How to ease into your first year at university

Ludolph Botha

How to ease into your first year at university

The demographic make-up of SA universities has changed drastically since the start of the 21st century. This means more students from working-class families, with different cultural values and ethnic backgrounds compared to student populations of the previous century, are being accepted into universities.
The number of first-generation students is growing and they may find it difficult to familiarise themselves with campus culture.

According to international studies, there is a high drop-out rate for first-generation students.

They are twice as likely to leave before their second year of study compared with students whose parents completed a bachelor’s degree.

The National Financial Student Aid Scheme also found that 72 percent of students who received NFSAS bursaries dropped out before completing their studies (most were first-generation students).

The review also showed these students often came from poor communities, and their needs were much more complex than mere financial aid.

With this in mind, universities have an important role in helping first-generation students make it.

At Stellenbosch University a First Generations Commission was established in 2008 to help understand and tackle the unique challenges first-generation students experience.

A group at Stellenbosch University engaged in further research to ascertain in more detail how universities can help.

The commission and subsequent research groups have identified some of the most pressing issues first-generation students face.

Some of these challenges include:

  • financial well-being
  • pressure to perform (academic stress)
  • a lack of knowledge about support services available on campus
  • logistical issues
  • difficulties in establishing a peer support structure,
  • and having parents who do not understand their children’s situation and are incapable of encouraging and motivating them from personal experience.

These students need all the help they can get to make the most of their university experience – not only academically, but socially and culturally as well.

While some universities achieve this through several programmes, there are steps parents and students can take to overcome some of these hurdles.

What you can do:

  • Try to obtain as much information as you can on the institutions of your choice (a web search or phone call goes a long way). Your school should also provide information on various higher-education institutions.
  • Talk and listen. Find out what a university expects from you – before, during and after.
  • Build support networks. These are important before and during the university experience, because people who face similar problems are more able to help each other.
  • Join one of the various clubs, societies, sporting codes and social groups on campus. The student representative council (SRC) should be able to point you in the right direction.
  • Determine what resources the university has available for you. For example, Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Student Counselling and Development is part of its student and academic support division. This centre provides self-help information on its website and hosts workshops on, for example, adjusting to campus life to make sure first-year students have all the information they need.
  • Ask the SRC. All SA universities have democratically elected SRCs to serve their students. The SRC is another important starting point for students with queries on campus life.
  • Study regularly and continuously. Exercise self-discipline and develop the ability to work independently. Students should understand enrolment at a university is very different from the more practical courses colleges offer. Work volumes are very high and the pace is fast.
  • Continuous support and encouragement are vital – for students as well as their parents.
  • Seek assistance at the earliest signs of coping difficulties. The sooner problems are identified, the greater the chance to remedy the situation.
  • Parents must understand the challenges their children will face when they enter university, especially in their first year. These difficulties are not only restricted to lecture halls and examination rooms, but are present in everyday campus life.

University is not meant to be a place of academic learning only, but also a great social and cultural experience – it is up to the you to make sure it is unforgettable for all the right reasons.

The out-of-class experience can contribute as much to the success and rounding off of students as the in-class experience.

But unfortunately, it can also be the reason (distracter) why some students overdo the freedom and social life and neglect their studies.

As with so many things in life, it is a matter of maintaining a healthy balance, with the main focus on succeeding academically.

For first-generation students whose parents cannot guide them in this aspect of student life, the challenge to maintain a healthy balance is much greater than for other students.

* Botha is senior director of student and academic support at Stellenbosch University.