The survivors' guide to first year
The world experts on how to survive and thrive as first-year university students are ... this year’s second years. Here they share their advice for grade 12s who aim to be on campus next year.
Adjusting to freedom
Many students say they were at first overwhelmed by the degree of freedom that came with varsity.
No longer having parents and teachers to guard their every move, they had to take a crash course in personal responsibility.
“At school there are many rules and regulations and you sometimes feel like you have no freedom. University is completely different,” said Marcel Buys, a second-year law student at the University of Pretoria, adding that too much freedom too soon can be a bad thing. “You start doing what you want to, like skipping classes or sometimes skipping an entire academic day.
“The sense of freedom can be overwhelming. That’s why it’s so important that when you do enter university you know exactly what your goals and future aims are.”
Anelisa Onceya, a BA social sciences student at Fort Hare University, echoed this, but with a special word of warning for women: “You’ll have freedom like you’ve never had before. You won’t have parents asking, ‘Where have you been? Where are you coming from? How come you took so long?’
“And the boys will be all over you ... Quite a few students get pregnant in first year. But always remember, if you need help, there are lots of support structures at university that will help you.”
Charl Naude is doing a BA in media studies at the University of the Free State. He cautioned against some uneducated mistakes that can come from new-found varsity freedom: “Avoid cheap alcohol,” he especially recommended, adding that without essential tools for managing your freedom, first-years can lose the plot.
Finding a balance
Siobhan Swart, an international relations student at Stellenbosch University, found that striking a balance between studying and socialising was “quite challenging” in her first year: “The workload is large and your social life becomes even larger than at school,” she said.
Tshifhiwa Rakuambo, a BCom accounting student at Rhodes University, said that no one could have prepared her for varsity, but if she could go back to first year, she would study harder and try to find a better balance between her social and academic life.
If given the opportunity to counsel grade 12s now about being first-years in 2011, she said she would tell them to resist peer pressure, “because sometimes you don’t even realise [that you’re being influenced by your friends] and you fall into the trap”.
Meeting like-minded people
But varsity is not only about being cautious and careful. Alika Visser, who is studying for a creative brand communications degree at Vega, said: “Varsity life is more enjoyable as you are studying to better yourself in your own special way.”
Meeting more like-minded people and experiencing many new and exciting things is also part and parcel of the adventure. For Naude, varsity is a bright collage of individuals, “people who are more comfortable in themselves, who are free to express themselves”.
Ben Fogel, a Rhodes University BA student, made friends when he arrived in Grahamstown by circulating among the many student societies, which offer a wide range of activities. His advice: “Expose yourself to different situations and you will soon meet like-minded people. Making friends is a process of trial and error, but you have to put yourself out there.”
Stepping up academically
Fogel did his matric at a private school in Cape Town and is now majoring in philosophy and politics. He said he “despised high school”, especially the outcomes-based education system. “I hated the way matric was just a rubric, a set formula which you had to follow for marks. It was so uninspiring.
“At university you have to think on your feet, you have to learn how to argue, how to think critically. A lot of people struggle. There is such a vast gulf academically between school and uni, you can’t really compare the two. I love it, actually.
“I’m a pretentious fuck, an aspiring intellectual. So, for me, the best thing about university has been the academic challenge.”
Fogel is spending the second semester this year on a student exchange at Furman University, South Carolina, in the United States.
Saadil Laher, a second-year law student at Wits, had a tough time adjusting academically: “I came from a government school, so the step up to university is much tougher. My friends who came from IEB [Independent Examinations Board] schools seemed to cope much more easily ... The standards at government schools need to be addressed. It’s difficult for those students.”
Overcoming the language barrier
Once Onceya got to Fort Hare, she discovered that English was a problem. “At school we were taught mostly in isiXhosa. Now all our lectures are in English. Different lecturers from different areas speak English differently, which makes it even harder,” she said.
She needed to find a way to cope—and fast. She had always loved acting, so she formed a drama group with 10 of her English Comprehensive Language (ECL) course classmates. They dramatised the prescribed texts and performed them for their classmates to help them all understand the texts better.
“We did it on our own initiative,” she said, “but my advice would be to practise your English before you get to university.”
For Tshifiwa Rakuambo at Rhodes, coming from KwaZulu-Natal and now studying in the Eastern Cape has proved difficult because she was not familiar with the local language, isiXhosa. This created some communication barriers for her at first.
“But I ended up embracing it more than I feared it,” she said.
Just making it to university was a major challenge for Onceya, who went to school in Grahamstown. “In township schools you don’t have access to computers or the internet, so it’s hard to research bursaries and the different universities, as well as to download application forms,” she said.
The way around it is to ask your teachers for help: “I was good at maths and science and so those teachers were happy to research universities and courses for me. There are so many bursaries and so many opportunities out there. Check with your local municipality about municipal bursaries, or with local NGOs in your town or area.”
Loving what you study
Over and above the high speed life of varsity, with cheap alcohol, a busy social life and great opportunities, Visser would tell matrics to study what they are passionate about. “Don’t let anyone dictate to you their own ideas of what you should study. Being forced to study a course you are not really interested in will more than likely result in failure.”