Johan Fourie's blog

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A guide to your first year at university

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Thousands of students will arrive at campuses across South Africa in the next few weeks. It’s an exciting time for most: out of reach of over-protective parents and the disciplines of high school, the lure of freedom can be an academic and social nirvana. But it is also a time when tough decisions with telling consequences must be made: Should I study literature or engineering? Should I play cricket or join the student newspaper? How will I balance the many demands on my budget? Many students struggle to cope with such hefty decisions. These decisions cannot be avoided; ignoring to answer them immediately is also a decision, and probably the worst one. So I’ve decided to put together a short list of simple things first-year students can do to make their lives much easier, and give their future careers a jump start. You’re more than welcome to add suggestions in the comments section:

1. Consider your options

A university degree is not for everyone. Less than a third of students enrolling at South African universities this year will graduate by the end of 2016, and less than half will actually ever earn a degree. Don’t enrol because 1) your parents force you to, 2) all your friends do it or, worse, 3) you feel as though you don’t have alternatives. To study is expensive; to fail is even more expensive. If you are uncommitted, the costs of failure are severe, not only in financial terms but also psychologically.

Consider your options. There are several excellent training colleges around South Africa that specialise in a variety of trades such as gastronomy, carpentry, fashion design, nursing, welding, and graphic design. It’s not uncommon for students qualified in these fields to find jobs more easily than for students who leave university with the bare minimum. And if you have no idea what you’d like to do after school, why not take a gap year? Find a part-time job. If you can afford to, travel. It’s far better to use this year productively than to suffer the consequences of a rushed decision to enrol at university at all cost.

2. Do your homework (no, not that homework)

There is a famous story of a first-year student who arrived at the registration officer (when this was still done manually in the admin offices) on registration day. When asked what he intended to study, his reply was brief but memorable: ‘What do you have available?’ That’s not how you should make one of the biggest decisions in your life. Do your homework about what you want to study. There are many ways to do this, but often students (and their parents) go to great lengths gathering information that is at best trivial. Career councillors can provide helpful advice, but their advice can sometimes be very basic; they can help you distinguish broadly between medicine, engineering, or languages, but they’re not necessarily the best experts on subject choice and combinations. Instead, why not visit the university open day, talk to the university recruitment officers, or even make an appointment with a lecturer in the two or three programmes that interest you (see next point)? Another option is to have a beer with students that have just completed their studies, and ask them about their experiences. Or someone who has just entered the job market. Google and Wikipedia can help too. So too can blog posts, like my own one here. I’ve heard too many stories of students’ decisions being influenced by friends or family who later regret they didn’t spend more time asking advice from experts. I’d value the advice of a couple of lecturers and university administrators, or recent graduates, much higher than your well-intentioned father or friend who’s heard something from someone somewhere and whose opinion may be biased by their own experiences or priorities.

Oh, and after a few months, if you realise that another programme fits your interests and abilities better, make the switch. It is far better to take an extra year to finish something that you will enjoy doing for the rest of your life, than to force yourself to finish a programme only to please a parent.

3. Don’t follow the crowd

There are certain programmes where your choices are strictly limited: medicine, accounting or engineering, for various reasons, have a fixed course list with little room left in the programme for extra subjects. But in most other programmes, you will have a range of subjects to choose from. My advice is to not follow the crowd. Choose a combination that works for you, but that also challenges your comfort zone: if you’re studying B.Comm, why not enrol for Philosophy or History or Ethics? Or if you are a Physics major, why not also do Economics, or Geography or Spanish? If it’s not available within your programme, consider taking it as an extra subject. There are several reasons for doing this: 1) it’s fun to do something that challenges a different part of your brain, 2) the subjects can often be complimentary, and lead to deeper insights in your primary areas of interest, 3) you get to meet new people in different networks (see bullet 7), and 4) most importantly, after three years, you, together with hundreds of your fellow students will (hopefully) walk away from university with the same piece of paper. Except, yours will show that you’ve invested more, and have obtained a different skill set that distinguishes you from your peers. An employer would be far more likely to appoint someone that has shown initiative to expand their horizons and to think outside the box.

