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09.09.2019 Feature Article

An Open Letter To A First-Year Student At The University: Overcoming The University Predicament

An Open Letter To A First-Year Student At The University: Overcoming The University Predicament
LISTEN SEP 9, 2019

Dear fresher,
I am happy to write you an open letter. I am also excited that you made it to the university. Given that it takes hard work to transition from the rituals of writing exams at the senior high level to secure admission to the university, let me add my voice to the choruses of congratulations you have already received. Once you have made it to the university, you have completed the ritual of being taught as a pupil. Don't be intimidated by the people you meet at the university. Don't let your social and financial background deny you the pleasures of university education. Don't feel inferior or superior to anyone because of your ascribed or achieved status. Feel proud to be a human being, endowed with skills and uncommon abilities. Consider your admission as a privilege to hone your precocious talents.

Fifteen years ago, I made my first debut at the University of Cape Coast (UCC) as an undergraduate student. I was admitted to read a degree programme in African Studies. The excitement that I was finally in the university after three years of struggling to gain admission was beyond what mortal words can describe. But I had an advantage. Because I did not have any paper to re-sit after senior high education, I had the chance to read broadly and also apply myself to teaching. I developed my teaching skills and broaden the frontiers of my knowledge by reading two books a week. Teaching at the basic level at Hightech Preparatory School at Adjiriganor, East Legon, prepared me for university education. I also had the chance of studying the Third Universal Theory of Gaddafi at the Libya Culture Centre, Roman Ridge, Accra and also studying Egyptology under the tutorship of Drs. Maulana and Osei Kwame at the Du Bois Centre. Fortunately, I was armed and prepared for university education. It was, therefore, not a surprise to my parents when I graduated with an unprecedented First Class in B.A. African Studies in 2008.

You may not have my experience. Given the changes in the education system and the fact that many of you went to school at an early age. I assume that you are either in your late teens or early twenties in the university. It is also true that you moved from the senior high school straight to the university. Even if you had papers to rewrite after senior high school, chances are that you spent much of your pre-university years reading secondary school materials to enhance your chances of gaining admission into the university.

Whatever your peculiar experience is, the good news is that you are in the university as a student, not in your old status as a pupil. But if you did not have to read advance materials before entering the university, you may have some levels of struggle as you seek to find your feet in the university. The university method of teaching is different from the basic school level, which includes senior high school. At the secondary school level, the methodological approach to teaching is pedagogy. Pedagogy implies that you are a pupil who needs to be taught to recollect verbatim (with minor alteration) what you are taught. At the secondary school level, the retentiveness of your memory is the necessary trump card you need to succeed. This explains why you are a pupil, not a student when you are in senior high school.

On the other hand, at the university level, a new methodological approach to teaching is adopted. This is called andragogy. The science of teaching at the university level is different. At the university, you are considered an adult and mature. You have transitioned from childhood to adulthood. It is assumed that you have had some exposures that have complexified your capacity to think. Consequently, at the university level, your success, in most cases, does not depend on how you can reproduce what you are taught. Your success depends on your ability to critique and analyse a piece of information. Andragogy, therefore, stimulates in you the ability to think and reflect analytically and critically. This explains why at the university you are not taught but lectured.

In most cases, you are likely to find continuities and discontinuities in the subjects you study. In the case of continuities, you will realise that some of the topics you read at the senior high school level were basic, compared to what you will learn in the university. So, the continuity will expose you to a higher level of thinking and reflection. The discontinuity is where you are told what you read at the senior high school level is antiquated. This applies mainly to the regimental courses. You are likely to be told that the basic things you read about matter, atom, osmosis, distillation, concentration, and so on are either false – because there is current knowledge or were simply a blip of what you were expected to know.

Based on the continuities and discontinuities, you are likely going to be unsettled in the early weeks or months of your debut at the lecture theatre. Sometimes the unsettlement could be severe that you may question your intelligence and wonder whether you qualified to be at the university. Do not worry so much when you first fail to understand whatever is taught in the first few weeks or months. The problem could be compounded when you are offered courses that may have no bearing with what you read at the senior high school level. I met one of your colleagues at the Institute of African Studies library, University of Ghana, who complained about the difficulty she finds reading history as a subject. I was kind enough to calm her down and to assure her that the Government subject she read at the secondary school is not remote from the study of history. I also sent her some free reading materials.

But whatever your situation, you should aim at excelling in your studies. Excellence can be defined differently. But for the reasons why you are at the university, you should aim at getting a First Class. In Ghana today, many people have been raising concerns about the relevance of university education. Some have even questioned the quality of university graduates in the country. There are a few individuals who may convince you that it does not matter the class you get from the university. And certainly, some will be essentialist enough to tell you that getting a First Class will not guarantee you success in the world of work. You may even be told that your First Class will threaten potential employers. I remember being told that those who get First Class are killed prematurely. At the UCC, there were rumours of First Class students who mysteriously died on the eve of their graduation or were involved in fatal accidents on their way for their graduation ceremony.

