13 reasons why not

In the light of a recent Netflix series, Tim Jarvis examines the issues of teen suicide and depression and covers some important points that all adolescents need to hear.


The recent streaming of ‘13 REASONS WHY’  documents 13 reasons, or more precisely 13 people, that contribute to the suicide of a teenage girl. In many way the series captivatingly and accurately captures the pressures that high school students live in and under. As one 15 year old reviewer writes on Common Sense Media, “TO ALL PARENTS OF TEENS: this type of thing happens all the time in high school! The profanity, the sex, the alcohol, and the smoking are things that teens are experiencing and taking part in every day!” That said, the show has faced criticism that it glamorises suicide and suggests that it can be used as a form of high school revenge. That may be so but in my view the most concerning shortcoming of the series is that it fails to map the full range of options that are open to young people who contemplate suicide.

I am somewhat nervous as I write this post as I really don’t want to minimize the reality of the dark places that many young people find themselves in. As humans our primal instinct is to survive, so one only has to imagine what state of mind someone has to be in to intend being an active agent in their own demise. Yet according to a study by the Medical Research Council in 2009, an astonishing 7000 people commit suicide in South Africa each year. The World Health organisation report on suicide documents how suicide rates in low and middle income African countries has risen by 38% over a twelve year period up until 2012.

This post, ‘13 reasons why not’ is meant as an alternative perspective to the series while still recognising the reality of where a young people may find themselves. These reasons also acknowledge that suicide is almost always linked to severe depression not actual circumstances. In addition many of these points are important for all teenagers to understand either about themselves or others.

  1. Significant strengths

It may not be apparent to you but you have significant strengths. You may not be aware of your gifts or abilities or you may just think they are strange, weird, or irrelevant. High school is an environment where only certain abilities get a chance to shine and only certain of them validated. As you get older the chances are good that you’ll learn more about your strengths, get a chance to develop them and ultimately use them in a meaningful way.

  1. Unique contribution

Given the blend of your DNA, personality, character traits, environment, experience, strengths (and weaknesses) you will be in a position to make a positive impact on your peers, family and wider community as you emerge from the restrictions of high school.  You can, and will be able to, offer yourself in a unique way in order to contribute to your workplace, family and friends.

  1. Depression makes you blind

When depression has you in its grip it blinds you. You will fail to see much that is good about you and the world. Its true there may be much about your situation that is bleak and negative. I am often amazed by what some young people have to put up with and go through, sometimes the world really can be crap. However be aware that depression will rob you of the light that does exist.

  1. Work in progress

This is a big one. Many teenagers are extremely self-critical. That inner voice that just won’t let up on how useless and worthless you are is strong at this time.  In the next 5-10 years you are going to change, grow and develop so much. You are not going to stay the same. I often fail to recognize past students at my school when I see them later in life, they have changed beyond recognition and in every way since they were in high school. It can be that way for you too. 

  1. You are being lied to

Just as depression blinds you, it also lies to you. It tells you some pretty horrible things about yourself and makes you feel worthless. That inner self-criticism, and enduring late night fretting (what psychologists call rumination), are sure signs of depression. If you do this, you aren’t solving problems, you are in the depression spiral. “This is what makes depression so dangerous – it feels like common sense. It feels like a true reading of the environment – that no-one likes me, that I’m useless at everything.” so says Counselling Psychologist, Rob Pluke. You need to know this is not real, it’s depression or anxiety talking.

  1. You are not a freak

There are other young people who also have these struggles. One lie depression will also tell you is that you are on your own.  Recent data from the WHO highlights that suicide is the second leading cause of death worldwide among 15-29 years olds. Research shows that issues such as depression and anxiety among young people are on the rise. It is estimated that one out of every five young people will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder by the time they are 18. You are not alone.

  1. There are adults to help you.

Part of the teenage journey is a separation from the adult world and an increased secretiveness around adults. This is natural, normal and even helpful to some extent. However, there comes a time when it is important to involve adults. An ongoing issue that schools face is teenagers trying to sort out fairly major issues on their own without a more mature perspective or input. After a certain point you need to turn to someone with a bit more life experience. This was a significant issue in the series as when the protagonist did turn to the school authorities the counsellor was portrayed as ineffective. Feeling isolated and that there is no one to turn to is one of the biggest factors of depression and suicide.

