Reflections and insights on the First Year Experience Conference

Raina Gihwala, the ECP-Coordinator of Emergency Medical Sciences, attended the First Year Experience Conference, hosted by the University of Johannesburg on 19 – 21 May 2015 (see the FYE-Conference-Proceedings_2015). In this post she shares her insights and observations about the conference and reflects on how the themes and discussions relates to her own work as a first year lecturer in her department.

“Promote students’  progression to goal completion by knowing our students and creating needed systems, processes and learning environment” (Lane 2014)

The First Year Experience Conference brought to us by the South African National Resource Centre was a first of its kind. The experience apart from the knowledge gained was one to remember, academics from all sorts of universities came together to share experiences in a platform that one could share similar concerns and solutions they had tried and tested.  The themes of discussion through the duration of the conference allowed for discourse in this field where very little tangible research has been done, yet this very theme is crux in student success.

The conference gave me great insight as a lecturer involved in first year experience for our department, as I could relate to some of the key areas of concern that many universities share when it comes to the daunting task of first year adaptation to university and their chosen field of choice. Everyone speaks about the gap in the transition from high school to university, but what are we doing to assist these learners coming to university with these hurdles? And why is the focus only on year one? What about year two, three and four? All these questions were asked, as what does one define as student success? How are we to measure these variables? These were profound questions that really stood out to me, as I found myself struggling to answer these very important questions. Everything I could think of was purely anecdotal at this point.

During one of the incubator sessions a discussion around the main reasons first year student’s drop out was raised. The three main reasons were academic exclusion, finance and administrative reasons. There was a consensus around these themes but when we spoke about solutions, it became transparent that it was bigger than the lecturer and department but that it needed to be a university initiative to retain these students. However in contrast to this the initiatives staff and departments can drive were classroom influences, extracurricular involvement, support services and background student characteristics. It is of vital importance that the staff drives these initiatives because research conducted by Lane 2014 stated “Students don’t see progression, they see it as entering, persisting and graduating”. This is troublesome, because students seem to go through each year in isolation instead of pursuing integrated learning, understanding that each year is a stepping stone to the next year.


One thought on “Reflections and insights on the First Year Experience Conference

  1. My experience while attending the conference was a pleasant one. So often one is stuck in the daily routine of the job that important elements pass you by. Other times you experience things within the classroom that you believe to only happen in your classroom. Thus you shake off all these things by saying students are just students. However, during the conference I was able to share and listen and participate in discussions around “The First year experience”. It was clear that experiences similar to mine were highlighted. Here are some of my reflections, which I share casually, however this does not diminish it meaningfulness.

    The presentations and workshop on mentors or peer-leaders as support for students and academics was enlightening. This was the highlight for me as a mentor supervisor as I learned about the practices of others which in turn gave me ideas to improve the programme for my own students. Also, I was encouraged that some of my practices were regarded as ‘best practices’ by the experts. This allowed me to reflect and realize that what I am doing is not that far off from good practices and serves as encouragement as I try to improve my actions and practices as a teacher. I was particular stuck by the statement made by one of the presenters “To teach is to learn twice”.

    The Gala evening presentations of the students was very touching. I realized that mentors have the ability to help struggling students turn from near death experiences. The responsibility of being a mentor therefore as a heavy one, especially given that often mentors are fellow students. The conference allowed me to realise that mentors themselves need support and at times they may be at risk. I’ve been inspired by this to focus on ways that I can support the mentors so that they do not become at risk themselves. Many speakers raised the issue about how the department or programme as a whole should be focused on support for the first time students and how senior students can assist with this. The importance of a having an academic involved with student-peer mentorship programmes can result in valuable results in the efficacy of such support initiatives.

    Another area that stood out for me was the notion of “first generation ” students. Presenters pointed out how they have different needs as their home structures are unfamiliar with higher education practices. Presentations on this topic help me to understand what some of my own students may be struggling with. Over and above trying to learn a new discipline and its practices and ways of doing and being, they also have to explain to their parents or guardians what all these higher education practices are able. No doubt a very challenging task for these first generation students.

    Overall I found all the presentations interesting and educational. I was proud of the CPUT presentations and the good work that is being done at CPUT. Attending the conference has inspired me to write up the mentor programme in my department.

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