For first-generation students, coming to university is a daunting experience. The change in environment, lack of support from family members who unfamiliar with university life, and making the dreaded school-to-university transition are just a few things that provoke anxiety.
And since, globally, 50% of students entering university for the first time are “first in the family at university” (FIFU) students, institutions have a massive responsibility to ensure they feel welcomed and at home on campus.
According to UCT’s Dr Danny Fontaine-Rainen, director of the First-Year Experience (FYE) Project, what really counts for FIFU students is whether the university fosters an inclusive and welcoming environment for them.
The FYE is a collective campus-wide initiative designed to help first-year students make a successful transition into university, and to develop a strong sense of belonging at UCT.
“Creating an inclusive environment influences [students’] entire experience. Facilitating and creating a sense of belonging is very important to them.”
Fontaine-Rainen was speaking at the institution’s recent annual one-day Teaching and Learning Conference, organised by UCT’s Centre for Higher Education and Development (CHED). She delivered a presentation titled “Teaching first-generation students at UCT: The role of institutional culture”.
“Creating an inclusive environment influences [students’] entire experience. Facilitating and creating a sense of belonging is very important to them,” she said.
Fontaine-Rainen said her discussion was informed by comprehensive results from a multi-year research project, which involved obtaining feedback from students and academic staff on their perspectives and perceptions of first-generation students.
Phase 1 of the project focused on FIFU students and their experience at university, while the second phase interrogated the perspectives of academics and their experiences with teaching first-generation students.
She said 20 academics from UCT’s eight faculties had provided feedback. The six-year project is currently in its fourth year of study and continues to make giant strides, she added.
“Once we completed the interviews, we tried to get a sense of what the common themes specific to UCT are. Creating an inclusive environment is one of them.”
Results indicate that the type of student support structure available for first-generation students at university is fundamental, as is introducing various cross-cultural competencies to understand, communicate and interact with students from different cultural groups.
Facilitating a sense of belonging at university underpins institutional culture, Fontaine-Rainen said.
To create the ideal environment for FIFU students, the university should seek to answer several questions, including what the institution stands for, what its values are, what the current culture is, and how these influence the experience of first-generation students.
“We’ve heard many faculty members say that an awful lot of students present with issues where they feel like they’re not part of everything.”
“This is not unique to first-generation students, it’s true for many first-year students. But it is particularly heightened for FIFU students; they’ve got nobody in their immediate family who can guide them on what to expect at university.”
Navigating the system
During interviews with academics, several stressed that some FIFU students may even feel like they’re suffering from imposter syndrome.
“I think they don’t really understand how to navigate the complex university system,” one academic said.
But the university is trying hard to remedy the situation. Currently, teaching staff are working on ensuring they remain more open to students’ needs, and continue to work on their interpersonal skills to better support students through various initiatives.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in terms of making various support systems available to students,” Fontaine-Rainen said.
Despite the challenges, she said, FIFU students have one thing in common – “the sheer grit and determination to succeed”.
“Many of them feel like ‘I’ve made it here and come hell or high water I will remain here and be successful’. Many lecturers were quite struck by this.”
She stressed that it is imperative that the university and its staff begin to fully understand the nuances of the challenges experienced by FIFU students at university.
“There is a growing percentage of students who have not had families attend institutions of higher learning before. That is going to continue to pose serious challenges that the institution will need to grapple with.”
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