  1. There is more than one adult to help you

I am aware than many teens feel they have been let down by adults and therefore do not trust them. Sometimes these adults are in positions of major responsibility such as parents, counsellors and pastors and in some cases they have not only let a young person down but may indeed be a significant factor in the teen’s state of mind. Such a breach of trust is tragic but it is not the only story. If someone in the adult world has let you down it does not mean that others will. Look around you and speak to someone you trust.

  1. Your depression can get better.

There are many effective treatments for different mood disorders. Things do not have to stay the way they are. There are many different types of depression and anxiety disorders and talking to a psychologist who understands this and knows how to help you can make a massive difference in your life. Those feelings of anger, isolation and hopelessness can be alleviated.

  1. Medicine is an option

Some types of depression are what we call endogenous depression. This means they are rooted in your body, they are biological. In turn this means that you may need medicine to help you deal with it just as you would for any other illness. The synaptic connections in your brain and the neurotransmitters that help regulate these are complicated and particularly fragile during teenage years. Sometimes a little medication is what is needed to get things back in balance.

  1. Suicide is not romantic

It really isn’t. The Netflix series was fairly graphic in how it depicted an actual suicidal event. According to an article by  Jacqueline Aitchison in ‘Thought Leadership’, “The producers of the series knew what they were doing (they had 3 mental health consultants on set during filming).” According to showrunner Brian Yorkey they deliberately filmed the suicide scene, “to present suicide as something that’s painful and horrific – and certainly never an easy way out.”  Perhaps where the show was lacking was in how it dealt with the aftermath of such a tragedy. Terminating your own life would be terrifying, lonely and lay waste to those you love. A friend of mine lost his brother to suicide when he was younger, it’s not something that you get over.

  1. Suicide is not an effective form of revenge

When young people fantasise around suicide (suicidal ideation) it can include enjoying thoughts of ‘that will show them’. It really won’t. Unlike in Netflix, people won’t be running around beating themselves up about how they treated you (except those who really love you). People have a remarkably good way of deflecting blame elsewhere. Even if they are responsible for making your life difficult it is unlikely they will acknowledge it, even to themselves. However everyone else’s life will be carrying on, but yours won’t.

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  1. High school will end

Not just high school but also university or whatever the situation is that you find yourself in. How you feel now won’t always be the way you feel. Your current circumstances won’t always be there. It won’t always be this way. High school won’t continue forever, or even for very much longer. Far better to let high school come to an end than your life.


For more information read Vanity Fair’s full article on the shooting of the suicide scene

 

 

Can’t stop loving you

As we approach Father’s Day, Rob Pluke discovers all is not what it seems when it comes to building relationships with our boys.

On a cold, drizzly Friday my son and I set off for a fathers and sons weekend. Turning off the freeway we found ourselves faced by red and slippery district roads, far better suited to farm trucks that the city sedan I was driving. With some slipping and sliding we eventually found ourselves at the entrance to the camp: a steep, slick tongue of red clay. “Ok, ok. Here we go boy”. But no go, the car slid off to the side of the road, and settled itself in the thick, wet, grassy ridge. “Maybe we should just go home Dad?”


Truth be told, my son wasn’t that keen on the camp, and he’d said that he felt a bit sick on the way. But I had wanted to go. I had planned for it – damn it, even paid for it, and we were going! Anyway, soon some of the other dads made their way down towards us, and one used a big 4×4 to tow me out of the mud. If this weekend was about showing our sons how to be men, then I was off to a rather poor start.

Two failed men

Gathering our bags and pieces of my dignity, we picked our way up towards the lodge. As late arrivals we were quickly directed on to our first assignment – an ominously angled zip line. As we trekked up the path to the platform, my son grabbed my trouser leg, looked up at me with pale face and big eyes, then turned towards a bush and vomited. Half an hour later we were back in our car, bags repacked, and creeping ever closer towards the comforting familiarity of tar. We had a Phil Collins CD playing at the time. Maybe you know the song “Cos’ I can’t stooop loving you! No I can’t stoooop loving you!” Two failed men, singing at the tops of their lungs. Later that night we made supper together, and then my son introduced me to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie. He told me it had been a great day.

“…we were quickly directed on to our first assignment – an ominously angled zip line.”

I don’t know. By my expectations, we hadn’t managed to fulfill one of the requirements of a fathers and sons camp. No blood-letting, solemn pacts, or weird chants – gee man, not even a single obstacle course was conquered. But strangely enough, the weekend stands out for me as a highlight time with my son. On reflection I now see, that without awareness or intention, my boy and I ended up checking some very important boxes.

