How we are building networks outside school

Networking is one of the most powerful career-building tools. It is also, perhaps, the most underrated activity that is often overlooked by students who leave school with little or no meaningful contacts.
Universities provide a rich environment for students to grow outside the classroom experience. Those who grab the opportunities create valuable networks that give them an edge over the rest when they graduate from university.

Unfortunately, many people wait until after graduation to hit the road, armed with their papers, in search of a job. Research has shown that most of these graduates are usually ill-prepared for the job market.

Prof Miriam Were who taught at the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Health Sciences says students do not get the required skills to face the tough environment outside school. She was speaking during The Standard PLC Transform Kenya Initiative that focused on issues affecting university education a few months ago.

“Sometimes I feel very sorry for them because they look so frightened, so disempowered and it baffles me that the four years were not enough to empower them,” said Prof Were.

Hashtag spoke to students who are participating in self-development forums locally and abroad.

Global movement that links students to volunteer opportunities

Getting a volunteer position in top organisations has never been a walk in the park. To some, it is as difficult as getting a job. However, this is a challenge Faith Mercy Wambui, a fourth-year psychology student at Kenyatta University (KU) never faced.

The 22-year-old, who has been a member of International Association of Students in Economics and Management (AIESEC) for years, used the platform to secure a volunteer position at a humanitarian facility in Uganda.

For decades, AISEC has provided a platform for youth aged between 18 and 30 years to gain volunteer experience in other countries besides providing them with leadership skills and cross-cultural internships. Started in Kenya in Kenya in 1970 at the University of Nairobi, the organisation has attracted membership of university students from 13 public and private universities.

Wambui, who is the AIESEC KU Chapter president, says membership in the organisation has given her an edge.

“My life outside university is healthy from the many opportunities that AIESEC has provided. I was recently offered a position at Amref Health Africa because of my volunteer experience in Uganda,” says Wambui.

She says her list of networks grew from organising two major AIESEC conferences at UoN and a national meeting Mt Kenya Leisure Lodge in Naivasha. Not many students know about opportunities to grow outside classroom experience, says Wambui.

“Not many students know about AIESEC or any other beneficial platforms that the university set-up provides outside their lecture halls. No one tells them about them. So they only focus on books while in school,” says Wambui.

Student movement shaping young diplomats

For the past 19 years, university students from at least 20 universities in Kenya have been converging at the United Nations headquarters in Gigiri every February for mock diplomatic talks and debates on global and local issues.

Alpha Gitonga, a fourth-year political Science student at UoN has been organising these events for the past two years.

Gitonga is the secretary general of Kenya Model United Nations (KMUN), an organisation that allows university students to fashion intellectual debates in line with the work of the United Nations.

Delegates are usually students armed with knowledge on vast topics, regardless of their courses in university. This way, they are able to represent a country’s position in the mock debates. Gitonga says the aim of Kenya Model United Nations is to inspire a culture of virtuous leadership among the youth and to drive social transformation.

He says it is the best self-development platform for students looking to work at the UN, in embassies across the world and in diplomatic offices.

“Students in the Kenya Model United Nations benefit differently depending on their different career fields. But everyone learns how to speak publicly, how to engage delegates and how to lobby. Law students also know how to moot,” says Gitonga.

The student-run non-profit organisation affiliated to the International Court of Justice also helps law students familiarise themselves with international practices in the field.

I never let any opportunity pass me, despite my demanding engineering course

Janet Langa was one of the 100 youth from 30 African countries who travelled to Cairo for the African Presidential Leadership Programme last month.

Recommended by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in collaboration with the African Union, the five-week interactive programme aims to train 1, 000 youth across African countries on implementation of the AU agenda 2063. She is in the first batch in the project that will see students trained in ten batches.

Langa says the programme has offered her a chance to learn diplomacy, negotiation skills, sustainable development, as well as network. “I have stumbled upon a golden opportunity to interact with the actual change makers, dignitaries and ambassadors from other countries and the AU. I will be returning in Kenya early next month, just in time for graduation from the UoN,” says Langa.

Indeed, it has been a fulfilling four years for Langa who has never let any opportunity pass her while she pursued a course in electrical engineering at the university.

