Transitioning to university: Students share their struggles balancing freedom and responsibility

What you need to know:

  • The absence of the structured environment they were accustomed to in secondary school leads to difficulties in time management, academic self-discipline, and balancing competing priorities.

During primary and secondary school years, students undergo close supervision from teachers. However, upon entering university, they are suddenly granted significant freedom.

This transition often poses challenges as students navigate newfound autonomy and responsibilities.

For many university students, the transition from the structured environment of secondary school to the newfound freedom of university life marks a significant milestone in their lives.

Grace Beatus, a first-year student at Tumaini University Dar es Salaam College, recalls her initial excitement at the prospect of university life.

"I remember feeling a sense of liberation when I first stepped onto campus. The freedom to choose my lifestyle, explore new interests, and make my own decisions was exciting."

Grace had heard about university life and had been eagerly waiting to get there and experience the freedom of learning without supervision.

However, her excitement did not last long, as she soon encountered challenges navigating this newfound freedom. "It wasn't long before I realised that with freedom comes responsibility," she recalls.

Grace says balancing academic commitments, social activities, and personal responsibilities was a steep learning curve.

Upon entering university, some students usually have little insight into its unique learning environment, while only a few possess a basic understanding of its distinctions from lower educational levels.

Many are taken aback and occasionally disheartened upon discovering that the reality of university life often diverges from their initial expectations.

A first-year student at the University of Dar es Salaam, John Munge, says he found the transition daunting yet rewarding.

"At first, I was overwhelmed by the independence and choices available to me. But with time, I learnt to embrace the challenges and opportunities that university life presented," shares John.

For him, there was no turning back. He had to take the bull by the horns.

For Mary Martin, a second-year student at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), the transition brought a mix of emotions. She says leaving the familiar structure of secondary school behind was both exciting and intimidating.

"University life poses a lot of challenges, fuelled by peer groups, but with the support of mentors and lecturers, I gradually found my footing and began to thrive in this new environment," states Mary.

Dr Isaac Safari, a lecturer at SAUT, says that while the newfound freedom in university can be empowering, it also presents challenges for some students.

“The absence of the structured environment they were accustomed to in secondary school leads to difficulties in time management, academic self-discipline, and balancing competing priorities.”

The lecturer says that some students struggle to adapt to the increased academic consistency and personal responsibility, leading to feelings of overwhelm or disorientation.

Mr David Mmanga, a lecturer at Ardhi University (ARU), concurs. He says that for many students, the transition to university brings with it a sense of liberation and independence.

However, this newfound freedom can also be overwhelming, particularly for those who are unprepared for the academic and personal demands of university life.

“Some students may struggle to establish effective study habits, manage their time effectively, or cope with the pressures of academic and social expectations,” says Mr Mmanga.

Without the structure and support they were accustomed to in secondary school, Mr Mmanga notes that students may feel adrift or uncertain about how to navigate their academic journey.

Irene Patience, a third-year student at a college in Dodoma, says she narrowly escaped being discontinued from her studies in her first year at college because she would only study close to examination time.

“Failing exams is easy if you are not careful. Unlike in secondary school, where students have timetables to revise and do so under supervision, it's different in higher learning. No one supervises anyone here,” she shares. Irene had to learn to manage her time.

Ms Gladness Godwin, a lecturer at the University of Iringa, says the type of freedom in higher learning presents challenges that can impact students’ well-being and academic success.

“As educators, we must create a supportive learning environment that acknowledges these challenges and provides students with the resources, guidance, and encouragement they need to succeed,” she shares.

She says during orientation courses, lecturers need to address the transition challenges students may face as they move from secondary school to university.

“This aspect is often not adequately emphasised or addressed. The focus is usually on academic expectations, course requirements, and campus resources.”

Ms Gladness says lecturers could share personal anecdotes or insights, provide resources for counselling and support services, and encourage students to prioritise self-care and seek help when necessary.

“Lecturers can also play a pivotal role in recognising signs of distress or adjustment difficulties among students and connecting them with appropriate resources for assistance,” says Ms Gladness.

A sociologist and lecturer at SAUT, Ms Linah Kabula, says one of the primary challenges faced by students is the abrupt transition from a structured educational environment to one characterised by ambiguity and open-ended possibilities.

“The absence of clear guidelines and the need to self-regulate academic responsibilities can be overwhelming for many, particularly those who thrive within the confines of structured routines," the sociologist says.

As a result, she says students may struggle with time management, prioritisation of tasks, and maintaining academic discipline, leading to feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

To help students cope, a psychologist at the University of Dar es Salaam, Mr Dennis Ngutu, says universities can organise comprehensive orientation programmes to familiarise students with campus facilities, support services, academic expectations, and campus life.

“These programmes can help alleviate anxiety and provide a sense of belonging." He suggests implementing mentorship programmes where new students are paired with senior students or faculty members for guidance and support.

“These mentors can provide advice on academic matters, and personal development.” The psychologist says offering easily accessible counselling services is crucial for students navigating the challenges of university life.

“These services should address various issues such as academic stress, homesickness, relationship problems, and mental health concerns,” he notes.

Additionally, he says that empowering students to speak up for themselves and seek assistance when necessary is essential.

“University staff should encourage open communication and create a supportive environment where students feel comfortable expressing their concerns and seeking help,” he explains.

Mr Ngutu says offering workshops focused on life skills such as time and stress management can equip students with practical tools for navigating both academic and personal challenges.