Dear Fresher, whatever the story you are told about First Class, please make the attainment of First Class your ultimate goal as a student. Remember that if getting First Class is possible, do not settle for anything less. You must also know that getting First Class is part of self-actualisation, which I am sure you read about at the senior high school level. I must also say that a First Class is the immediate determinant of how well you understood what you were taught and applied them to the realities of life. Getting a First Class will also give you fulfilment after you spent four years racking your brain, burning midnight candles and denying yourself the mundane pleasures of life. It will also bring you the legitimacy to talk to young ones who aspire for academic excellence.

I must, however, say that it is not easy to get a First Class. But it is possible. The possibility of getting a First Class rests on multiple factors – some of which may be peculiar to some individuals. But I will write about a few of the requirements for getting a First Class. The first requirement of getting a First Class is axiomatic of life – working hard, self-discipline, remaining focused, determination, perseverance, fortitude, and faith (faith in Christ). These are the same requirements for one to excel as a farmer, carpenter, mason, footballer, musician, electrician, auto-mechanic, religious devotee and so on. These requirements imply self-denial. Everyone who desires to excel in any field of endeavour must practice imbibing these qualities. Even Jesus Christ, as human, needed to practice self-denial (even though intrinsically He could not succumb to weakness or sin) to face the excruciating pain awaiting Him while He was in the Garden of Gethsemane.

These requirements also mean that to aim at a First Class you must discipline your body and appetite. Avoid excessive sleep, gluttony, pleasure-seeking, unnecessary conversations, wastefulness, and unnecessary and unproductive conjugal relations. The second requirement for getting a First Class is reading, reading, and reading. You must always make sure you are ahead of your class. Impliedly, you must pay near cultic attention to the course outline, particularly the references. Ideally, the professor is expected to make sure that all the books on the reference list are available at the library. In the past, most students will depend on previous notes (called grandpa) of other students. Others will also buy handouts (which have faded out of the system). The dependence on grandpa and course handout did not help students to be creative in searching for reading materials. Remember I said professors are required to make sure that the books they recommend for a course are available in the library for use. If you don't find any of the references in the library, go and inform the professor about it. But also practice investing in books.

While I was at the UCC, the Ghana Book Trust, near UPS - Accra, was active. It was, therefore, easy to go and buy second-hand books at cheaper prices. The books I bought from the Ghana Book Trust helped me to score As in the courses I took in European and American histories. It also helped me to score As in the anthropology-related courses I read. Unfortunately, the Ghana Book Trust has lost its steam recently. But there are many online search engines for you to get free books. You need to make good use of the internet to enhance your studies. I must say that, as a Zongo boy from Maamobi, I hardly had enough money to buy books. I had to work and school simultaneously throughout my schooling – from basic to the postgraduate level. But I had decided that I wanted a First Class, and was ready to go all out to get it. I denied myself the pleasure of new clothes and ‘good' foods (junk foods, of course) and rather invested in books. I spent my SSNIT student loan, supported by other monies I got from minor jobs, on paying school fees, rent, and buying books. I hardly bought a new cloth.

If you are a lady, you may have a peculiar story. Women tend to spend more than men, in terms of responding to their biological and cultural needs. But, there is always a way out. Let me share the story of how a female colleague of mine, called Kesewaa, overcame the challenges that burden female students in their quest for academic excellence. This story is not prescriptive. Kesewaa came from a financially poor home. She never saw her father until she finished her first degree. She only saw her mother when she was in the third year, and that was because her mother had returned from Cote d'Ivoire with an illness. She went to an unknown senior high school in the Ashanti Region. She came to the UCC to read a degree programme in Education. She had nothing when she came. It was simply a miracle that she was able to pay her admission fee. The payment of annual school fees was always a challenge, so she had to sign a bond with the university to assure them that she would pay. Kesewaa also had to look good. She needed to do her hair. She needed good dresses. She also needed to cook good food. In other words, she needed to be the ideal Ghanaian female student.

But Kesewaa knew that she could not meet the requirements of the imagined ideal Ghanaian female student. To survive her ‘predicaments' and also excel in her academic pursuit, she decided to sleep at the Oguaa Hall library. She made the library both her home and reading place. She got a good old pair of jeans trousers that could take her through the week without any laundry. She got a good blue blouse that she could wear for about two days. Knowing her state, she decided to progress through her studies without a conjugal boyfriend. Thus, while she had all the budding feminine assets and had all the aesthetic qualities, she decided to stay away from preying men, who might take advantage of her. Since she did not have enough money for photocopies, she made sure she spent hours endlessly reading the original texts at the libraries. When she was in the third year, she managed to rent a room in the same compound house where I was a resident. As co-tenants with a similar background, we decided to dare our limitations. In all this, she was banking the As in her department. Eventually, Kesewaa graduated with a First Class and as the best female student in her department in 2008. After her national service, she got married to a godly lecturer at the UCC and now has her own family.

