There are countless hurdles to be cleared by young people after high school, and society should work harder at preparing children to overcome them.  

The first 18 years of a child’s life are usually mapped out for them by their guardians. Ideally, they begin with pre-school and then primary school for seven years, followed by five years of high school. 

As a child, you obediently attend: You follow the rules and try to maintain good grades, with the perception that this is how life will continue to be. Well, I was wrong, so wrong. 

No amount of current education prepares you for the realities of university and life after that. When I first received my letter of acceptance at Wits to pursue an undergraduate degree in political science and international relations, I was ecstatic. In January 2014 I bought new stationery, I had a timetable and I was ready for that first-year, live-your-best-life experience. I got just the opposite, though. I was not enjoying my course, for several reasons… 

Number one: I found the content discussed in the course to be dense and incomprehensible. Number two: I felt there was no support structure or guidance in the course. Finally, the transition from high school, where teachers guide you every step of the way with an open-door policy, was something completely different at university. 

I feared telling my mother all this, because “Dumi never backs down from anything”. I had difficulty making friends, and the cold, grey weather in Johannesburg made the experience more dreadful.  

Every Friday afternoon, I was on the first Gautrain back to Pretoria and I dreaded Sunday mornings, because that meant going back. After two months of depression and extensive weight gain, I finally dropped out. Sobbing over the phone, I told my mother I was coming back home.  

In 2015 I tried again, this time at the University of Pretoria. I completed a BA degree. I joined the university’s cultural ensemble, UP Ovuwa, which allowed me to perform for prominent people such as Bill Gates and Jacob Zuma. Honestly, you can Google me! Most important, though, there were academic challenges: I felt safe and at peace. 

The difference between the two institutions lay in the environment and the support structures I created for myself. UP Ovuwa was more than just a choir; it gave me lifelong friends and an outlet to express myself.     

Now, as a student pursuing honours in journalism and media studies at Wits, I have learned that everything has its own time, and that first year at Wits was definitely not mine.  

Pursuing a degree is a huge decision not to be taken lightly. I believe high schools in South Africa should dedicate more time to informing students about what lies ahead at university. It is vital that high school pupils understand, going to university is about more than just learning a new subject; it is about time management, making sacrifices and fully comprehending you are now responsible for your future. It is also about finding outlets, independent of the academic space, that allow you to clear your mind and reboot. As an 18-year-old, that realisation can be overwhelming.  

According to Fundi connect, university dropout rates in South Africa are very high. About 50% to 60% of first-year students drop out: Some of the reasons are choosing the wrong course, inadequate academic support and, for many African youths, the pressure of being a first-generation university student. These factors and many others also contribute to the high levels of depression and anxiety among millennials.  

The stigmatisation of taking a gap year also plays a part. As a child, I was conditioned to believe university was the only route to a successful career, and taking a gap year was a sign of weakness. Now, knowing what I do, taking a year or two to decide and plan for academia is just as important to me as pursuing a degree. 

The year I spent at home allowed me to extensively research the course I wanted to study and the environment I would be studying in. It also forced me to ask myself important questions such as, “Why do I want to go to university?’’ and ‘‘Who will I be doing it for?” I can confidently admit, my first year at Wits was motivated by pressure from my family and school to prove I am capable. It was not for me.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Dumisani Mnisi. Photo: File