A striking feature at South African universities is that more first generation students are entering higher education, bringing with them many unique and complex challenges. Though the context and scope of their experiences may be vastly different, their challenges seem to mimic those of their American counterparts. The reflection that follows focuses on the challenges of first generation students at Stellenbosch University (a historically white South African university, approximately 25 miles Southeast of Cape Town), as observed by the Head of the Careers Office.
The Influence of Parents
The parents of many first generation students have had little formal education and are often unable to provide academic, emotional and financial support. Given their lack of understanding about higher education, some parents find it challenging to handle the academic under-achievement of their children, and when students change their majors to pursue other career options, parents experience anxiety. The result is that parents often contact the counseling center to request information about their students. Career counselors must therefore address the uncertainties and concerns of the parents while still adhering to important ethical principles such as confidentiality.
Financial problems remain one of the key reasons for student attrition in South Africa. Given the strain on family and community resources, there is tremendous pressure on the student to avoid failure. Recent research from the Dell Foundation (Govender, October, 2012) reported that 72% of first generation students in South Africa who receive financial support drop out of college. A “Wrap Around Support” system has been created for first generation students who receive financial aid to provide: academic skills development, psycho-social support, personal and professional development, tutors, an on-site liaison officer to provide personal support, a free printing card, and a swipe card that may be used to buy food. It may also include assistance with finding accommodation, support with adjusting to the changing climate (e.g. winter clothing) and money to provide return transportation to campus should students qualify for supplementary exams. This is a commendable model that needs to be further developed and researched.
Lack of Career Information & Self Knowledge
Many first generation students in South Africa often do not have access to the kinds of career information that is taken for granted in the United States. This is primarily due to the absence of relevant resources and career services at many schools. In general a lot of emphasis is placed on the provision of up-to-date and quality career- and labor market information. However, information by itself is not enough to empower first generation students to make informed and realistic career decisions, and we cannot assume that this process will happen automatically. Self-knowledge should always precede career knowledge (Watson, September, 2012). The need to establish career and personal guidance at schools is therefore of national concern.
Limited Career Options
For millions of South African youth, career decisions are dictated by circumstances outside of their control. Something that sets South African K-12 apart from that of the United States is that for some students, the only accessible secondary school does not offer Math or Science classes, significantly limiting their freedom to choose careers. This dilemma is further complicated by the fact that often the only way into higher education is through financial assistance, with scholarships available only for particular courses of study. Therefore, aspiring students might be forced to conform to career paths that conflict with their interests, personality, abilities, values, or skills.
Difficult College Transitions
The majority of first generation students do not know what to expect when they arrive at college and challenges amount early on. Universities are investing greater resources and developing programs to serve first generation students. For instance, offering first generation camps during the welcoming and orientation period has been a highly successful initiative. However, more should be done to expose prospective first generation students to the culture of institutions of higher education at an earlier age. As a result, Stellenbosch University offers summer programs, weekend programs, visit days and social outreach programs as well as distance learning technology to reach the aspirant student.
Issues Related to Diversity
Language is a very sensitive issue in a country that has adopted eleven official languages. Most institutions have adopted English or Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. For many first generation African students this means that instruction and available textbooks may sometimes be in their third or even fourth language. Some institutions are experimenting with parallel medium and dual medium instruction, while others employ technology for translation during classes. In spite of immense pressures from various interest groups, there is a definite commitment from university management to invest money and resources into finding the best possible solutions. With the shift to narrative career counseling, language has become more important for effective engagement with clients. Training in cultural diversity must therefore form an integral part of the professional development of career counselors. Some first generation students also request to consult with their traditional healers – often the first level of guidance in their own communities. This requires cooperation between counseling centers and traditional healers to form a unified support system for students.
Perspectives of Career Counseling
Many first generation students still view counseling centers as places for remedial interventions. Thankfully, mentoring and other development programs are helping to shift student perceptions towards counseling as a pro-active support service. The shift to positive psychology is also breathing new life into the field of student counseling and the way it is perceived by key stakeholders. Other student services programs like those offered at the Office for Students with Disabilities and Special Learning Needs have provided good models for gaining the support and buy-in of students, parents, government, private donors, lecturers and university management. These successes offer a glimmer of hope that it is possible to overcome the many challenges of first generation students given a unified support system. These are indeed exciting times for the career counselling profession.
The challenges faced by first-generation students in South Africa are not far removed from those attending institutions of higher learning in the United States. Researchers have explored a variety of similar challenges associated with their successful transition to and integration into the American college, including: lack of preparation, homesickness, academic stress, unclear educational goals, lack of self-efficacy, low academic expectations, financial constraints, lack of family and community support, and lack of commitment (Woosley & Shepler, 2011). It seems that – universally - first generation students are at risk of being ill prepared to face the many challenges associated with navigating their way through college. Career exploration and decision-making is therefore an important and complex task for this group of students – and per implication also for the career counselors who help move them along these processes. A meaningful dialogue about common concerns and lessons learned – both nationally and internationally - is therefore especially relevant and timely.
Govender, T. (October, 2012). Dell Young Leaders Program. Presentation conducted at the South African Graduate Recruiters Association Quarterly Meeting, Cape Town, South Africa.
Watson, M. (September, 2012). Career Guidance Policy and Delivery in South Africa: Exploring Baseline and Systemic Issues. Keynote address presented at the National Career Guidance Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Woosley, S. A., & Shepler, M. A. (2011). Understanding the early integration experiences of first-generation college students. College Student Journal, 45(4), 700-714.
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Marquard A. Timmey, is a registered Counselling Psychologist and is currently the Head of the Careers Office at Stellenbosch University (Western Cape, South Africa). He completed all his studies at Stellenbosch University and has been a student counsellor for 12 years. His work with students also includes working as a Resident Head of a men’s hostel at Stellenbosch University for the past 7 years. As a Career Counsellor, he is particularly interested in the career development of first generation students. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Vera V. Chapman, Ph.D, is a Licensed Professional Counselor currently practicing as a Career Planning Specialist at The University of Mississippi while teaching in an Adjunct capacity. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, a study abroad experience to Clemson University in turn led her to The University of Mississippi, where she pursued graduate degrees in Counseling and Higher Education. She finds great purpose in empowering others towards becoming the most extraordinary version of themselves – something she likes to call “chasing your fire.” Vera actively shares career and life planning success strategies through Twitter (@VeraVChapman) and blogging (ChasingYourFire.com). She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.