Ticking the boxes

First simply by being together we were able to enjoy moments that are impossible to script. I’m going to try and remember this.

Second, we knew in a beyond words kind of way, that because we were in something together, partners in crime if you like, we were busy being men. So I guess what this tells me is that masculinity isn’t something out there – an essence we need to achieve. Instead, masculinity is what happens when men come together. It’s a relational experience – an acknowledgement of ‘us-ness. This is one reason why dads are so important to their sons. When we stand alongside our sons, they experience themselves as men.

Third
, something very powerful happens when we stand alongside our sons during moments of weakness and vulnerability. When we can do this, we show our sons that they really can be themselves. So whether they’re sick, scared or uncertain, they’re still ‘man enough’. Did I wish that my son would charge up the hill and swoop daringly down the zip line? Sure, a part of me did. But I think I’ll always be glad that I stayed with him, walked with him, and loved him as he was.

Finally, one of the great benefits of staying at my son’s side was that he invited me into his world. I know that he and I will always have Transformers. But more personally, I will always have that song. Whenever I hear it, a fierce love seeps from my cells and rises up and into my throat.

Going off road

On that day my son took me off-road, and away from pre-navigated routes to masculinity. He helped me to chart territory of the heart that I had never before encountered – territory that exists far beyond the prescriptions of status and peer approval.

So I don’t give a damn what the real-man’s manual says. Because I can’t stop loving you.

Rob Pluke is a Counselling Psychologist and author. His latest book is called ‘Are you disappointed in me Dad?’ 


If you and your son are interested in a fathers and sons experience with a difference then check out the Courage 2 Connect website at: http://www.courage2connect.co.za  The next event is being run from 22-24 July.

Mindful Mothering

With the approach of Mothering Sunday, this blog is written with mothers of boys in mind, but I guess it will also be relevant for mothers and daughters. Come to think of it there is not much that wouldn’t apply to fathers as well. Enjoy.

Tim Jarvis with Megan de Beyer


I still remember my wife bursting into the Board Room, replete in lactation stained t-shirt, with my two young sons, one of whose face was covered in what I sincerely hoped was chocolate. The glances of my colleagues suggested they would have no problem with me leaving the meeting early, perhaps even welcome it, given the three tiered tableau of family chaos in front of them. Those years were chaotic. And fraught. And exhausting. ‘Wear your baby’, my wife was told by the slightly intimidating nurse who advocated demand feeding over the scheduled variety. Who even knew that such a debate existed in the carefree pre-natal days of our lives?  A few months into parenthood though and we would have given anything to be concerned with such trivial issues. The new discussion was simply whether we should breastfeed at all. Cracked nipples and mastitis, or ‘mass tit us’ as I once jokingly referred to it (quite literally just once for reasons linked to the aforementioned nurse) made feeding (demand or scheduled) agony for the mother of my children. ‘Push on through the pain’, a friend encouraged her. She did. In a way she still does.

From labour pains to the gradual process of letting go, it seems to me that being a mother can be a painful experience. No one prepares you for being a parent, I think most of us feel we make it up as we go along. Mums as well as Dads.

I recently spoke with Megan De Beyer, a psychologist who runs the ‘Strong Mothers, Strong Sons’ course at our school. As well as having over 20 years’ experience in this field and writing articles for Parenting 24 and Fair Lady among other publications, she is also the mother of two boys.

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Psychologist Megan De Beyer

Megan says the idea of mindful mothering shifts from a mum being in control (an illusion at the best of times) to rather being a parent that is with, alongside, and a part of her son’s life. It is the intentional and non-judgmental practice of being present as a parent as opposed to unintentional or mindless parenting. We discussed what the important factors for mindful mothering are, and came up with our top 5.

5 steps for Mindful Mothering

Step 1. Enjoy your sons

Good relationships have at their heart the ability to enjoy one another’s company. The mother/son relationship is no different. If you have been a parent for any length of time you will know that it is not always fun and games so take advantage of those moments that come along to enjoy time together. Drop your agenda (homework, room tidying, behaviour management) and be intentional in creating and savouring time just to have fun as a family. This quality of attention will lead your son to see you as being open and available. 

