This article discusses how two learners in a rural school use aspirational capital to overcome challenges and ensure academic success. In bridging the gap between the community context and the school context, learners use different forms of capital to ensure successful navigation in the new context. Aspirational capital is obtained through individual experiences in specific contexts. As a form of resilience, aspirational capital assists learners in dreaming about possibilities beyond their present circumstances, often without the means to reach their goals.
This article is derived from a dissertation (Groenewald 2012) that explored the subjectivity of learners in a rural mining school environment in the Northern Cape province. The study was driven by the central research question: How do learners use aspirational capital to overcome challenges and ensure academic success? To answer the research question, the study was conducted according to a social-constructivist paradigm that recognises social reality in individual experience and the construction of knowledge.
One male Xhosa learner and one female Nama learner were selected as participants for the study. The two learners had to endure many challenges; they had to travel long distances to school, came from broken families and experienced a shortage of resources and entertainment in their communities. Moreover, their culture – Nama and Xhosa respectively – was in the subdominant position at school. Data were generated through four semi-structured interviews. The first interview was used as a point of departure and focused on the participants’ biographical backgrounds. The subsequent interviews explored their narratives in the contexts of their community and school. The final interview centred on navigation and negotiation in changing contexts. The narrative methodology was employed, which involved the telling, retelling and analysis of the participants’ stories. The stories focused on what was told by the participants, while the narratives focused more on how the participants told their stories. The narratives gave insight into how the participants used aspirational capital in the navigation of the new contexts.
The data were analysed using Appadurai’s (2004) theory of the capacity to aspire, Yosso’s (2005) cultural wealth of communities model and Somer’s (1994) narrative identity theory as theoretical lenses. An overview of the concept aspiration served as the foundation for the theoretical framework. Aspirations should be understood through the theory of the capacity to aspire, within the context of interaction and social life. When exploring the possibilities of interaction and the social context, aspirations can be seen as both a cultural and a navigational tool. They focus on material needs and non-material hopes and dreams, as well as the values and norms deriving from these. Appadurai (2004) illustrates that the distribution of the capacity to aspire depends on social, cultural and economic resources. Consequently, poor people, with limited opportunities to utilise the capacity to aspire, have limited aspirations.
Yosso’s (2005) cultural wealth of communities model focuses on the knowledge, skills, abilities and networks of communities that enable people to survive despite oppression and marginalisation. The model recognises learners’ embedded individual cultural wealth, which, in turn, shapes their aspirational capital and assists them in navigating new contexts. Learners’ community and family resources shape their aspirations to combat challenges and ensure educational success. Aspirational capital, a form of community wealth, is the ability to stay goal-orientated despite challenging conditions. Aspirational capital or positive self-image is linked to a critical consciousness of how communities operate. Somer’s (1994) narrative identity theory differentiates between ontological and public narratives. Ontological narratives are personal stories that bring meaning to an individual’s life. The participants’ ontological narratives illustrated their ability to use aspirational capital to navigate challenging conditions in their community. Public narratives are linked with institutions such as the church, workplace and school. The institutional narratives also highlighted the participants’ capacity to aspire, using aspirational capital to rise above challenges at school.
The data are presented in three themes. The first theme – learners’ community narratives – focuses on experiences in the participants’ communities. The narratives showed that a lack of family support hampered their capacity to aspire. The participants used their imagination and cultural activities to shift their focus from the present difficult conditions to future possibilities. Positive influences, such as family support, friends, religion and tradition, assisted the learners in using aspiration as a navigation and cultural tool to rise above their immediate challenges. The second theme – learners’ school narratives – is linked to the learners’ aspirations in the school context. With limited economic resources, learners can rely on social and cultural resources while navigating the school context. The third theme is navigation through aspirational capital. A positive attitude and self-image, work ethics and support from teachers and friends can serve as navigational tools to combat challenges and ensure academic success.
The final section is a discussion of how the learners used aspirational capital to navigate the school context. Values and norms lay the foundation for aspirations. Individuals with a positive attitude and thorough knowledge of what is important can stay goal-orientated amid challenges. Non-material resources, such as values, norms and traditions, can assist learners in developing aspirations. Agents for change depend on aspirational capital to create an action plan for the unfolding future.
This article illustrates that learners with the capacity to aspire will use their resources successfully to unfold a culture of possibilities and act as agents of change. Learners without the necessary resources can depend on social (friends and teachers) and cultural (tradition and values) resources to combat challenges and ensure academic success. If learners know themselves and their communities, they can identify and use the necessary resources. It can be argued that these skills, abilities and knowledge can assist learners to hope and dream for a better future amid various challenges. Further research could use participants from different ethnic backgrounds to ensure the validity of the study.
Keywords: agency; aspiration; aspirational capital; learner challenges; navigation; rural school