To the first-years from rural and township schools: Don’t despair

My colleagues and I were talking about our experiences as first-year students and how things can get particularly difficult if you come from a rural or township school.

This discussion took place while universities in the country were registering new students. In no time their lectures will commence.

This column is dedicated to all first-year students coming from rural and township schools. And partly to the lecturers who are going to be teaching them.

I am not saying that the experiences of students who do not come from these backgrounds is easy, but I know — from experience — that university can be more difficult for an 18-year-old who did not attend a private or former model C school.

It is the little things that many people can easily dismiss as nothing that can convince a student from a rural or township school that university is not for them. You doubt yourself and your confidence easily takes a real knock.


So to the students, most things you encounter will be a culture shock for you.

There will be students in your class who speak posh English and have an opinion about everything. They are going to intimidate you and make you feel small.

Do not pay too much attention to those students — you will later learn that there is nothing special about them.

During our reminiscing session one colleague, who attended rural schools all his life, spoke about how he was stunned when fellow students got into heated arguments with the lecturers. This was a culture shock, because where he came from you did not argue with your teacher. A teacher was an authority and what he or she said could not be disputed.

You will witness this behaviour by some of your classmates. It should not shock you. University is a place to exchange ideas and views. Once you gain your confidence you will also get into debates.

Many things have changed in the schooling system since my colleagues and I matriculated. But some have remained the same. Some learners now use tablets and some schools have computers, but this is not the case in thousands of other schools in the country. That is a fact. So, for some of you, the first time you will use a computer will be at university.

Another colleague, who matriculated from a township school, spoke of his experience of seeing a computer for the first time. He was expected to type up his assignments on a computer and he did not know where to begin. He wanted to write his assignments. Luckily for him he had a friend — who matriculated from a model C school — who was willing to help him learn how to use a computer. He says his friend used to laugh hysterically at him, because he would claim that he could not find certain letters on the keyboard.

So, as you encounter a computer for the first time, please know that you are not the only first-year student who has done so; many have gone down that road.

To the lecturers, there will be students whose voices you are likely not to hear for the entire first semester. Please note that they are not shy. They want to participate in the discussion, but they are not sure whether to use “is” or “was” in a sentence to get their point across. Give them time or, if you can, get to know them more and you will be amazed by how intelligent they are.

To the students, you were probably among the brilliant learners at your school. You got many awards in primary and high school and you  passed your matric with impressive marks.

But at university you are likely to get 40% or 50% in your first  assignment. This is going to cause a dent to your ego. You are going to doubt yourself. You are probably going to contemplate changing courses or dropping out.

Don’t despair. Just keep working hard and in no time you will pick up the pace. And do not be shy to ask for help from your lecturers. They really don’t bite.

Do not forget  to reach out when you want help. Universities have units created especially to help students with their mental health and any other problems they encounter, including with their courses. Use these resources.

And remember to have fun. And know why you are at university.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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