4. Go to class (and ask questions)

Usually a week before exams start, students begin to arrive at my door. It’s often the first time I see these students outside class and although I’m happy to help, I am hesitant to repeat things I had emphasised in my lectures. More shockingly, for some of them, it is the first time they see me, having not attended one single lecture throughout the semester. That’s not the way to make a success of your academic life. Class attendance is critical; studies undertaken in our department show that students who attend class regularly attain significantly better marks than their compatriots who don’t (controlling for observable things like high-school marks, degree choice, type of accommodation, etc.). Think of it this way next time your alarm goes off and you’re too lazy to get out of bed: every class you miss knocks about 1.5 percentage points off your final mark. Miss 10 of them, and instead of earning an honourable 65, you may struggle to pass.

Once you’ve made the effort to attend class, participate. Universities are places of inquiry. Thus, inquire. Your lecturers are not there to repeat what’s in the textbook, but to expand your horizons. And the only way you can expand help them to do so is to push them to the edge of it. Ask questions until you have the answers.

5. Meet the profs

But you can do more than to simply know who your lecturers are. I still remember the few students who, after our first class, have come up to me, introduced themselves and said that they look forward to a semester of interesting lectures. I also remember many of their names (and I’m bad with names). It just makes an excellent impression, and I would be very happy to help them should they need assistance later in the course. I’m not saying you should become BFFs. But a friendly introduction and a casual chat every now and then with your lecturer will show you (disappointingly, perhaps) that they are not as formidable or fearsome as they appear in class. And that they sometimes have interesting ideas (outside of the textbook). And that, surprisingly, they are also interested in your interesting ideas. Also remember that after three years you will probably be required to obtain reference letters for things like job, bursary or graduate study applications. It helps if your referee can actually identify you when a recruitment company calls.

6. Become a lecturer

What? Yes, you – give a lecture. We all have different ways of studying, and that is a good thing. But in my experience, there is no better way to learn than to teach the stuff yourself. Find a roommate, an imaginary friend, a distant relative or a pet, put them in front of a computer screen, open PowerPoint, and walk them through your lectures or old exam questions. Even if you cannot find a willing helper, one of the best ways to learn is to say your answers out loud (don’t do this in the library: you’ll get some unwelcome glares). Do the same with essays; there is no better way to identify your own bad writing than to read it aloud. More formally, university’s often offer tutor programmes where students can help mentor younger students. This is a great way to relearn what you’ve forgotten, and earn some extra money.

7. Build your networks

There is truth in the saying that it’s not really what you know, but whom you know. Universities are wonderful places to meet interesting and talented people, and there is never a better time to meet them than in your first year. In fact, nearly all social activities are designed to make it easier for you to do so. Take advantage of this, but be warned: not all networks are ‘good’ networks. We live in all kinds of social networks: close and extended family, friends you grew up with or went to school with, girl- or boyfriends, friends within your new university living quarters (in your hostel, apartment or even carpool), classmates, team mates, and drinking buddies. All of these can be ‘good’ in the sense that they broaden your horizons, exposing you to other individuals that share your passions and preferences. But it is also quite easy to get sucked into one of these networks, where all your time, energy and resources are devoted to a single group. Networks established at university can be extremely useful later in life. It’s best, therefore, to nurture wide networks, especially during your first year. As you grow older – and hopefully grow wiser – those networks that particularly appeal will become denser, and your friendships will grow deeper.

For some, meeting a lot of new people in a short space of time is the easiest thing in the world. Some of us are extroverts and find comfort in large social gatherings. Others will find this a frightening prospect; introverts would often rather enjoy the company of two or three intimate friends. For introverts, linking up to one or two extroverted friends can be a useful strategy to expose yourself to new networks. For extroverts, if you want lifelong friends, be nice to the introverts. (For a discussion on the varying roles of these two personality types, read Susan Cain’s Quiet – or listen to her TED talk here.)

