Understanding the effects of intergenerational trauma at university

17 March 2014

As part of the "Reconciliation, Intergenerational Trauma and Higher Education" colloquium in February, Allengary Naicker and Carmelita Lee-Shong of the university's Student Wellness Service, both explored how the burden on so-called "born frees" is affecting their ability to succeed in a university environment. Naicker tentatively explored the drop-out rate and failure of a small sample of university students: "Up to 30% of students drop out of university, with a majority that will not enrol for tertiary studies again," Naicker said. "Many of the students are now in debt and will have to enter the job market as creditors. What goes wrong when bright and eager students, who are imbued with so much optimism and potential, do not succeed?"

Tentative diagnosis

This is Naicker's tentative diagnosis: "Youth are the carriers of intergenerational trauma, borne by their parents, who endured apartheid and poverty first-hand. During the height of the resistance struggle in the '70s and '80s, children became the vanguard of the struggle. Many were imprisoned and tortured to death, others released after a few months. One study in 1986 revealed that 2 000 black children younger than the age of 16 were in prison for about four months.

"Children obviously suffered unbearable, unmentionable abuse and torture. Many of them were to become parents of children born in the new dispensation, some of them at universities today. Yet they themselves were not able to complete schooling. "Youth from townships and rural areas especially still experience the impact of poverty and trauma on the psyche, and it is vital to make sense of the consequences for survival and learning."

The impact of this history was demonstrated by a startling statistic: 80% of South Africa's 7 000 high schools, which are neither formerly whites-only public schools nor schools in rural areas, produce only 20% of the country's matric exemptions. While educational institutions have made great strides when it comes to transformation, with measures like bursaries for deserving students and financial aid, it seems more can be done.

A case study close to home

Lee-Shong, a social worker at UCT's Student Wellness Service, shared her experiences of the challenges that students face, in a video screened by the office of the Vice-Chancellor's Transformation Commitee.

What it showed was how close to home homelessness and hunger can be, drawing on the experience of some of the students who make use of the university's wellness service:

"Many of these students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, impoverished backgrounds, and can come to UCT with very limited resources," explained Lee-Shong. "I think the main challenge is finding accommodation in and around UCT. It's pretty expensive, so some students end up squatting, either sleeping on the streets or in the [24-hour] Com Labs – wherever they can find a space.

"The other thing is finances. If you don't get financial aid, things are tough, and for those that are on financial aid, it doesn't necessarily cover everything."

What can be done?

How can places of learning walk this difficult road with students?

Lee-Shong recommends making emergency accommodation available through the Student Wellness Service. "Often, [students] arrive with literally a bag with the few things that they do have and nothing else. Some haven't eaten for days on end. To tell a student to come back in a few hours after you've secured funding is heartbreaking."

Naicker recommends that more educational psychologists are trained and assigned to schools for an obligatory year of community service, and that counselling psychologists should be required to perform community service. Furthermore: "Autonomous learning should be encouraged in the senior phase of high school, because there's so much pressure to produce good enough results that this is an area that is neglected.

"At university, the fantastic mentoring programmes should be intensified and students should be supported throughout the course of study, not just their first year. Sometimes it becomes necessary for the university to walk alongside a student. It should become the responsibility of the university to make such a service available when a student requires long-term therapy."

Group therapy is also a viable option on educational and community settings, suggested Naicker: "Group therapy as a modality is a viable option financially and in community settings in a country where access to therapy is expensive and the culture of individual therapy is not yet established for most people."

Way forward

According to HAICU Director Cal Volks, the colloquium, while unpacking some difficult issues, has paved the way for some important changes within the university: "It was gratifying to have key representatives from Transformation Services Office, the Department of Student Affairs, the Student Wellness Service, the Centre for Higher Education Development and academic departments at the colloquium, discussing the integration of some concrete recommendations into existing student services and, where relevant, curricula. Speakers must follow this up."

Story by Yusuf Omar.

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