As South Africa's born-frees make their way to higher education institutions, the challenges associated with being first-generation students are becoming clearer. These unique challenges must be identified, acknowledged, and addressed to ensure such students are given every opportunity to realise their potential, an education expert says.
Dr. Ngoato Takalo, deputy director of partnerships at the Independent Institute of Education (IIE), says a recent poll of student support staff and first generation students on campuses indicated that while there was enormous pride when someone was the first in a family to enter tertiary education, such youngsters also bore more anxiety related to responsibility and performance.
"Many first-generation students approach further education without a realisation of the enormous adaptation required to make a success of tertiary studies. Coupled with the weight of expectation from their families and their determination not to fail, students could come to feel over-burdened," says Takalo.
Students are under pressure
In their work with first-generation students at Rosebank College, one of the education divisions of the IIE, student support staff indicated that one of the main issues facing first-generation students was the responsibility to do their families proud. While on the one hand this was a positive development, and often drove students to achieve, it could also easily become overwhelming for many.
"Most families sacrifice a lot to allow their children to attend a higher education institution," says Takalo. "While it motivates you to get an opportunity to attend university or college, it also puts tremendous pressure on you to do well in class and to behave properly in social circles, particularly if you are female."
Expectations are very high, and stretch beyond the immediate family and into the village if a student comes from rural areas, or in the case of urban areas, into the neighbourhood. Various factors make youngsters from families without tertiary education decide to be the first to do so, even though it may be a daunting prospect.
Pride is a motivational factor
"Often those who are first generation students say they'd like to make their families proud, change their economic circumstances, and want to help their siblings or other relatives achieve the same, if not higher, education. In many cases, such students come from single parent families and recognise a real pressure to make a financial contribution as soon as they can. Pride also motivates students not to disappoint their families," Takalo says.
"We have learned from our students that it does not matter whether you go to university or college, private or public, it takes a lot as a first-generation student to achieve success. And while parents and family admired the fact that you have done what nobody in your family has done before, they are mostly not in a position to help you succeed academically."
Takalo says schools and higher education institutions have a duty to recognise the additional psychological, educational and social challenges faced by first-generation students. While many institutions have identified this phenomenon, it is not enough to only acknowledge its existence. It is important that structures in higher education support students who cannot get the right support from others who have gone before."