Evan Christians: Success Story
Evan Christians (22) tells us about his upbringing and how Life Choices Academy brought perspective into his life again.
“Most of my life was spent growing up in Lotus River. It’s a troubled community with lots of challenges most specifically crime and drugs which are big problems there. Like many poor neighbourhoods, we had a lot to deal with. Loads of kids don’t finish school so unemployment is high which causes a big gangster culture and intensifies the crime levels. This created a dark underlying community. I feel fortunate that the section I grew up in was tight-knit with people looking out for each other, neighbourhood support and generally children felt protected.
Fortunately, when I was ready to go to high school, my Mom had a good job. She worked for UCT and was able to send me to a school in a more affluent community. I felt more privileged than my friends from Lotus River. My first high school in the leafy suburbs was largely attended by coloured learners, so it was not a problem adjusting to this affluent school.
However, in Grade 11, I moved to a new school because I was not doing well and I failed the year. Not sure what happened that year, I guess I lost motivation. I moved from Groote Schuur to Camps Bay High to repeat Grade 11. Travel wasn’t a problem as my uncle taught at Camps Bay primary and I moved to live with him and his family in Mowbray during the week. Weekends I went home to my family. It was really nice living between 2 families – I grew a lot, adjusting to a totally new household and the times I spent back with my family felt a lot more precious. The only challenge at that time was that in Camps Bay High was the first time I became aware of the cultural diversity and the socio-economic divide in South Africa. In the beginning, I was treated differently because of my race. I wasn’t used to racism, having grown up in post-Apartheid South Africa and in predominantly coloured schools where I was the ‘norm’. In the beginning, it was tough but then I got used to it.
I began realising that I had a real aptitude for math and science and I wanted to dive deeper into the science of mathematics. This drew me to apply to study Actuarial Science at UCT. I started 1st year on this course but pretty soon I felt I hadn’t made the right choice – I found it a bleak field of study. Once I’d completed 1st year I made a choice to give up my studies. With this realisation, I felt compromised because my studies had cost my parents a lot of money. I felt as though everything I had worked for had been in vain and that I had thrown away an opportunity. The initial impact of this was that I was left feeling depressed, wondering if I was just going to be another unemployed statistic in the Cape Flats.
Sometime during my apathy and depression and through the advice of a family friend, I applied to do a course at the Life Choices Academy. It honestly was a scary time for me. I didn’t want to make another mistake but I didn’t have many other choices. Neither did I have any motivation or direction. It was a pretty horrible time for me as I didn’t want to be at home and be a burden on my family.
I was accepted to do the coding course and remember that my negative state of mind took away my desire to engage with the other learners. Fortunately for me, the curriculum included professional and personal development, which forced me out of my comfort zone.
Looking back I can see that when I joined the Academy I must have shown up as pretty arrogant knowing that I had had better opportunities in high school than most of the peers in my coding class. Getting to know my peers and working on projects together was very humbling for me. It got me to appreciate differences, diversity and value opinions from others.
One of the activities we had to participate in each week was “Thinking Pairs.” I felt like I was crossing my own boundaries during this time, I was breaking out of my shell by being heard and having to express myself in a safe space. I got to realise that I have given myself too little credit in the past for what I had achieved. Being heard in thinking pairs started to give me a sense of my value and worth. I’ve become open to speaking to others, and to listening out for other people’s stories. This has been valuable during my internship as it has translated into being able to open discussions and hear from my colleagues about their challenges and ideas on projects.
The personal development had me look inward. Being exposed to various life skills at the Academy got me to expand my worldview and my limited thinking.
During the course, we were also expected to perform in many different scenarios like working alone, working in a team, creating a product in a team. A task we were given to achieve was to work in a Design Thinking team to create a product which we had to design, produce and showcase to our class. Our team designed a prototype on a virtual learning centre which had lots of interactive opportunities like animation, podcasts etc. Our objective was to make it accessible to various learning styles. This process enforced a collective thinking space where we could draw on the life skills we had learnt so far. Having to present our design with my team, to our peers, gave us a sense of achievement, whilst we were also inspired by what the other coders had created.
Whilst on the six-month coding course we were offered counselling which is where I identified a sense of arrogance and where I learnt to be more accepting of others rather than being judgemental. It helped me to not be afraid of what I don’t know. I got to unlearn what I thought was right and to open my world view.
Having gone to a privileged high school, I was used to talking in front of the class or the school. These skills were expanded on during the presentation skills training we had on the course. I learnt to focus on engaging with the audience whilst being less aware of myself in the process. It was less about me, and more about my audience. It gave me the confidence to be myself during my interview which I believe played a big role in me landing my internship.
After the first six months, I was offered an internship. Within the first 3 months, the feedback from my manager was how pleased she was in how I had integrated into the team and that they could see the value I was bringing to the business. They wanted me on board and wanted to develop me as a programmer resulting in me being offered a full-time position as a junior web developer in the middle of my internship.
Something that was very valuable during my integration into the company was applying the “learning how to learn” skill we had done during the coding course. It taught us the importance of taking breaks to ensure productivity. It also taught us how to be open to ask for help instead of isolating ourselves when we are feeling unsure of how to do something, which can become counterproductive. I got to accept that I am not a burden because I ask questions. Conversely, asking questions helped to develop and integrate me into the team.
I’ve recently been contemplating what my next career step is and how to grow from what I’ve already learnt. I have a yearning to travel internationally and earn dual citizenship whilst also exposing myself to cutting edge technology. A thought that I am keeping in mind is to one day consult or own my own company but for the foreseeable future, I want to travel and gain as much exposure and experience as I can.
On another level, I want to encourage South African youth in poorer areas to be humble and be prepared to start somewhere, even if it isn’t what they feel they deserve. We all have a beginning point. It’s from this place that we grow and educate ourselves. Being in a lesser position is not dishonourable but not moving out of that position because you feel the world owes you, or that you are entitled, is the very attitude which will hold you back. Take responsibility for your own story. Make it happen.
[In closing] I am grateful for the work Life Choices is doing in the communities – they are a powerful organisation. The programmes are impactful and have been a life-changing experience for me, opening up my future. My coding journey has had a massive impact on my life.