Finishing high school and joining college isn’t a feat that is easily achieved. Those who manage to make the great leap forward are filled with excitement for the future that lies ahead.
However, being a first year student at the university can be quite daunting as well as a big adjustment not just academically, but also socially. While some adjust easily and thrive, others become overwhelmed to the extent of even dropping out of campus.
According to Dr Jovita Aikande of Dar es Salaam University College of Education (DUCE), in her recent observations, she notes to Success that out of 100 admitted first-year students, only 70 graduated in the expected year, some deferred their years of study while others completely dropped out.
However, she says that most of the time, if the first year goes well, it sets students up for successful university studies and future careers. But if students struggle or become disengaged in that first year, they can under-perform, join bad companies or just drop out completely.
First years have one common goal
First-year students arrive with very different academic and social skills. They also come from different backgrounds and cultural settings. To many, this is the time when they make big life adjustments by living away from home for the first time.
Despite being from diverse backgrounds, one thing that these students have in common is that they come to university to learn while taking the first-year curriculum as a centerpiece of that learning.
It’s obvious that some students have motives that in the other hand contribute to their punctuality, but sadly, as time goes-by some start feeling like they are lost and opt to throw in the towel.
“Adding urgency to the challenge is the sharp rise in the number of university dropouts while most university managements do not initiate ways to mitigate this high rate of loss,” states Dr Aikande.
The unfortunate reality for about one-third of students in campus is that first year is when they drift in an anxious journey from the known and familiar to the unknown and unfamiliar.
Jamson Shitindi, 24, is a new student at the University of Dar es Salaam Business School (UDBS) having been admitted over a week ago for academic year 2018/2019. He explains to Success that since then, he hasn’t received any guidance pertaining to his life trajectory in campus apart from only passing through environmental orientations and being told to wait for the commencement of lectures.
“I am just waiting for classes to begin, yet I’m not very certain about the courses I selected. I had no one to guide me after finishing form six, though, I believe as time goes I will be able to make up my mind on something that will lead to my success,” he said.
For his part, Tobias Filbert, 26, who is now a second year at the same institution, said that it was a challenge during his first moments in campus especially when everyone including lecturers took freshers as grownups and yet they needed extra guidance in their career choices.
“I felt like I was lost after having realized that the courses I selected were contrary to my passion and goals. This made me perform poorly in most of my first semester exams. My situation was salvaged after I approached Dr Gaudensi Mfumbuzi (Lecturer at UDBS) for guidance. This move made me switch some courses and from then my entire academic life changed automatically,” he said.
Prof James Ombeni of Mzumbe University, says that decades of research indicated that students consider dropping out from campus for many complex and often inter-related reasons.
“Most frequently, these center on perceptions on courses and teaching quality, lack of clarity about what is required for success, limited engagement and expectations mismatch. These really affect students psychologically leading to poor performances,” he said.
He adds that rarely is the support students need to succeed provided. “Students are expected to go and find the right guidance for themselves as they are commonly termed as grownups. This is hard for students who have no one at home or in their social networks to ask for help.”
What should be done
Fortunately, what needs to be done is reasonably clear, though not necessarily easy.
While students do need to adjust to the general and specific cultures of higher education and particular disciplines, as higher education experts Prof Mtaresi Sajinte and Dr Fatuma Kange observes, institutions also need to adapt to support students’ diversity.
Prof Sajinte of the University of Dar es Salaam points that in order to enhance students’ prosperity in campus especially at this time when technology is advancing and cultural interaction increasing, universities have to adopt whole-of-institution approaches to improve the first year situation in campus.
“We have to adopt a situation where academic and non-academic staffs work together quite intentionally to level the academic playing field and support students’ success. This gives all students an equal opportunity to be successful, regardless of their backgrounds,” he said.
He also noted that alteration of the curriculum could help prevent first-year students leaving university before finishing their three or four years in campus.
“Using new learning analytics, it is possible to examine the patterns of students’ online access to university resources and intervene if necessary to provide learning support before it is too late,” he said.
One thing that is common to almost all higher learning institutions in the country, is assuming that every student who gets the admission is capable of withstanding all challenges in campus.
Little is known that these new faces require extra-attention from both tutorials, lecturers and guidance and counselling personnel.
“If we are really intentional about the success of students, we can anticipate and mediate known first-year obstacles. For instance, we know that many secondary school leavers are uncertain about their course and career choices. This is easily fixed. Class time can be used for course advising and discipline career exploration to normalize that indecision,” says Dr Fatuma Kange from UDSM.
Dr Kange says that early in tertiary studies, self-management skills were vital in enhancing the same number of graduates to be equal to the total number of students who were admitted in a particular academic year.
“New students are faced with numerous challenges that need managerial interventions. Tutorials in the first weeks should be used to equip students with self-help skills of time management, help-seeking behaviour and goal setting,” she said.
She further discloses that researches on first year in campus are clear and that universities need to intervene to save these important visitors in campus.
“Universities need to stop blaming students for perceived inadequacies. Managements need to come in from the periphery of the curriculum where they have let first years wander for too long in search of unmediated transition assistance,” she said adding that, universities are obliged to quite intentionally, make first-year students’ learning, success and retention their core businesses.