Degrees of Insecurity: Challenges facing Palestinian university students
TYO uses funds provided by the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation to deliver Professional Competency and Conversational English classes to students of An Najah National University, in Nablus. TYO's international interns lead these sessions, which are based upon the need to address a series of issues generated and sustained by political, economic and social conditions in the West Bank. Prevalent amongst them is a paucity of foundational skills essential for the world of work, compounded by a lack of employment opportunities and a growing population - revealed as critical barriers to economic and social stability across the wider region in a report issued last month by the Brookings Institution's Center for Universal Education.
Internal financial woes exacerbate this predicament further. In a society strained by budget deficits and decreasing foreign aid, Palestinian universities are under pressure to make cuts. These inevitably affect the quality and availability of resources to equip students with the skills today's employers demand, as reported last year by the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute. More alarming still are claims that some students at Palestinian universities have subsequently abandoned or postponed their courses of study, or had graduations delayed, due to difficulties paying tuition fees, which are rising as higher education institutions struggle to regain financial ground. Post-university prospects offer no consolation. Nearly half of all graduates with a diploma or higher qualification are unemployed, according to the Sharek Youth Forum's 2013 report, The Status of Youth in Palestine. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that the most significant challenge for Palestinian university students involves shouldering a relentless burden of insecurity, both present and future.
TYO's interns focus on two critical aspects of professional competency, the first comprising a professional 'toolkit'. Students are acquainted with the formalities of face-to-face self-introductions, CV and cover letter writing and interview preparation and etiquette, which are then reinforced as they participate in discussions, evaluate sample documents and video performances and prepare or practise their own material. The topic of CVs has generated some apprehension. Whilst the majority of students understand and accept the need for a CV, many students feel unable to supply the requisite content, or contend that employers in their sectors of interest recruit solely from pools of existing personal contacts. It is sometimes difficult to discern whether recruitment norms generally differ from the United States and United Kingdom here, or whether students are mistaken or misinformed about the realities. CV 'clinics' in computer labs have yielded fantastic results, both in terms of individual engagement and one-to-one guidance from interns. Each student will now close this session having created, at least in preliminary form, his or her own, and in many cases first, CV document.
The second, more fundamental, aspect involves introspection and personal growth. Interns consistently emphasise the value of 'soft', or transferable, skills as instrumental to students' chances of securing employment after they graduate. Live job advertisements are used in classes, to expose students to professional language, but more importantly, to provide examples of 'soft' skills and demonstrate how widely they are valued. Slowly but critically, students are beginning to re-assess themselves. Many students have until now viewed their past experiences holistically. One student dismissed his previous voluntary teaching experience in toto, on the basis that he does not wish to pursue a career in teaching, for example. Realising that experiences such as this can be deconstructed to reveal a remarkable array of worthwhile skills transforms students' approaches to self-evaluation. Voluntary work experience is a key avenue for the cultivation of transferable skills. With this in mind, TYO launched its Youth Service Learning (YSL) Program in 2008, as a mechanism allowing university students and recent graduates to gain much sought-after experience, as well as opportunities to perform youth mentorship roles as TYO volunteers.
A professional 'toolkit' cannot be used successfully in the absence of self-awareness, which in turn demands a measure of confidence. In spite of the multifaceted challenges they face, students are displaying increased confidence, leading to fresh perspectives on their experiences and thus a much refined grasp of how to put their professional tools to optimum use.
-TYO interns, Katherine and Laura
This program - as part of Student Training and Employment Program (STEP!) - is sponsored in part by the Abdul Hamid Shoman Foundation.