8. Explore the neighbourhood and connect with its people

Don’t be afraid to explore parts of campus that are ‘off your beaten track’. I’ve heard of students who spend their entire university life in one of three buildings: their residence, the lecture room, and the study centre. Yet universities offer much much more. I’ve visited most South African campuses, and on each there have been wonderful museums, art galleries, architecture, boutique shops and sports infrastructure to explore. And go further: In Stellenbosch, where I teach, the town centre is about a 5 minute walk from campus, yet few undergraduate students ever take the trouble to explore its hidden gems (beyond the bars).

Getting to know your surroundings is an important first step, but I’d like to encourage you to also get to know the people in your new community. It is easy to live your years at university in a perfect bubble, isolated and blissfully unaware of what is happening on the ‘outside’. While this isolation is not always a bad thing – sometimes we need quiet to gain focus – it is vitally important to engage with the ‘real world’. Somewhere during the three years, you will have to confront the question: Why am I doing this? Why did I decide to study Political Science, or Geography, or Chemistry? It is difficult to answer these questions from within the bubble, because that world is radically different from the real one. Engaging regularly with life outside university allows you to maintain perspective.

But more than that, community engagement tends to have a positive influence on your studies. At the end of my first year, I joined a society that helped build houses around Cape Town. These experiences gave me new insights into the South African situation beyond the Economics textbook of the day; when every second person in the township would stop to ask for a manual labour job, I suddenly understood what a 25% unemployment rate meant. In fact, I’m pretty sure that these experiences influenced my decision to study Economics at the graduate level, and to select development economics as my initial area of focus.

There are many formal and informal ways to become involved in the community. Explore campus or the neighbourhood on your own or with a group of friends. (A pub crawl is a good start, but you can do more.) And join a residence project, or a church group, or a university society that is actively involved in the local community. There are many of these on all South African campuses, and it’s a great way to build a new network, have fun, and make a difference.

9. Travel

You will never again have the long, unfettered holidays that you will have as an undergraduate student. Use them. Travel.

Do it at least once a year. And I’m not thinking of a Contiki tour of Western Europe (although they can be fun too, if you can afford them). Instead, head north across the Limpopo and see more of the continent. Go ultra-cheap and use public transport (you can do a four-week holiday with less than R2000). Swim in Lake Malawi, safari in South Luangwa National Park, scuba in Mozambique, or trade in the markets of Dar es Salaam. (Cheap flights to Dar have recently been introduced, so if you’re really fussy about public transport, there are alternatives.) Or why not find a part-time job in Angola, Kenya or Ghana? South African companies eyeing African markets are increasingly in search of employees who have ‘African’ experience.

Or explore our diverse country. Get a group of friends together and take a road trip to Namaqualand, Nkandla, Newtown (Johannesburg) and Naboomspruit. I don’t remember much from my second-year, but I do remember an epic road trip with four friends through the Northern Cape. (Read more about why I travel.)

Universities across South Africa increasingly offer international exchanges, often for third-year or graduate students. Try to do at least one of them. Not only will they distinguish you from the crowd (see point 3), but you will return a more inspired and patriotic South African.

10.  Leave a legacy

As a student, you will have ample time to devote to meaningless things. Don’t just spend it watching series or playing games. Instead, start something new. Why not start a movement, a novel, a new tradition, a trend?

Or a business? The close proximity of like-minded individuals with exceptional skills makes universities a hotbed of innovation. Find these people, tap into their knowledge and networks, and do something great together. It is no coincidence that many of the fastest growing companies of the last two decades were founded by undergraduate university students ‘wasting time’ together. Some of my friends are now working in very successful start-ups that they founded when they were in residence together. Not all ventures last, of course. But the fresh ideas and touch naivety of a first-year can be a powerful antidote to the hubris of the real world. Take chances. Fail. Adapt. Learn.

