Stellenbosch University
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Three years of helping SU students SOAR – a warm welcome for first-generation Maties and future graduates
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking (Anél Lewis)
Published: 14/04/2023

​​Representatives of Stellenbosch University's (SU) first-generation programme, SOAR, have been invited to highlight innovations in creating a transformative student experience at the European First Year Experience Conference to be held in Dundee, Scotland in June.

The invitation, which comes just three years after SOAR was launched, underlines the significant impact this programme has on the lives of students who would otherwise arrive on campus with little understanding of its institutional culture.

Without the intervention of programmes like SOAR, many of these students are likely to give up on their studies within the first year, says Joy Petersen, mentor and tracker coordinator at the Centre for Student Communities and head of SOAR.

“The name says it all. It is about helping students use their (S) strengths, leverage the (O) opportunities of higher education, activate their (A) agency and enhance their (R) resilience," explains Petersen. “The main goal of the programme is to enhance their confidence, help them make early friendships and create a sense of familiarity with their new environment."

Also significant is the fact that students who themselves have been through the SOAR programme want to give back by offering their time as mentors to new cohorts. This year, 42 students applied to be mentors during the programme, which takes place annually just before the First-Year Welcoming Programme kicks off in January.

Although there were first-year awareness programmes before SOAR was launched, SOAR is more intentional in its objective of recognising diversity and encouraging inclusivity. Seeing the need to better acclimatise students who don't come from families with a history of studying at SU, the Division of Student Affairs set up the SOAR programme in 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 shutdown.

SOAR remained active during the pandemic, switching to an online programme to engage with students and offer coping mechanisms at a time when many needed it most. This year, almost 100 students took part in SOAR's programme, which involved various social activities and discussions on relevant issues.

The long-term goal is to have the programme firmly established so SOAR is well-placed to smooth the transition of an expanding pool of first-generation students, explains Delecia Davids, co-designer, and facilitator of SOAR.  “We need to ensure (through the programme) that there is at least one person they recognise on campus in their first year. Currently, 40% of SU's annual intake are first-generation students."

Both Petersen and Davids know first-hand what it feels like to arrive on campus as a new student with no institutional context or legacy framework. Davids was a first-generation student from Delft who did not know anyone on campus when started as a first-year engineering student. With the support of SOAR, she made the difficult decision during that year to change study direction. She now has a master's degree in education policy studies and is working on her PhD, lectures at SU and is involved in leadership and community building programmes, including SOAR.

Petersen has been involved in the peer mentor-student leadership programme for several years, and she is also the head of Nerina residence, where she is able to interact with students daily. These organisers' excitement and passion for the process of integrating students, but especially first-generation students, into life at university, is palpable. They remain involved in the lives of the students they mentor, offering support and guidance when needed.

William Sezoe, now vice-chair of the Student Representative Council (SRC), says being part of the SOAR programme in 2020 gave him a solid introduction to SU. “Coming to such a huge institution of learning, having to adapt and find your feet requires support and guidance, and that is exactly what SOAR does and did, and in fact still does for me and my journey."

The biggest takeaway from the experience was the licence it gave him to “take up space" at SU. “I immediately became a class representative and then joined Die Matie, where I was a senior journalist and research manager. I also took charge of the formation of our 80th edition in 2021."

Sezoe attributes the ability to fulfil leadership roles on campus, and those outside of SU, to the foundation SOAR provided in his first year on campus. “It is an incredible programme which can help a lot of first-generation students to overcome their uncertainty and fear of space. At the same time, it can help them build networks and grow. My journey is a particular example of this."

He hopes SU will continue to support and expand the programme so that more first-generation students can experience this journey “with a support base that cares" and help them transition and transform in the space until they graduate.

As Davids notes, “The first-year curriculum is not enough (to prepare students for university). This learning happens outside the lecture halls - in the streets and in the residences."​

Photographer: Abraham Jantjies