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Student Leaders as partners in enhancing first-year student retention and success

Author: Dr Subethra Pather

Teaching & Learning specialist in the office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor: Academic at the University of the Western Cape

(Published - 30 April 2019)

Every year, thousands of young women and men enter the gates of universities around the country to start a new, invigorating chapter of their lives. If Hollywood, “The Gram” (Instagram) and family, amongst others,  are anything to go by, this is where students will find themselves and make lifelong friends, their social lives combusting with excitement as they mature personally and intellectually. But these romanticised expectations generally cave in almost instantly and terribly ungracefully.

These students are slapped with financial stress, balancing family commitments and studies while trying to socially integrate into a university life that is over and above simply adjusting to their academic programme. It is, therefore, no surprise that university drop-out rates at local and international universities reveal the highest student drop-outa are in the first year of study. My research on first-year students’ expectations and experience of university study, done at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), indicates that when first-year students’ expectations of university does not match their actual university experience, these students are more likely to feel disconnected from the institution. This situation can fester and, ultimately, lead them to fail or drop out. It is, therefore, crucial for universities to be pro-active in front-loading initiatives to ensure first-year students feel supported and engaged with university life.

Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student: A Handbook for Improving the First Year of College, first published in 2015, reveals that when institutions create intentional, intellectual and social campus environments that challenge and support first-year students’ efforts to succeed, students usually respond positively to such initiatives. In 2017, UWC implemented the Operation Student Success (OSS) project, initiated in the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic. This year, the First Year Experience (FYE) programme, which is part of the OSS project, has developed intentional and student-centred initiatives to foster an inclusive First-Year Transition (FYT) programme, which has already yielded valuable insight and positive results.

The programme is designed to facilitate a shared sense of belonging, cohesion and success for all UWC first-year students. The foundation of the FYT programme is to have senior students support first-years in transitioning to university. The programme encourages students to express their concerns and share their experiences in a safe space.

Postgraduate students were selected to be First-Year Transition Officers (FYTOs) in the seven faculties across UWC. The FYTOs have a visible presence in each of their faculties and work closely with first-year mentors to assist first-year students. The FYTOs and mentors are also students from the respective faculties they are appointed in, which allows them to relate to the first-year students and assist them with any academic and social queries. Often, they are the first point of contact for first-year students who are reluctant to engage with lecturers and other faculty members in fear of being judged. The OSS project regards the well-being of first-year students as everyone’s concern and, in this regard, the FYT programme works on an integrated approach to support the students. The FYTOs work in partnership with first-year lecturers, the office of the DVC: Student Development and Support, the Student Representative Council (SRC), the library, and the Centre for Student Support Services (CSSS) to ensure first-year students receive the support they need or request.

Furthermore, the FYTOs can be seen as the link that creates trust and a sense of connectedness between first-year students and the institution. In the first term of implementing the FYT programme in faculties, the FYTOs and mentors have dealt with a number of concerns and queries from the students. The five most common challenges experienced by students in the first few weeks on campus are accommodation, transport, financial stress, workload and course content, and adjustment to university life.

The following challenges were shared by students:

Accommodation:

“I travel every morning at 4:30am to catch a bus to UWC. A lot of my time is wasted on travelling when I could be using it to focus on my varsity work. Every day I get home extremely tired and can hardly complete my varsity work. If I could get accommodation close to the university it will really help."

Another comment:
“I am really stressed. I have tests coming up and I don’t have res accommodation yet. Where I am staying, it’s chaotic. I can’t study effectively and at times I feel like going back home...and leaving school…..this whole thing is stressing and depressing me.”

Lectures:

“My lecturer is moving too fast while spending less time on explaining the course content…..I am lagging behind in understanding the concepts.”

Adjusting to university life:

“I have spent five weeks on the university premises and I am not coping at all. I am struggling to adjust, I try all the time to focus but I can’t concentrate during lectures. I heard that there are people in the University aiming to help us and I am reaching out hoping to get the necessary information.”

Financial woes:

“Not receiving any allowance from NSFAS has made it difficult for me to travel to and from UWC. Buying food, study materials and stationery has been a challenge which is affecting my studies.”

These are just some of the issues that FYTOs and mentors in faculties focus on. The FYT programme is in its infancy and is being co-created by myself as the co-ordinator and the FYTOs who work on the ground. The FYTOs will attend a Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) course on co-creating curriculum to help design FYT initiatives to support students. To date, feedback from students, mentors, mentees and staff provide a clear indication that the programme is making a difference. Although the shift is slow while we get buy-in from the various university stakeholders, it is a step in the right direction.

One student wrote: “Thank you for putting me in touch with the lecturer and all the effort you are making to try and help me. My session with the lecturer went well; I got clarity on some of the topics. I just need to practice to get confidence now.”

Another message from a student reads: “Yesterday, I went to the SRS office and was lucky to be assisted by one of the members who I was looking for. He was able to help me. I am glad to let you know that we found a place for me in res and I will be moving in this weekend. Thank you so much for your help and God bless you.”

It is evident that in order for first-year students to have a successful university transition, it will depend on strengthening relationships with peers and the wider academic community. In turn, this will build on and support a sense of belonging and connectedness to UWC.

Acknowledgement: The first year expectation and experience research is funded by the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Thuthuka Funding Instrument 2018-2020.

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