Aarti Panday
Aarti Panday

Can we be inspired by role models across the race barrier?

The idea that one benefits mainly from having a role model within the same race group is not new. I have encountered this viewpoint in the workplace many times and it is a largely accepted position.

When I matriculated in 1999, it was very early days into our new democracy, with plenty of optimism about the youth achieving far more than previous generations could. One was never short of encouragement from teachers, community leaders and family. We were given the idea that our grandest dreams could become a reality in the new South Africa.

My chosen field, aeronautical engineering, was essentially unheard of in my community. In order to pursue my dream, I had to leave my beloved Pietermaritzburg and all that was familiar and safe to go study at Wits.

I did not know a single aeronautical engineer when I ticked that box on the Wits application form, let alone black or female. Family and community support went a long way in dealing with the unknown. But who, 500km away back at home, could understand why aircraft structures gave me insomnia? There had to have been other ways for me to draw courage so that I could continue my studies.

The Solar Impulse aircraft shortly after taking off from an airport in Payerne, Switzerland, on April 7 2010. (AFP)

The Solar Impulse aircraft shortly after taking off from an airport in Payerne, Switzerland, on April 7 2010. (AFP)

After much contemplation on the matter, I have to admit the following: Without having been intrigued by the likes of Orville and Wilbur Wright, for example, I may not have had all the courage to carry on. The unrelenting, awesome spirit of pioneers within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, was the final component of this support framework I conceived in my mind. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, these sources of inspiration were all individuals of European descent. They were white!

The Wright brothers certainly don’t look like me on the outside. But surely, something in our minds looks the same? Something in their mind and mine were in sync. Some element in their inner make-up is exactly the same as mine. Being driven by this unseen stuff, the Wrights pursued excellence in their field and were able to inspire me positively on a very broad, philosophical level. And here I am.

So, are black role models for black youth a fallacy? Like all human beings, engineers and scientists too have social, emotional and cultural needs. These are distinctly different from more professional or academic needs. In my case, I cannot say that I connect with the social and cultural identity of the Wright’s. Let me, at this stage, grossly simplify the challenge that the youth would encounter when entering the working world into these two categories:

* The challenge of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
* The challenge of integrating into the already established science, technology, engineering and mathematics community, thereby establishing a career path.

In the case of the first challenge, say deriving the complex dynamics of a multi-body system such as an aircraft landing gear — this is no walk in the park. Here it is the science/engineering that is difficult, and a race and/or gender neutral role model may serve as the means to the end for the young individual.

However, the second category is more complex. In my experience to date, I would rate this to be a significant contributing factor to people leaving science, technology, engineering and mathematics to seek other opportunities. A role model would have attributes or aspects that the young individual would identify with and absorb into their own life. Let me choose resilience and perseverance as an example. Both black and white graduates would face difficult situations in their careers. The peculiarity of one’s own social and cultural background plays a role in the rationale to be resilient and to persevere. These may be very different for black and white youth. No doubt both will need to display resilience at some point, perhaps even while facing the exact situation, sitting next to each other in the same office. In this case, from my own experience, I would venture to say that influence through a role model is most effective when there is social, emotional and cultural similarity. This forms a basis for a stronger perceived connection between the role model’s influence and overcoming the challenge that is being worked through.

We recently celebrated Youth Day and remembered the pain of the generation that paid the blood price to fight for the dignity to learn in a meaningful manner. The most significant part for me is learning in a meaningful manner. Are we giving young South Africans a narrow worldview — that inspiration can only come from people who look like you? Who struggled like you? Who were disadvantaged like you? This was not the message filtered to me as a scholar and university student. Role models come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Does this disqualify them from being role models to a different set of shapes, sizes and colours? Can we be inspired by role models across the race barrier? Yes, I say that emphatically. I believe that this will facilitate meaningful learning and will lead to a culture of social cohesion and mutual respect within the diverse spectrum of South African youth.

At the same time our expectations of the youth, and black youth in particular, are quite high. We are the heirs to this beautiful country. The privilege to deepen a South African legacy shall be in our hands. The trend of upward mobility in the new South Africa tends to point to a certain category of role models outside of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics world. As scientists and engineers, we need to be the very best we can be, so that our very best can be offered humbly to the youth who are coming after us. Regardless of their colour. And perhaps they may feel that they can identify with us and choose to honour some among us to serve as inspiration in both their darkest and brightest hours.

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