The number of first-generation students is growing and they may find it difficult to familiarise themselves with the campus culture of a modern 21st-century university.
The number of first-generation students is growing and they may find it difficult to familiarise themselves with the campus culture of a modern 21st-century university.
The Maties Rag Float Procession at Stellenbosch  University. Picture: Michael Pinyana
The Maties Rag Float Procession at Stellenbosch University. Picture: Michael Pinyana

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 the campus culture of a modern 21st-century university.

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 (NFSAS) also highlighted this issue. It said 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 to aid first-generation students in their academic quests.

It is particularly vital, given the number of first-generation students are now overtaking the number of others that enter our universities.

The challenge is to design a support framework that really understands and addresses the reasons why these students cannot cope and often leave university before obtaining any qualifications.

For example, 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 is engaged in further research to ascertain in more detail how universities can ensure that these students study successfully.

Backed by continuous international research and insights, this 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.


First, parents and applicants should try to obtain as much information as they can on the institutions of their choice (a web search or phone call goes a long way). Schools should also provide information on various higher-education institutions.

It is also helpful to talk and listen. Parents and students can establish what a university expects from them – before, during and after.

Building support networks also helps significantly. These are important before and during the university experience, because people who face similar problems are more able to help each other.

There are usually various clubs, societies, sporting codes and social groups on campus. The student representative council (SRC) should be able to point students in the right direction.

Students should also determine what resources the university has available for them.

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.

Most SA universities should be able to provide information and services regarding academic counselling, psychotherapy and career guidance.

The SRC is another important starting point for students with queries on campus life.

For example, the Stellenbosch University SRC runs a language programme for students who are not comfortable with the medium of instruction (Afrikaans or English).

They offer an emergency fund to address immediate issues students may encounter, evenings for first-generation students and their parents, and a shuttle service to help students commute.

All SA universities have democratically elected SRCs to serve their students.

It is also of the utmost importance that parents of first-generation students understand the challenges their children will face when they enter university, especially in their first year.

Difficulties are not only restricted to lecture halls and examination rooms, but are present in everyday campus life.

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.

This necessitates regular and continuous study, self-discipline and the ability to work independently.

Continuous support and encouragement are vital – for the students as well as their parents.

Students should seek assistance at the earliest signs of coping difficulties.

The sooner problems are identified, the greater the chance to remedy the situation.

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 individual 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.

Stellenbosch University for the first time this year offers a first-generation camp on campus, and a first-year academy – in 2006 it was the first university in SA to launch such an initiative.

These interventions and initiatives are designed to assist all students – but more specifically first-generation students – to succeed and eventually exhibit graduate attributes, such as sound scientific knowledge, leadership, excellent communication, information and literacy skills, good human relations, the ability to work well in a team, critical thinking skills, multilingualism, good citizenship and a need to be a lifelong learner. - Sunday Independent

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