th percentile on maths.  She'd been working while pregnant with the last child, now 2 years old and she had sussed some scheme for child-minding. She knew where she was going, it was gimlet focused and she was going to walk on our backs to get where she wanted to go.  You cannot stop an elemental force, so we gave her 100. We also gave 100 to a 40 y.o Welsh baker, plumber, swimming instructor and candlestick-maker, who had spent the last year doing a post-leaving cert PLC course in one of the VECs [Vocational Education Committee] in the Sunny South East. He seemed to know how the system worked and was working his way through it to a definite goal; hard to stand in his way, easier just to open the door.

I'd like to think that our informed opinions, both pro and con, carried weight with the bean-counters and pen-pushers in the Registrar's office but in a break between interviews my colleague said she hadn't done this voluntariat task for several years because she'd felt that her assessment wasn't being listened to. She'd spend 20 minutes getting to know some chap, read his transcript, listen to his tale of woe, hear his plans and aspirations and known that he wouldn't cut the mustard . . . and then met him again the following September taking up a disproportionate amount of her time in Chemistry class  . . . and flunking out in November.  Sigh!

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