Projek Kalsom and Fatimah’s Aspiration
“The greater failure is not the child who doesn’t reach the stars, but the child who has no stars that they feel they are reaching for.” Gordon Brown (2007)
Fatimah (not her real name) smiled broadly and passed me her drawings on a sheet of paper. It was a decently dressed lady, teaching in a spacious lecture theatre. Lines and lines of mathematical equations filled the blackboard to its brim, overflowed and embedded themselves on the walls of lecture theatre.
“This is my goal. I want to be a mathematician…….” She elaborated her aspiration in an earnest voice. Gracefully she gestured with both hands, describing her ideal future self with beaming eyes. I stared at her joyful face, nodded my head and listened attentively as she brought me soaring in her dreamland.
I was utterly amazed and awed. What a unique, noble aspiration nesting in a young mind.
It was during the module “Invictus” conducted by my colleagues Natrah, Hazeera and Amelia in Projek Kalsom Motivational Camp 21. They taught the beneficiaries to plan their goals using “SMART” principles, visualise their future selves in 20 years’ time and draw their aspirations on a piece of paper. Fatimah, whose father is a lorry driver, and mother burdened with illnesses, aspires to become a mathematician.
An aspiration can be defined as an individual’s “ability to identify and set goals for the future, while being inspired in the present to work toward those goals”(Quaglia & Cobb, 1996). It was reported that young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have lower aspirations than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds (Schoon, 2006). For the purpose of policy research, the high and low aspirations were defined based on socio-economic classification of occupations. It seems that Fatimah was unperturbed with her background as she was still able to come out with a high aspiration. However, there are still numerous teenagers who fall into that group of disadvantaged young people with lower aspirations.
Fatimah has a dream to fulfil. Nonetheless, this might change as her experience grows. She will understand this world more, face numerous hurdles and constraints in life due to her disadvantaged situation. Eventually she might give up and abandon her dream. Unfortunately, this prediction is supported by research and studies. There are groups of disadvantaged young people whose high aspirations do not lead to higher achievement. This phenomenon is coined as the “aspiration-attainment gap”. In particular, the gap was found between educational aspirations and academic achievement for young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Gutman & Akerman, 2008). In a study of disadvantaged young people in the UK, the 14 to 17-year-olds were optimistic about getting good, well-paid jobs. Their aspirations then diminished as they faced the realities of low-paid, low-skilled jobs in their later teenage years. When they were 18 to 21 years old, their dreams of reaching their aspirations were remote due to lack of qualifications and other perceived obstacles (The Prince’s Trust, 2004). Schoon (2006) explained that this was due to their inability to overcome financial and social barriers to achievement.
Two problems are identified from the aforementioned paragraphs. Firstly, young people from lower socio-economic background tend to have lower aspirations compared to their peers from higher socio-economic background. Secondly, even though some disadvantaged young people have high aspirations, their underprivileged background will possibly widen the aspiration-attainment gap. Gutman and Akerman (2008) suggested that aspiration formation of these youths may be inhibited because they are lack of mentors, opportunities, and resources. For instance, due to their disadvantaged background, they are not able to afford private tuition or computers, which can aid them in achieving their goals.
The two identified problems are closely related to education inequality, which will form an endless cycle of generations living in poverty due to their lower education attainment. This is also why The Kalsom Movement was established, to combat against education inequality in Malaysia.
Looking at past research, we should recognise that a constellation of solutions are needed to tackle this wicked problem. Raising aspiration alone is not the only answer due to aspiration-attainment gap. The question is, how could Projek Kalsom help Fatimah to attain her goals and stop the endless cycle of education inequality and poverty?
Gutman and Akerman (2008) proposed a few solutions for the policy makers, which can be adopted by Projek Kalsom. They are (1) Positive attitudes formation, (2) Advice and guidance, and (3) Involvement in positive activities. Let us see how each solution has helped Fatimah:
Positive attitudes formation
Bandura (1997) stated that belief in one’s own abilities is a crucial part of aspirational development. Throughout Projek Kalsom Motivational Camp, Fatimah was encouraged to speak in English. It was a safe environment to make mistakes and she was constantly reminded and encouraged to communicate in English. New friendships were formed, and she took chance to stand on stage and speak to the crowd. At the end of the camp, everyone in my group, including her wrote me a letter in English, expressing their gratitude and promising that they will work hard to achieve their goals.
Advice and guidance
Camp facilitators chosen from a highly competitive selection process play roles to be “mentors” of participants. Some of them share the same dormitories with Fatimah during the camp and have heart-warming sessions such as “Joe-Heart-ry Window” in which she could share her difficult moments in life. Indeed, the bonds created lasted even after the camp. Modules such as Personal and Professional Development, Career Fair and Mock Interview also allowed Fatimah to have an insight on her prospective career pathway and seek for guidance from facilitators who come from related education background.
Involvement in positive activities
Gutman and Akerman (2008) proposed that by participating in extra-curricular activities, young people can learn different skills which can heighten their aspirations. In this context, the Kalsom Academy has been launched. After the motivational camp, Fatimah established a Kalsom Academy Club in her school and learnt how to conduct similar activities in the camp for her peers. She will become more confident and equipped with valuable skills.
Nowadays, Fatimah is busy preparing to conduct modules in Kalsom Academy. She sends me Whatsapp messages occasionally and it’s in flawless English! Sometimes she will complain about her life, but we the facilitators are always there to support her even now the camp has ended! Projek Kalsom had brought us together and I hope her aspiration to become a mathematician will come true one day.
Gutman, L., & Akerman, R. (2008). Determinants of aspirations [Wider Benefits of Learning Research Report No. 27]. Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, Institute of Education, University of London.
Quaglia, R. J., & Cobb, C. D. (1996). Toward a theory of student aspirations. Journal of research in rural Education, 12(3), 127-132.
Schoon, I. (2006). Risk and resilience: Adaptations in changing times. Cambridge University Press.
Prince’s Trust (2004). Reaching the Hardest to Reach. London: The Prince’s Trust.