But her aggressiveness in looking for opportunities started even before she joined university.

“I remember walking to all supermarkets in Nakuru just after I completed high school, giving out application letters for the position of a till operator and being rejected at nearly all these places. But one supermarket gave me a job that I performed until I joined university,” recalls Langa.

During her second-year of study in university, Ms Langa joined an organisation that supports STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects among high school girls in underprivileged backgrounds.

She then teamed up with her two friends in university to join the Unilever Idea Trophy 2016 competition that required students in their first and second years to come up with innovative ways to tackle youth unemployment. Her team would take second runners-up position in the competition that she says presented more opportunities.

“The Unilever programme was so intense and it involved meeting with so many people. While at it, I learnt about the Nile Project, applied for it and was one of the four Kenyans who got the fully funded trip to Egypt to interact with students from other riparian countries of the Nile,” she says.

The 24-year-old adds: “I gained a lot of first-hand knowledge on hydroplomacy and water conflict transformation. I visited the Aswan High Dam and many other places I had only dreamt of. It was a whole week of fun and learning.”

It was from her experience on the trip that Langa was inspired to form the Nile Project Club at UoN and recruited members. She was chairperson for the whole of 2017. Langa also competed in the UoN School of Engineering prize fund where she was given a nod to prototype a mobile application that offers agricultural extension services to farmers.

Unlike students who struggle through one mandatory industrial attachment in school, Langa has been an intern at Safaricom and Kenya Power and Lighting Company, aside from her active participation in Women in Technology, a programme aimed at inspiring women to advance in their careers in technology.

Israel internship where careers in agriculture take off

When Mary Wangere presented her project that sought to control temperature and humidity in storage spaces, she did not know the presentation would be a ticket for a lifetime opportunity outside Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

It was just another undergraduate project she presented before her lecturers at the JKuat School of bio systems and environmental engineering. She would be one of the students who were selected in the department to go for an 11-month internship in Israel under the Arava International Centre for Agriculture Training (AICAT).

Hundreds of Kenyan students from institutions offering agriculture courses have gone through AICAT since 2016 when Israel opened opportunities for 1,000 Kenyan students to study agriculture in Israel.

So far, students from Kenya Water Institute, JKuat, UoN, Egerton University, Ramogi Institute of Advance Technology and Karen Institute of Science and Technology have undergone intensive training in crop production, use of hybrid seeds and efficient water use in the country, which is a leader in fresh exports globally.

The 28-year old who was attached to Algetic, a global leader in production of oil was amazed by high-end technology in Israel.  “I was amazed at how the company had managed to operate at zero spillages. And from the lessons I picked, I am working on technologies that will enable our companies minimize spillages,” she says.

The Biomechanical and Systems engineering graduate went to Israel in July 2018 and came back in June this year after the 11-months paid internship.

Exchange programme in Japan opened many opportunities

Njeri Kagema was a third-year education student at KU when she landed the opportunity to study at Akita University in northeastern Japan.

Specialising in the Japanese language at the university that had a collaboration with the Japanese Embassy in Kenya, Ms Kagema had participated in Japanese language proficiency test and a speech contest and emerged second.

When Akita University visited KU for talks to initiate an exchange programme between the two universities, Kagema stole the show at the function when she engaged the foreign university’s representative in flawless Japanese.

The conversation led to her being picked among the first exchange students at the university in Japan where she was exposed to the country’s culture.

But it is the generous scholarship she landed later to pursue her Masters degree at the university that presented her with more opportunities.

“There were many opportunities to make money aside from the generous scholarship. I bought my first car while I was still a student in Japan,” says Kagema.

Outside her Masters classes, Kagema says she taught nursery school children English and was paid an equivalent of Sh5,000 per hour.

From her teaching assistant position at Akita University where she also helped her Japanese classmates with the English language projects, Kagema says she was paid Sh1,400 per hour.

On cultural functions in Japan where such occasions were big events, the city-based Japanese language interpreter who doubles up as the chairperson of Japanese language teachers in Kenya says she grabbed opportunities to make money for showcasing Kenyan culture.

“I was offered money to teach people how to make chapatis and other Kenyan foods. I even remember participating in a fashion show where I represented Kenya with an outfit I made myself,” she says.

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