The transition from high school to higher education is one of the most significant steps in a young person’s life. It represents a coming-of-age journey usually associated with great excitement and big dreams, but also with a fair amount of trepidation and uncertainty.
Very often students find themselves ill-prepared for this important phase in their lives, causing even the most promising to struggle.
The old African proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, is true of a university context too. Because it requires nothing less than the combined effort and input of schools, parents, communities, alumni, higher education institutions, and the students themselves to ensure that they are adequately prepared for a successful journey from first year to graduate.
Over the past decade or two, most South African universities have invested heavily in student support offerings. The reason for this can be found in an important focus shift in higher education – from concentrating on securing access to our institutions (which is still important), to ensuring the success of our enrolled students.
But ideally, a successful university journey should start long before students even set foot on our campuses.
In the months and years that precede their studies, they need to be systematically prepared for the important journey ahead – and for this preparation to be truly effective, different role-players need to get involved.
An important departure point is the identification of the right study programme – and by implication, the right career. Choosing a career remains one of the most important decisions in a person’s life. It is essential that every young individual takes personal responsibility for this, and diligently applies themself to identifying a field that suits their specific set of aptitudes, skills, and interests. Time and resources can be saved – and frustration avoided – by informed, well-considered career choices.
But learners’ eventual choice of a career should also occupy an important place on schools’ agendas. In my experience, learners from schools that go the extra mile to expose them to different career opportunities, arranging job shadowing and career talks, eventually make the most successful tertiary study choices. Parents and family members play an equally important role in exposing children to different career possibilities while they are still in school.
Similarly, the foundation for the academic skills needed for successful higher education studies needs to be laid long before studies commence.
Successful university students need strong core skills in writing, research, and critical thinking – ideally honed over the 12 years they spend at school.
University studies are certainly a significant degree more rigorous than high school, demanding a higher level of self-discipline, academic proficiency and time management.
But successful students are normally the ones who have already shown academic commitment at school. They are the ones who are willing to invest the necessary time and apply themselves to continuously strengthening their existing academic skills – plus acquiring new ones.
An academic mindset needs to be cultivated in our schools, but also in parental homes. It is of course true that in our South African context a significant portion of our students are first-generation students – the first in their extended families to go to university.
Which means their parents would obviously not be in a position to share personal experiences and advice on how to approach tertiary studies. But what all parents can do is to inculcate in their children a love for learning and an inquisitive outlook. Once this is established, practical tips and advice can be provided by teachers, counsellors, relatives, and even alumni from the neighbourhood.
For many students, transitioning to higher education also means venturing out on their own for the first time, independent of parents and guardians.
Independent living skills in the form of basic cooking, laundry, and self-care will be needed to support students living away from home for the first time – skills that should ideally be established while living at home.
A degree of financial skills is also required – not only to be able to understand the workings of student loans and financial aid, but also to be able to manage a simple budget to prevent students’ expenditure from exceeding their resources or income.
These are skills that can be taught at school – but need to be reinforced and find practical application at home. As parents, we need to equip our children with the mindset, life skills, and confidence they will need as young adults.
Once again, our South African reality needs to be factored in. We have one of the highest rates of broken homes in the world, with only around a third of children living with both their parents. One in five children have neither of their biological parents living with them. Although this rate of parental absence is disturbing, it is tempered by the prevailing trend of relatives and even neighbours getting involved – often pitching in to play an active part in child rearing.
We need to tap into these encouraging examples of ubuntu in our communities, cherishing and expanding it. Our youth ultimately determines the future for all of us – which should urge us to take collective responsibility for them.
This includes preparing them for what is for many a new social reality after school. Students should be guided to embrace the diversity they will find on university campuses, and encouraged to make new friends and broaden their cultural horizons. University life is, after all, not only about academics but about personal growth, cultural exposure, and relationship building.
The communication and collaboration skills developed and honed during higher education studies are also vital assets in the future world of work.
A significant portion of our students come from smaller rural towns and relatively isolated communities.
They need to be prepared for the wide assortment of views and belief systems found on university campuses – which can be stimulating and fascinating on the one hand, but can also cause some students to feel alienated, and even a little lost. It is a matter of balancing an open mind and a willingness to consider new ideas, with a reaffirmation of those values and principles on which you are not willing to compromise.
This bedrock of core values needs to be firmly in place when they leave home – having been shaped in their homes, schools, and communities.
The abundance of mental health challenges on our campuses clearly illuminates the importance of also making sure that students are emotionally prepared for university life.
Nowadays, most of our university campuses are adequately geared to cater for students’ mental health needs. But these specialised support services are of little use if students do not choose to make use of them.
Once again, parents, guardians, and community role models can play an invaluable role – this time fighting the stigma by talking more openly about mental health issues –and even opening up about their own challenges. We need to encourage our young school-leavers to accept a helping hand when needed – helping them to realise that these can be tools to build the resilience and adaptability needed to negotiate tough transitions.
There is another African saying which I think sums up the essence of higher education: “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together”.
With knowledge systems continually expanding and the resultant emphasis on lifelong learning, it is on the one hand all about travelling far.
But it is also about travelling together. Higher education studies so often entail approaching challenges from multiple angles, embracing multidisciplinary approaches, and working towards co-creating solutions.
Successful university studies hardly ever constitute a solitary journey. Preparing for them should similarly be a collaborative process. It requires different role-players to take hands to ensure that the university years truly are the best years of young people’s lives. And that they produce graduates who are focused on giving back to the communities that helped them get there.
Petersen is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State