Step 2. Don’t speak

Many of us have the idea that good parenting is about what we say to our children, that all our sons need is ongoing advice and guidance from someone who knows a thing or two. Sometimes it is, and sometimes they do. But more crucial is the opportunity for our children to be heard and understood. For many women in particular, talking and speech are a form of thinking out loud. Men take a little longer (days sometimes) to put their thoughts into words. Too much talking then can overwhelm a young man or boy and cause him to switch off (believe me it doesn’t take much). Without the need to talk you will have a greater ability to listen, deeply listen, to the subtlety of everything that is both said, and not said (felt and seen) since you are listening with full and open attention.

Step 3. Face the fear

Mother Mary
Virgin Mother and Child. Photo by Jack Worthington

Parenting boys can occasionally venture into the realm of the terrifying. This is particularly true for mums, for whom the male world can seem rather alien. This fear is understandable but when it gets to a level that swamps us it can be harmful. The one way we don’t want to parent is through fear as this breaks down relationship and leads to poor decisions. When you are interacting with your son be aware of your emotions and notice what you are feeling.

Emotional intelligence is a key part of raising children and the foundation is to be aware of how both you and your son are feeling.

You’re allowed to be scared but if you experience that fear factor, take a deep breath and move to Step 4.

Step 4. Don’t freak out

Mums, your sons are desperate to protect you, including emotionally. If you collapse into a sobbing mess when your son shares some of his difficulties or challenges with you he won’t do so again. It is simply too uncomfortable for him. He does not want to see you upset, worried or afraid, especially if he feels he’s the cause. Your son will go to great lengths, including lying to you if he believes you can’t cope with what he wants to tell you. When you self-regulate your emotion you are able to respond with intention because you will be able to identify and regulate your feelings and choose to calm yourself down. In turn, your calmness will be a mirror for your son and allow him to gain control over his emotions.

Step 5. Get over the guilt

You have made mistakes as a parent and you’re going to make some more. Feeling guilty about it is not going to change anything. Actually that’s not true, guilt will almost certainly make things worse. A mum racked by guilt finds parenting hard to do, especially when it comes to making tough decisions.  As the Eagles said, ‘…ah freedom, that’s just somebody talking’. A strong mum knows that boundaries and consequences are important for her boy, they need and even expect them. Every Mum needs to accept herself and her failings. If you do it will allow you to make the right calls and accept your son, freeing him up to be himself.

It sometimes feels like parenting is no more than lurching from one psychoedufiscalsocial (made up word) crisis to the next. My own three boys have pretty much tag teamed their way through childhood. As soon as my wife and I dealt with a challenge involving one of them, the next bounces into the ring with a new set of problems. I used to worry about this, now I realise it’s just what parenting is. The mark of good parenting is not whether your children stuff up, under-perform, struggle in some way or let you down (they will do all of these things). It is rather how you respond to these challenges when they unfailingly arise. So take a deep breath and return to Step 1.


Don’t miss 5 top tips for working with teens by Tim Jarvis

You might also want to check out more on Megan De Beyer’s blog

The cost of winning

A recent article on social media rightly raises questions about the way school boy rugby is conducted. Do we have too great a ‘win at all costs’ mentality in South African school sport?

By Tim Jarvis


I am proud of mMeadows benchesy coaching record, but not so proud of my pitch side behaviour. I once told my opposite number that his style of coaching was the reason South African soccer was in such a mess. Much of the impact of my words were lost I think given that my team were 7-1 down at the time. A few years before that I saw red in more ways than one as I disabused the referee of the notion that he was impartial, fair or in any way competent when it came to officiating a football game.

I have reflected on the alter ego that appears whenever I am near a white line and I have come to the conclusion that it is most likely to manifest itself when I care too much about winning. Winning is of course important, no one should play sport to lose, but when it becomes everything we are already losers.

A cause gone wrong?

Making winning everything or even winning everything comes at a price. An excellent article on the Facebook site ‘Rugby – a cause gone wrong‘ (read it) gives an illuminating critique of the ‘win at all costs’ philosophy that has permeated many school cultures. It also highlights the costs of this mentality (including the opportunity cost of what miIMG_3434ght have been). Winning, in and of itself, is insignificant, in the sense that it makes not a bit of difference to the world. So is using a club to push a ball in a hole, as is driving an expensive car or earning a large salary. In the context of the global and local challenges we face, all of these achievements pale into insignificance, success in these terms is simply not important or relevant to the world we live in. Boys playing sport need to know this.

This is a difficult lesson to learn for an adolescent when up to 10,000 people are cheering you on in a schoolboy rugby match. It is hard to see, given the adulation and fanfare reserved for players who make the Springbok squad. Impossible to understand perhaps when professional football players overseas can earn more in a week than many South Africans earn in a lifetime. A winning season is of course associated with success, but it is important that our students know that success does not equal significance.

