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5 Tips for First-Years

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

(The South African Edition)

For those of you who are new around here, my name is Erin & I am currently a second year student at Stellenbosch University. Before I started university, I spent lots of time reading up about what it's like to be a university student & what I should expect. Most of what I read was written by American & European students, and although I gained some insight into what my life would be like, I decided that it was time I put together some tips & resources tailored to South African students. I have compiled a list of 5 things that I wish I knew when I headed off to Stellenbosch University at the beginning of last year...

1. Make the most of welcoming week: Welcoming week was a hugely positive experience for me. I don't think I had very high expectations of it - I kind of expected it to be like a school camp. I figured it that the days would be pretty packed and that we would do a bunch of activities designed to help us to meet some people. I never imagined that I would meet my best friends. I also did not expect the leaders of my residence to make such a huge effort to get to know us & to make sure that we were included, happy & safe. My welcoming program was designed around helping us to get to know our campus (there was a huge emphasis placed on safety), encouraging us to be open to new experiences & giving us the opportunity to bond with the other people in my residence. I definitely would not describe myself as athletic and I would be lying if I said that I wasn't concerned about keeping up with the busy-ness of the welcoming schedule, but I was committed to giving every activity 100% and in hindsight, this was the best decision I could have made. You only get to experience welcoming once & the more you choose to participate, the more experiences you will get to share with people. Every relationship that you build during welcoming is another friendly face on campus & the opportunity for another friendship.

2. Attend every free event that interests you: This one is not so much about the fact that universities host tons of events and talks which are free to students, but more about the fact that you're at university for a limited amount of time and once you leave, you lose access to so many of the opportunities that come with being a student. One of my best memories from my first year was attending a talk on the applications of mathematical modelling which was hosted by one of my professors. The talk was given in the lounge of a really nice restaurant in town & it was attended mostly by business people, academic faculty & post-graduate students (& of course, me and my five first year friends). We dressed up, ordered drinks & listened to one of the most interesting talks I have ever attended. But I gained more than just a fun memory from this talk. I was exposed to ideas that I didn't even know existed & as a result of some of the things I learnt that night, I have chosen to take different modules this year & am considering a completely different career path to the one I had in mind when I started university. I strongly encourage you to expose yourself to as much as possible while you're at university. Some students graduate with a degree & others leave with ideas & experiences in addition to their degrees.

3. Sit at the front of the lecture hall: I know some of my friends will fight me on this one, but it's been one of the best decisions I've made since starting university. There is a great misconception that building relationships with your lecturers is not as important in university as it is in high school, but I've come to learn that it never hurts to have lots of people who want to see you succeed. Not only does sitting at the front make it easier to pay attention (I know that I'm much less likely to scroll through Instagram when I'm sitting right in front of my professors), but it also means that your lecturer is more likely to learn your face & probably even your name. Around the middle of my first year, I got a really bad physics mark (so bad that I was worried I wasn't going to make exam entrance), I decided to make an appointment with my physics professor in the hope that he could give me some guidance on my study methods. He told me that if my mark was not high enough for exam entrance, he would adjust it because he knew that I had been in every lecture, and this is not the first professor who has been know to do this - presence pays off! (On a side note, I was worried about nothing, I made exam entrance & finished the year with a distinction in both of my physics modules).

4. Learn to budget! I had an allowance in high school, but it was only really for clothes & social activities. In college, my allowance covers food, clothing, cleaning products (like laundry detergent & dish liquid), school supplies, dances & events and anything that I might want to do with my friends. My residence does have an option to eat in the dining hall which costs around R78 a day (depending on which meal option you choose). Although res food is SUPER convenient, it wasn't quite to my taste & I was definitely gaining weight, so about 3 months into my first year, I started cooking for myself. I feel like budgeting for food is probably the hardest part of budgeting - I don't have a proper kitchen, so I need my meals to use as few ingredients as possible, take as little time as possible, be at least a little bit healthy & fit within my budget. Unfortunately, the convenient meal options (like ready meals) are usually not so budget friendly. My best advice for eating on a budget is to make meals which freeze well (like bolognaise or a pasta sauce). Make a big batch of food on a Sunday night & then portion and freeze it - this way, you'll have something tasty which you can stick in the microwave during the week. I know that overseas, student specials are a really big deal and that you can get them pretty much everywhere. When I first started studying, I wasn't really aware of how many specials are available to students in South Africa (mostly because they're not advertised, so you have to ask about them or because they only apply on certain days). My advice for getting student specials would be to always keep your student card on you and don't be afraid to ask stores & restaurants if they have students specials. My friends & I have a tradition, that on the first Friday of every month we go out for dinner. And where we go depends on how much money we have left over from the previous month. If it was a tight month, we grab burgers or pizzas to go & if we managed to save up a bit, we go to one of the nicer restaurants in Stellenbosch. I have put together a little budgeting template which you can download here.

Student Budget Template
Download PDF • 50KB

5. Use the facilities on your campus: I had been at university for 6 months by the time I had my first study session in the library, now I go to the library almost every day (well, I did before lockdown anyway). During my first year, I would often walk back to my residence if I had a break between lectures. My residence is about 15 minutes from campus, so if I had an hour off, I'd only have 30 minutes to grab a snack & do some work before I had to start walking back to campus. I have since discovered the library & it has been a game-changer! Take some time to get to know your campus (and I mean more than just finding your favorite coffee spot). Most universities have hidden gems - like an idea hub where you can use 3D printers, laser cutters & other high-tech pieces of machinery. Explore the art faculty - they usually have really great software for editing that students get access to for free. Spend time in your library, computer labs & study centers - you'll quickly discover where you like studying most. I have always liked studying in my room, but living in a university residence is a little different to living at home. My friends are always just a couple doors down the hallway, my fridge is less than a meter from my desk & there is always something exciting happening, so if I really need to be productive, it's usually a good idea to have a study session on campus.

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