Nearly everyone that qualifies for university has the ability to graduate within three years. That should be your primary goal. But by itself, that little piece of paper you receive at the end of your labours is really just that: a sign that you have achieved the minimum of what is required. To really benefit, you need to extract more from what universities have to offer academically and socially. See your first year as the foundation of your future, and build it as strong as possible. Don’t waste chances to connect wider, to investigate deeper, to explore further. It’s an exhilarating ride. Make it a meaningful one too.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 6, 2014 at 09:31

19 Responses

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  1. Im doing grade XI, and I want to do software engineering from Sindh University. Thanks for all the stuff I should know. God Bless U

    Syed Mansab Bukhari

    November 2, 2016 at 12:53

  2. Watch this video


    October 17, 2016 at 10:27

  3. if i like petroleum engineering and its no there in my country lesotho and because I don’t get sponsors to simply RSA and I decided to take accounting as second option..the fact is that I like dat engineering…


    June 13, 2016 at 18:57

  4. […] If you don’t believe us, read Prof Jonathan Jansen’s advice: Cracking it on campus, or Johan Fourie’s: A guide to your first year at university. […]

  5. I’m doing grade 11 this year (2016) and I would like to study electrical engineering at wits university .

    Mitchel temple

    January 9, 2016 at 23:13

  6. I will be doing my first year in 2016.Thank you for motivating me.God bless you.

    nyaradzo tapa

    December 10, 2015 at 16:31

  7. […] Johan Fourie makes some great points: don’t follow the crowd, ask questions, build your network etc. […]

  8. […] on what to study, click here. If you want more advice on what to do when you get to university, this might […]

  9. What an advice!many first year students find themselves choosing a cause becauce of preasure from their parents,I think I am no different,I will be doing my first year in 2014 in either Social work,Psycology or media studies,i don’t know please help?

    Duncan lebyane

    December 18, 2014 at 22:14

  10. I Will be doing my first year in university in 2015, therefore what you have said has elevate me. Thank you for advises. I am read to make my mark.


    November 25, 2014 at 11:23

  11. Wow…thanks a lot for this guidence

    Im still at school doing grade 11,and im looking forward to study chemical engineering or medicine.i been thinking which one is the hardest to study between the two,but i really like chemical engineering


    April 3, 2014 at 22:18



    February 5, 2014 at 13:21

  13. i will like to do medicine but as becouse of finencial problems i don’t know wether i will be able to. i like helping people. i’m in grade 12 this year of 2014. so please can you tell me some reletive career to medicine that i can do wish will lead me to be a docter.


    January 10, 2014 at 22:15

    • Yes, it is obviously because of “finencial” reasons…


      November 17, 2014 at 10:36

  14. […] Johan Fourie (‘n Matie-kollega) gee raad vir jou eerste jaar op Universiteit. […]

  15. A very good guide!

    Jaco Kemp

    January 6, 2014 at 10:34

  16. I want to be an engineering or journalist, I don’t know what to study am going to do grade 11 this year, please help

    ntombie Madonsela

    January 6, 2014 at 09:38

    • Hi Ntombie.
      Enigeering is a very broad term and I am not entirely sure which field you are interested in. I studied Civil Engineering and during my post graduate years I did a lot of tutoring. For a University Degree in Civil Engineering at UJ you will need to get 60% for Maths and Science and pass first and second language (this is also the case for both Mechanical and Electrical). During the years I tutored I found that a large number of students struggle with geometry and so I would advise you to ensure your knowledge of geometry is as good as possible Especially if you are looking at doing either Civil or Mechanical. Maths paper 3, is not required, but if you hope to pass an engineering degree it is a very good idea to do it. Technical drawing is not a bad option, although for BIng civil at UJ (engineering degree not diploma) there is only one semester of technical drawing in which the basics are taught and so it is not a requirement.

      Jacqui Allen

      January 6, 2014 at 14:07

      • Hi
        My daughter will be completing her engineering degree in the UK, She is considering doing a Master’s in Engineering at CT. Is it good, is it safe?



        March 8, 2016 at 01:16

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