Larry Gelwix, coach of the Highland Rugby Team and featured in the movie ‘Forever Strong’, said, “It’s not about rugby, it’s about young men. It’s not about building a Championship team, it’s about building Championship boys; boys who will be forever strong.” That’s a great quote. As educators and coaches we must first be aiming to build boys into significant as opposed to merely successful men. This means that regardless of what happens on the field in terms of results we can see growth and development in the character of our teams and the individuals within them. We can have winning teams and championship boys irrespective of their win/lose ratios.

Transformational not transactional coaches

If boys need to know that winning as an end in itself is not significant then so do their coaches.  Joe Ehrman in his book ‘Inside Out Coaching’ frames this as transformational, as opposed to transactional, coaching. A transactional coach has “their focus solely on winning and meeting their personal needs”, whereas a transformational coach “helps young people grow into responsible adults, they leave a lasting legacy.” In a report by the Journal of Coaching Education it was found that coaches were ranked as the no 1 positive influence on today’s sports playing youth. Given the critical role coaches play Ehrman says that each coach needs to ask themselves 4 questions:

  1. Why do I coach?
  2. Why do I coach the way I do?
  3. What does it feel like to be coached by me?
  4. How do I define success?

MHS v Hilton

In closing I want to retell a story played out in the American PBS documentary ‘Raising Cain’, narrated by psychologist Michael Thompson. Having examined the lives of teenage boys across the US, the series concludes by following the fortunes of Lincoln Sudbury, a High School Football team, and coverage of their final derby match against arch rivals Newton South,  upon which the success of their season will be judged. Lincoln Sudbury lose the game and anyone watching the footage can see they are truly shattered.

Thompson though, as he reflects on the game and the boys, chose to finish his broadcast with these words, “The boys thought today’s game was going to be a test of their manhood. They were right but not in the way they had imagined. These young men are going to have to prove they can cope with an immense disappointment…Today they showed deep compassion for each other. They’ve learnt that emotional courage is courage. Our job is to help them learn that lesson well.”

I still hate losing (especially 7-1) but I am realising that there are bigger lessons to be learnt.  Without this larger perspective my team and I stand to lose a lot more than just a game.

 

 

5 top tips for working with teens

Dealing with adolescents can be problematic but there are ways to enhance your relationship with them even during difficult times.

By Tim Jarvis

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OK, working with teenagers is not easy, even someone with the leadership skills of Scott of the Antarctic, the personality of Oprah Winfrey and the moral authority of Nelson Mandela would have a hard time convincing adolescents to get up on time in the morning or tidy their room. Teenagers often see thing differently from older generations and so disagreements are common. On the rare occasions that they do agree with you they probably don’t want you to know that, and certainly don’t want their peers to. As the metaphor suggests working with teens really can be like herding cats. Just cats that are often bigger than you and like to argue. A lot.

So where do you start? Here are my 5 top tips:

  1. Actually “like” teenagers

Yes I know this is difficult. Some days (weeks) I don’t even like my own children let alone other peoples. If you are a teacher you can’t like all of them and certainly you can’t like all of them all the time. But if adolescents don’t actually feel we view them positively we will have little favourable influence on their lives. It is highly unlikely that an adolescent is going to remember even 1% of what you say to them, but they are going to remember how you made them feel. This doesn’t mean you have to be nice to them continuously but they have to understand that you have their best interests at heart. In his book ‘Brainstorm’, Dan Siegel warns that we must be careful of seeing adolescence as a time just to be endured and instead appreciate the importance and value of this age and stage. The good news is you can practice liking teens (try it) and improve your ability to do this. If you really don’t like them, and feel you can’t get better, then don’t work with them.

  1. Don’t use the ‘D’ word

When I speak to teens in trouble their biggest fear is not what punishment
they might receive but rather what the reaction of their parents will be. And in their minds the most dreaded words that parents can utter are, ‘I’m notDissapointed angry, I’m just disappointed’. Seriously I think they would rather we were angry than disappointed. To feel ashamed, to be shamed, is an experience that teenagers take significant steps to avoid, including keeping things hidden from us. While some shame is unavoidable and appropriate, persistent shame or excessive guilt is unhealthy and can make a problem worse rather than better. My own son reminded me of my own failings in this area just the other day (he has a gift for that). In all seriousness I don’t remember explicitly using the ‘D’ word with him but teens are so hyper-sensitive to parental disappointment and associated shame that he heard me say it anyway. A feeling of shame is one of the reasons why teens sometimes find it hard to talk to adults, they don’t like being judged. Just like us they need to be allowed to move on from their mistakes and failures.

