Are you one of the many students are starting their first year at university today, be it having done Matric last year or took a gap year(or three)? I would like to give some advice to you, to help you be better prepared for the year ahead and know what to need to care about, what not and how to have the best first year experience you can.
I am currently a second year student at Wits, studying Electrical Engineering, and had quite a stressful start to my first year last year. I didn’t really know if I liked my course, I didn’t really know which clubs I wanted to join, I didn’t quite understand where everything was in the university or how university things worked. It was a bit of a mess. Lucky for me, I had some good friends that helped me through the process, some of them also feeling the same way. That gets me on to my first point.
1. Seek help if you feel overwhelmed. Talk to a friend, talk to your parents, and if you feel you can’t talk to them or aren’t getting the support you need, talk to a counselor at your university if there is one. It is okay to feel stressed and anxious about starting university. I am pretty sure 80% of people feel this way for the first 3-6 months. That is because it is stressful and anxiety-inducing. I went to the CCDU (Careers and Counselling Development Unit) on campus in my second week, which I highly recommend, and they made me feel at ease about my stressful situation I felt I was in. They told me to that many people feel this way, suggested taking it slowly and easy on myself this year, and that there were group counselling sessions every week for new students if I needed them.
2. Don’t be afraid of people that are different from you. University is a time to reach out and discover as much as you can about the people around you and their struggles and aspirations. Do not dismiss people as stereotypes or “weird”. Be nice, approachable, and you will receive valuable encounters and possibly friendships in return.
3. Leave toxic people alone. If you meet some new people who seem amazing, and you feel this is your shot at getting in with the cool kids, be wary. If they treat you badly, don’t listen to you, aren’t actually supportive and don’t want to spend time around you, run. If you let some people have power over you, they will take it.
4. Be self-disciplined. You are an adult now, no one has to boss you around any more. This can be extremely liberating, but also detrimental to you. Be presentable every day, treat people with respect, go to bed on time etc. You know this stuff!
5. Don’t let someone break your heart. You are still young and everyone else is still a bit promiscuous. Not a good combination. Don’t get too attached and focus on your mission of completing your degree. Boys and girls can wait.
6. Be humble. Yes, I know you got 5 As in Matric and you got full colours for debating in high school, but in university everyone is remarkable, that’s why they’re there. Keep your feet on the ground and plan to keep on improving and getting better at being you.
7. Know where your all your lecture venues are before you start going to them. This will help avoid unneeded stress and make you catch any important introductory notices by your lecturers.
8. Introduce yourself to your professors, know what their consultation times and where their offices are. This will help your confidence and make them more approachable when the you need to consult them about a topic you don’t quite understand closer to exams.
9. Keep up with your work covered in lectures. You don’t have to attend every single one, but make sure to always know what’s happening in each subject and have a plan to revise your work daily.
10. If you do feel you are falling behind or don’t understand something, don’t hesitate to seek help. Ask your friends, tutors and/or lecturers as soon as you don’t understand something. This will save you in the long run.
11. #10 also applies to food, accommodation, your health and your finances, as well as your mental and physical safety. If you feel you are not getting enough support or are not coping, reach out to the right authorities at your university way before it forces you to start failing subjects or drop out. Your university wants you to pass, believe it our not, and they have systems in place to help you do so, all you have to do is ask. At the same time, do not forget #4.
12. Don’t buy any textbooks until you know which ones are necessary and which are not. These books can be a real investment and you don’t want to be stuck with four R1000+ books that you only open a few times, or like me, not at all.
13. The internet is an indispensable learning tool. Use khanacademy, YouTube, Udemy, edX and many other online learning platforms to learn things at your own pace, often with world-class educators, for free or at a modest compensation. Use your own or your university’s computers and Wi-Fi to learn, not just for entertainment.
14. The long run mentioned in #10 is the exam season. During this time you will need to revise more often and practice more past papers, just as you did in high school. However, don’t shut out your friends and family when things get stressful. Spending time with them and telling them about your problems is actually more important than ever during these hard times.
15. Get involved in a few societies or clubs. You can try out as many as you like, but only actually join a couple. Interaction with other people who have common interests will help you establish and affirm your values and passions. Clubs are a great way of staying fit, meeting new people with common interests and let you work on something outside of course work, giving you a more rounded and zoomed-out perspective of university.
16. Learn what you want to learn. If no clubs or societies interest you, use your free time to learn something that interests you. Pick up a hobby like learning the guitar, or painting, or starting a blog. You have the power and time now to learn and do whatever you want. Use it well.
17. Try get a part-time job. If you have any time left in your week with all your work, clubs and sports, try get a small job, preferably to do with what you’re studying. An easy option for this is tutoring high school students. This could be in maths, science, English, anything really. There are many tutoring companies such as Master Science and TeachMe2 and make yourself known as a available tutor on sites like Facebook. A job will help with your communication skills, help you get some workplace experience and best of all, allow you to earn some extra money.
18. Pack a lunch for yourself. Do this one if you want to avoid the dreaded ‘first year spread’ – a condition where many university students gain weight in their first year as they no longer have compulsory hockey every other day like in high school. Universities have various unhealthy snacking options that prey on student’s primal need for food and their new gold debit cards. Save your belly and your wallet by packing yourself a healthy and filling lunch.
19. Get eight hours of sleep each night. This might sound unnecessary – you say you’ve got too many things to do, too many assignments to finish and too many freshers parties to attend. While this might be true, having only five hours of sleep each night for weeks at a time really takes it’s toll on your skin, your attitude and your ability to function at your best. At least put your phone on the other side of the room when you crawl into bed. Scrolling through Instagram until one in the morning, just quickly checking Kylie’s new story and last night’s NBA rumors can wait until tomorrow.
20. The financial strain families and individuals experience at university brings about movements like Fees Must Fall. Either be involved in protests for fees, while trying to maintain your grades and pass, or don’t be involved and don’t get in the way of people who do want to protest. You are perfectly entitled to do what you want to do either way, but don’t put down those who think or act differently from you. Fees Must Fall , and other emerging social movements, are sometimes touchy subjects, and must be approached with sensitivity and context.
21. Enjoy your time in first year. I know you have heard it from your parents already, but seriously, first year will pass alarmingly quickly. Even though now it might feel like there is a giant mountain to get over, November exams will be here and gone just as quickly as Matric.
I feel I am in a privileged position where I live close to my university, have a support network, have adequate food and exercise and still first year was rough for me. This means it might be for you too and that’s okay. Just keep going one week at a time until you can get into a rhythm and you can live your new adult-ish life.
You will get to where you want to go if you work hard every day, have to confidence to speak up when you need to and focus on yourself, your goals and your health and your well-being. Good luck for first year!