Big dilemma: The highs and lows of changing courses, careers midway

Some of the participants at the Standard Media Group stand during the Higher Education and Career Fair at KICC on January 24, 2020. [File, Standard]

From law to economics to entrepreneurial leadership Sarabelle Akinyi’s dreams have snuck up the career rollercoaster and taken a terrific ride within two years.

She graduated from secondary school buzzing to pursue law degree but missed the University of Nairobi’s (UoN) Law School’s cut-off by a point.

“I had qualified to take law in all the other institutions but I remember my father telling me that the only university he recognizes is the UoN,” she says. And so Akinyi took the next best course at the university, economics and statistics.

She loved mathematics and because her family “has some leverage in the financial sector”, she would easily secure a job after graduating.

“I knew from the beginning that the course was not meant for me. I was frustrated from the first day  but I found the coursework to be quite easy,” she says. She missed classes at will and daydreamed through those she attended but managed to score good grades in the first year.

“My parents were smiling and thinking they had sent me to the right course but I was depressed and angry. I kept thinking about how I was simply wasting my time trying to make them happy yet I would come to regret the decision 10 years later.”

The 19-year-old second-year student applied for opportunities in 27 universities abroad, finally getting a chance at the African Leadership University recently to do entrepreneurial leadership.

She says she has always been passionate about leadership “and this spearheads me forward career wise” but her father is offering fierce objection against dropping out of UoN for another institution on the continent.

Brian Munene did not even step foot into Kenya College of Accountancy (KCA), now KCA University (KCAU).  When Kenya University and Colleges Central Placement Services (KUCCPS) sent him to KCAU to study journalism in 2018, he quickly changed school and course.

“I changed the university and course from KCAU to Multimedia University of Kenya and from journalism to applied communications, respectively,” he says.

“This was because KCAU had started offering journalism that year and we were the first cohort. KCAU is known as a business school in Kenya. So Multimedia was the better option. Plus, my aunt advised me to do applied communications as it was more diversified than journalism.”

He now works as a digital marketing executive. Elvis Bwire Ojiambo graduated with computer science from The Multimedia University of Kenya. But Mr Bwire is now a multimedia designer at Username Investments where he is in charge of graphics, videography, and photography.  

 “I decided to change disciplines when I was in my third year of studying computer science at The Multimedia University of Kenya. I realised that the course I was undertaking didn't have jobs that would interest me, so I started developing hobbies that would later turn into my career path. I was already making money from my skills at that time, so I decided to pursue that path,” he says.

His parents did not, at first, understand his choice and wanted him to get a job related to what he studied in college. “It was a difficult change process for them to come to terms with,” he says.

This writer graduated from the University of Nairobi with a BSc in Geospatial Engineering. He is now a business reporter, having joined the media industry almost immediately after graduating from a rigorous five-year period at UoN’s famous American Wing.

Cases abound of students changing courses once they join universities as new revelations hit them, and others going to disciplines they did not study in university post-graduation as a dearth of opportunities, or a desire to explore other lucrative careers, faces them. 

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students join university. In the minimum of four years it takes to complete a course, a lot of things happen. Some change courses, others drop out, and yet others who had left school rejoin.

In the just released Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results, Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu noted that out of the 881,416 candidates who sat the exam, 173,345 scored the minimum university entry grade of C+ and above.

This was markedly higher than the figure of 145,776 in 2021. Out of those who qualified for direct university entry, 1,146 candidates scored the coveted grade A. 1,138 candidates had managed this grade in 2021.

As would be expected, these students will be aiming to take elite courses such as engineering, medicine and surgery, dental surgery and actuarial science. While some drop along the way, others are picked up where they stalled and at graduation, the numbers released to workplaces often is almost equal to that which was admitted to the various courses.

When this writer joined UoN in January 2014, the School of Engineering admitted 78 students to the department of electrical engineering, 73 to civil engineering, 28 to geospatial engineering, 52 to mechanical engineering and 42 to environmental and biosystems engineering.

These were the government sponsored students and private sponsored ones would add to these numbers. There were also changes as some of the students in the admission list shifted courses swiftly.

When this class graduated in September 2019, there were 79 graduating from electrical engineering, 99 from civil, 27 from geospatial, 45 from mechanical and 36 from environmental and biosystems.

The numbers did not change much at admission and graduation, factors between the two events notwithstanding. Nearly similar numbers for admission and graduation a year before and after were recorded.

With these huge numbers at admission and graduation and with unemployment rates still high, course and career changes become more common than ever before.

So many more students scored D+ and above in the 2022 KCSE exam. 349,243 candidates could join alternative institutions of higher learning, taking diploma and certificate courses.

What do those who have shifted courses and careers before feel about it now?

“I have no regrets about my decision and if given the chance to go back in time, I would have chosen a course that aligned with the skills I was learning at the time, such as Multimedia and animation,” says Mr Bwire. “Through this shift, I have learned that as long as you put your mind to something that you are passionate about, there is no chance of failure. I would advise anyone who has different interests in their course to fully pursue them.”

Mr Munene says that looking back, he realises he made the best decision he would have.

“Do what you love, follow your dream but do a thorough research first to avoid regretting,” he says.

Ms Sarabella hopes she has made the right choice by planning to ditch her economics course at The UoN.

“It has often been said that parents know best. But I am proof that sometimes, you know best. Go for what you love. When you love something, things just work out for you.”

Lydiah Njeri, who has been in sales for years, studied Bachelor of Commerce at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology and faced with a choice among finance, accounting, marketing and human resources (HR) options in third year, picked HR “because it meant being in a 9-5 office”.

“I graduated and didn’t get a job for two years. I volunteered, got a job in HR and hated it. Then I got a job selling phones and loved it.”

It is what she does, and enjoys doing, 10 years later.

“I should have been in marketing all along - it comes so naturally with me.”

She advises students to take jobs in high school during holidays to discover their strengths. “I would have known my customer care is top notch if I got an opportunity to even work at a supermarket during school breaks or family business,” she says.

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