  1. Argue with them

In their book ‘Nurtureshock’, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman expressed the following sentiment that I believe is more often true than not. “If your teenager isn’t arguing with you then they are lying to you.” From my perspective if a teen takes time to argue with you it’s a sign of respect. You are significant enough to them that they want your approval or permission and they value you enough to seek your validation of their opinions or behaviour. You don’t have to by the way, but if you don’t allow space for this dialogue (as a parent in particular) then your teen is going to politely lie to your face as you are laying down the law and then quietly get on with exactly what they want to do (actually not so much quietly, just out of earshot). I hate to say it but the primary school days of control (if they existed at all) are over, your best bet now is influence.  Dealing with young people can seem to be a constant process of negotiation and re-negotiation as they rapidly change and develop. It’s exhausting but despite the effort this takes, it is important to give them their say and a little leeway while maintaining firm boundaries.

  1. Don’t take them at face value

Anyone who has worked with young people knows that an eye roll as opposed to drum roll is the more likely reaction to even the most exciting plans you have for them. There are none better at appearing disinterested than teenagers. OK a lot of the time they really are disinterested (it’s not the teachers’ fault that Coriolanus is the English set work again) but when dealing with difficult adolescent issues that blank facial mask can appear faster than acne in a fast food outlet. Be grateful if it is just boredom you’re dealing with though, it could be teenage rage. Sometimes when adolescents get angry it’s because, well they’re angry. But at other times it’s also because they are sad, lonely, depressed, afraid or overwhelmed. Anger is often a conduit for a range of other emotions particularly among boys.  I know that it is often those scowling, frowning children at the back of the classroom who are grappling most with life. Sometimes though it’s those who make the least fuss that need the most help. ‘I’m fine’ does not always mean ‘I’m fine’.  I remember once being told by a paramedic that when you’re dealing with a multi car pile up it’s not the people yelling and screaming that you have to watch out for, it’s the silent ones. Most adolescents give clues that they need help, but we have to pay attention. If what they say is not congruent with their facial expressions, body language or typical behaviour then don’t believe them. Listen to what they are not saying and trust your gut.

  1. Stop talking

Seriously, just stop. Noteens2thing is as dreaded (or as ineffective) as the parent or teacher lecture. I have teenagers sit in my office and tell me almost word for word what their Dad, Mum or teacher is going to say about a particular situation (poor school report, drinking episode, etc.). At this age you just don’t need to say it anymore. If you have been involved in their life, your child has introjected your thoughts and feelings on almost everything. What they have to do now is internalise this, that is,decide if they want it for themselves. So ask them what you need to ask and then wait for the response, and when I say wait, I mean wait. Boys in particular may take some time to put their feelings into thoughts and then thoughts into words (literally days sometimes). Girls may react quicker verbally but they also need time to talk through their feelings before they settle on a response. Don’t be afraid of long silences or conversations that take place on and off over a period of time. You need to give them space to express where they’re at (See point 3) or you’ll make no real progress.

Given point 5, this seems an appropriate place to stop for now. In addition my aforementioned gifted son has just asked the question, ‘Is anyone is even going to read this and if they do are they are going to continue to the end?’ It seems a fair point, plus I need to go and practice liking him again.

How to create a world class university in under a decade

New York University’s new Rafael Viñoly designed campus in Abu Dhabi is an experiment in global education that’s worth watching.

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By Tim Jarvis


OK so God made the world in just seven days but for us mortals creating something out of almost thin air in a short time is nigh on impossible. While the existence of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is not quite miraculous ,it is pretty impressive none the less. On a recent visit to the Emirates, as a guest of the university, I got some insight into how it was manged in five simple steps.

Step 1: Drill for, and then find, oil. Lots of it

Universities are big business and are expensive to run. The top universities of the world have large endowment funds built up through centuries of graduating financially successful alumni. If you’re starting from scratch you can either wait several hundred years to build your facilities and reputation or you can locate yourself in a society that has seemingly limitless amounts of capital. In the United Arab Emirates where it is cheaper (but not advisable) to shower in petrol rather than water you can find such a location.

