Are you considering a degree in Civil Engineering? Tondani recounts her first-year experience and highlights the importance of knowing whether or not to tackle the degree with the mainstream or the academic support programme.
The First-Year Hype
First-Year at Varsity, the exciting and nerve-wrecking year where you’re told to take the world on as your empty canvas. This is the space where you get to spread your wings and fly, so it’s no doubt that this is exactly what I intended to do when I began my first year at the University of Cape Town.
In 2014 I moved to Cape Town with big hopes and even bigger dreams. To become an engineer was the plan (it still is). A female engineer. The first one in the family.
Countless of times people asked me what I was studying, and they would cringe at the words “a degree in Civil Engineering.” I have to admit, this made me feel like superwoman, brave enough to take on something that most people saw as a challenge.
During the first two weeks, University was a thrill. The atmosphere at UCT was filled with rainbows and sunshine as we were welcomed by orientation week. People’s smiles glistened from every corner of the mountain and my self-pride was on a high, thrilled to have been one of the lucky ones to make it into UCT.
Meeting different people, made me quite excited. My decision to move far away from Durban was proving to be the perfect choice. I had received the fresh start that I was longing for.
Tests and Tears…
Everyone warns you about Test 1. Seniors would tell me not to expect too much from it and that most people had previously failed it. This made me nervous. How could I possibly accept a fail? I had never failed anything in my life before. I was an A-student!
I remember writing Test 1 for all my courses and I felt like I had hit rock bottom even before I saw my results. The day I realized that I had failed two out of three tests, I wanted to go back home. I knew I was not coping and I needed help.
After my results, I was advised by my lecturers to change over from the mainstream programme to ASPECT (Academic Support Programme in Engineering at UCT). This meant that I would have had to extend my four-year degree to five years. I knew I needed to do this or I could easily face exclusion at the end of the year. The only problem I had was that I was on a bursary and had already signed a four-year contract. Due to this, I chose to remain in mainstream, hoping that things would get better after the second term.
Second term came and before I knew it, things were already out of my control. I had lost my balance and did not know how to get back on track. I would hardly get sleep or rest. I would study all the time and still understand nothing.
I remember the night I wrote my Maths Test 2. A cold and rainy night. I walked back to my res in the rain and I immediately called my mom and cried over the phone, almost giving up on my dream. It felt like I was being punished for something I didn’t do and I had no way of changing it.
Due to my lack of confidence in asking questions in class and seeking help, the workload proved to be unbearable. By the time my exams came, I had just made DP for both my maths and physics courses. I remember sitting in my physics class and my lecturer telling me that even though I had just made DP, I was more than likely going to fail the exam. The other option available to me was to deregister from the course and not write the exam. This seemed absurd, so I wrote the exam anyway.
ASPECT, The Hidden Gem
During my June vacation, I received an email informing me that I had supplementary (SUP) exams for both Maths and Physics. The email stated that UCT had received a grant that would allow us to have a SUP camp, with accommodation and meals, as well as write the exam, all for free. This was because there were a lot of people that had received supplementary exams. When I attended the SUP camp, that’s when I realized that a lot of first-years had also received SUPs. I have to admit, I was a bit relieved when I knew I wasn’t alone in the struggle.
After my supplementary exams were unsuccessful, I decided that I could no longer take decisions considering other people. I moved to the aspect programme and lost my bursary. At first, I felt like a failure and I did not see how I could possibly improve on my grades. The feeling of failure was unfamiliar and unpleasant.
After a few weeks in the aspect programme, I began to see the benefits. I started to understand the work I was doing and the classroom environment seemed to help with my confidence in class. With less than 20 people in my classes, I now had the courage to raise my hand in class and ask questions if I didn’t understand a concept. It was as if I had just discovered a hidden gem and life was getting better.
University was no longer just about trying to survive and trying to pass, I was now creating a wonderful experience. I made time to engage in activities other than my books and started to interact with different people.
Everything that I went through helped create my first-year experience. The unpleasant experiences made me grow as a person. I now know what my weak and strong points are. I now know how to handle situations where I feel helpless.
The biggest highlight of my first year is all the special people I met – the people that believed in me and kept me going. Being exposed to people that are so different to me has given me the will to listen and engage with things I have not experienced before. During my first year, I had the opportunity to make friends with amazing individuals who, I’m sure, will be in my life for a very long time.
The important thing that I learnt is that you really have to have your ‘support-team.’ This may be a group of people, whether it be family or friends, whom you turn to for motivation, encouragement or help. You are bound to experience hardships at university and it’s important to have people there to pick you up your feet.
Looking back at my first year now, I have only one regret. I wish I had more fun! But everything that happened prepared me for this amazing time that I’m now having here at university.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you’re struggling, pluck up the courage and go speak to your faculty for further assistance. University should be a space for you to feel comfortable, learn as much as you can, form friendships and for you to ask as many questions as possible. Coming from our own experience, we know how tough university can be.. so remember – you are not alone!