Step 2: Bring alongside a big brand university that already packs a reputational punch

Ideally you want a top ranked institution, with a strong study abroad focus and a globally recognizable name. A name like New York for example would do the trick. If you have money, (as opposed to aeons of time) to burn, then buy your reputation off the shelf. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi this is the modus operandi. If you want to cultivate culture in your country for example you can FastTrack the process by bringing in the curatorial expertise of the Louvre (An extension of this famous French museum opens in the city this year). Abu Dhabi has also partnered with names such as the Guggenheim Museum, Ferreira and Formula One to elevate the city’s cultural and sporting status on the world stage. It is no surprise to see New York University also open up in the city as NYUAD.

Step 3: Build a state of the art campus

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NYUAD campus on  Saadiyat Island is designed by award winning architect Rafael Vinoly
Once you’ve designed and built it, equip it with enough resources to make NASA jealous of the Engineering department and even Hollywood take a second glance at the film studios (apparently there is enough apparatus there to run three Hollywood scale movies at the same time). The campus at NYUAD is so resource rich that the students pay for nothing, the only requirement is that they notify staff if stock of something is running low. The attention to detail is such that even the palm trees have been imported from Egypt (ice to Inuits) simply because that particularly variety does not drop its date and create mess. In the last 20 years cities in the Emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi have grown. Building is nothing new in the Emirates as any one who has witnessed the growth of Dubai in the last few decades can testify. The population of Abu Dhabi alone has just about doubles since 2005.

Step 4: Populate the campus with best faculty and students as possible

With a big name university on board, the staffing should take care of itself as long as you can pay them. But that’s no problem in a land where there is so much money its citizens do not need to pay tax. What about the students? Well when they apply, host a candidate weekend where you fly the best of them in literally from around the world, at no expense

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The population of Abu Dhabi has almost doubled since 2005
to them. This extended two way interview process allows you to select the best of these best and make sure they (or rather their parents) can afford to come to your college. NYUAD is one of only five US Colleges that offers a ‘needs blind’ admission process for all students (not just US citizens) which simply means the university choose the candidates they want and then makes sure they can afford to attend. It means you can really take the best of the best instead of the richest of the rich. I had the opportunity of sitting in the opening session of such a candidate weekend and listening to the students introduce themselves. It was like witnessing an Under 18 team of some sort from the United Nations. Not only were there representatives from all around the world, some of them were true global citizens. Think, “Hi I am Indian but I was born in the in the Philippines and currently live in Denmark” and you have the general idea.

Step 5: Raise, and continue to manage, your university profile

Make sure you fly in Counsellors from top schools around the globe to create brand awareness. Also careful massaging of the criteria that go toward your institutions ranking position is essential. ‘Yield’ is an example of such a criteria and refers to the percentage of students who accept the university’s offer when it is made. NYUAD ensures this ratio is acceptable through its candidate weekends which ensure each successful applicant is already committed and socially invested in the university. As a result NYUAD’s yield is up around 75% mark, about as good as it can get I’m told. Such statistics ensure a high ranking, driving a greater demand and causing a rapid upwardly spiralling reputational cycle.

A vision of global citizenship

Essentially these are the five steps that the United Arab Emirates has taken in partnership with New York University from 2009. In a changing world NYUAD is a bold experiment in global education and the vision is, through listening to people who are vastly different to you, to create international citizens who understand that the basic infrastructure of humanity is the same no matter its local expression. NYUAD have also partnered with THE Institute of International Education (IIE), an organisation set up in the aftermath of WWI to enhance global interaction in an effort to build understanding. IIE locates diverse schools around the world from which to source unique students, not just the homogenous inhabitants of British and American international schools. OK so the project will also ensure an alumni of influential leaders well disposed towards the UAE but that doesn’t look as good as words like ‘vision’ and ‘global’ in a glossy brochure.

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At the end of the day resources and facilities alone cannot make a great educational experience, only people can do that and that is the attraction for many given the international outlook of NYUAD. Despite that, I imagine the experience would not be for everyone, as one student candidly put it, “If you want to sit around drinking with your mates in a bar downtown on Friday night then NYUAD is probably not for you”. Despite its global reach and Western embrace the United Arab Emirates is still an Islamic country with elements of Sharia law present (an unmarried South African women was recently arrested for extramarital sex). In an understated response to a question on LGBTQ rights in the Emirates, one of the university admission officers replied, “Well you’re not going to see a Gay Pride march in downtown Abu Dhabi anytime soon.”

Will it work? I tend to think it will. With the amount of money behind the project NYUAD does not have to rely on chance. It’s a bold experiment but it can and is happening. Who knows, perhaps if God had the same cash flow as the Emirati government he could have brought the whole creation project in with enough days to spare for proper long weekend, not just a Sunday.

A Rhodes Trip

A university education, like a road trip, is just as much about the journey as the destination.

By Tim Jarvis


I dropped my son off at Rhodes University recently. This involved some tears (mine), some raised voices (mostly mine), a substantial amount of money (entirely mine) and an awful lot of driving. The problem is that between most of KZN and Grahamstown stands the inconsiderately placed Kingdom of Lesotho. On hearing that the routes to the East of the mountains were beset by a raft of Stop/Go roadworks we decided to take the long way round via Clarens and the Free State.


It was a wonderful journey. We travelled through National Parks, up mountain passes, past fields of sunflowers and cherry trees, ate at farm stalls and crossed the wonderfully swollen Orange River. The road was a little potholed but there were no blow outs, unless you count the one when I lost my cool at a Stop/Go (“average wait +/- 40 mins”) in 38 degree heat. Upon arrival at Grahamstown, we decided, as scenic as the journey had been, we would take a more direct route home.

Thereafter began the business of settling him into the University and in particular Res. My wife and I are extremely mindful of the #feesmustfall movement and the impact this has had on university life around the country. Rhodes itself had some quite nasty incidents involving police firing rubber bullets in one of the residences last year. So as we drove up to the road to the residences we were dismayed to see a group of placard waving students blocking the road. “What are they protesting about?” my wife asked and as the cars slowed to go past there was a lot of hooting and shouting and I could feel her anxiety increase. As we closed on the mob it became clear they were mostly female. “Oh no” my spouse exclaimed, “it must be #free the nipple”.

It turns out it was neither a fees must fall protest or a free the nipple demonstration (much to my son’s disappointment), but merely a group of students gathered to welcome the Freshers into their new home. This scenario was replicated all the way up the hill leading to the university residences, creating a carnival vibe on campus. The welcoming atmosphere continued as we entered the assigned Hall of Residence. Sub Wardens, Student Support and IT reps all came and paid their respects, introduced themselves to my son and explained their various roles. The Res Committee reflected a diverse intake into the halls of residence. Different races, different walks of life, but all overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming.


Nerves calmed and anxieties settled, the next day we headed to the formal parent orientation which included an address by the Vice Chancellor of the University. As he approached the podium, a student dressed in a headband and carrying a knobkerrie rushed onto the stage and grabbed the microphone. I sunk lower into my seat, exchanged an ‘I knew it glance’ with my wife and resigned myself to the inevitable #feesmustfall speech. The young man unleashed a torrent of rapid fire Xhosa of which I could not understand a word. However as he continued it became quite clear that this was a praise singer, who had got up to sing a hymn extoling his Vice Chancellor. I worked this out from the snippets of English considerately thrown into the speech and the fact that he and the VC hugged each other at the end.

When he was finally able to speak the Vice Chancellor made much of the difference between education and schooling and the dangers of seeing education purely as a commodity. The idea that you can simply purchase a degree of knowledge as fast as possible is an anathema to the Rhodes philosophy. Jonathan Jansen recently tweeted, “There are few things worse than to be overschooled and undereducated”. Rhodes espouses the idea of formative degrees (as distinct from programmes) which facilitate greater flexibility, allowing for example, a Humanities student to study Science courses or a Commerce student to take some Humanities subjects. This approach together with a healthily diverse residential life and an encouragement to engage in extracurricular activities, means the students have the opportunity to be thoroughly educated. “Education as opposed to schooling”, concluded the Vice Chancellor, should be a journey of self-discovery for your sons and daughters. If they leave the same person as when they arrived then we have failed.” Such is the transformative nature of real education.

Then it was time to go.

We left feeling reassured about our son, inspired by the young people we had met, and overwhelmed by the beauty of this land and its people. In my son’s educational expedition I know there will be pot holes and plenty of Stop/Go works along the road. The fees must fall movement, rooted as it is in legitimate concern, if not expression, has yet to run its course. And yet is it not in being exposed to, and overcoming, such realties that we are truly educated? As one of the students paraphrased in his welcome speech, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” JF Kennedy. This experience is as much about the journey as it is about the graduation.

After all that, my wife and I travelled home the long way round again. I hope my son does the same at university.