Dear Fresher, the narrative about Kesewaa is not necessarily prescriptive. It is only to argue that limitations could be an advantage in disguise. If it is true that necessity is the mother of invention, then your challenges should cause you to device creative ways and strategies of excelling. In an era where mobile phones with all their entrails have become an inevitable part of life, you are most likely going to be distracted by them. I never had a mobile phone until when I was progressing to the third year of my university education. But today, it appears it is impossible to subsist without a mobile phone. But there is a way we must control technology, and not allowing technology to unduly control us. You must discipline yourself to know when you have to put your phone on silent and when to attend to WhatsApp prompts. You must know when to have phone blackout to achieve a higher goal. There are times, you must even stay away from social media for the sake of your health. In all this, know that there is always time for everything. Making time for your studies than wasting time on social media is best for you. When I was about writing BECE in 1998, we were told that there is more sleep after death. The truism or otherwise of that statement was not as important as the imperative we had in investing in our books.

Aside from the mobile phone, you should learn to manage your time well. Don't be overly religious while on campus. If it were for the sake of religion, there would not have been any reason for you to have gone to university. You could have gone to the monastery, convent, or seminary if it was for the sake of religion. At the university, understand the existential nature of religion – which is daily lived experiences. Have a broader understanding of religion that transgresses the boundaries of cultic attention, which is limited to the church. When I was at the UCC, I attended church service only on Sundays. Any other day was for my books. I worshipped God in learning. I understood that God loves people who excel in their pursuit of knowledge. The individuals who wrote many of the books of the Bible were highly learned. Take the case of Moses and Paul. According to the creation account, God made work as a divine-cultural mandate – man was to till and keep the Garden. As far as we know, the first duty man had to execute was to exercise his thinking capacity – by naming God's creatures. Later when it became necessary for man to worship God on a special day as a result of the entry of sin, God chose one day for human beings to worship. The rest of the six days were for work. Don't spend all your time in the church!

But you cannot deny yourself the basic pleasures of life because of your pursuit of a First Class. While you must prioritise First Class over and above everything, you must be actively part of university activities. Take part in hall week festivals. Participate in student politics. If you belong to a hall that sings morale songs (jama – which you might have experienced while in senior high school), participate in it – but you may want to be selective in terms of vulgarism. I am a Casfordian, belonging to the male hall and superpower of Ghanaian universities – Casely Hayford Hall, and I participated in the activities of the hall. I went on ‘sharp-brain procession' even when I was a teaching assistant. And because I lived close to Oguaa hall, I participated in the processions of the ‘Monkeys' – the de facto rulers of the hall. I also became the first elected vice president of the African Studies Students' Association (AFSSA) of my department. Later, Maxwell Amofah Takyi, Edith Aba Forson, Kofi Semanu Atsu Adzei, Alhaji Armeyawo, and I formed the de facto group, Concerned African Studies Students' Association (CAFSSA) to help some of our colleagues who were trailing in their academic performance. But for financial reasons, I would have become the hall president of Casford when I was getting to my third year at the UCC. But I established myself as a manifesto writer for student politicians. This was an art I had learned in 2002 when I was active in the district assembly election of my community – Maamobi, Accra.

There is also a conjugal relationship aspect of university education. Again, while everything must come secondary to getting a First Class, you must be on the watch out to grab or be grabbed by a potential immediate future spouse. I know that at the senior high school level, you were advised against the preying antics of young men or ladies. All of us were rightly or wrongly told that to succeed in our academic pursuit, we must avoid the opposite sex. We must see the opposite sex as a potential threat to our academic success. This piece of advice haunted me to the extent that I never made any conscious effort to get a conjugal girlfriend until I finished the UCC. I even took the nickname 'Cardinal'. Some of my immediate colleagues knew me by this nickname. But you should not impose celibacy on yourself while at the university. As I said, at the university, you have transitioned from childhood to adulthood. You are now considered a responsible adult. And so, you must cease from seeing the opposite sex as a threat to your academic excellence. In many cases, the opposite sex is most likely going to help you excel in your education. Since, as I have said, the andragogy of university education is based on critical and analytical thinking, the views of the opposite sex are indispensable. Males and females may have different but complementary views on the same subject. While you may not need a conjugal relationship to get the views of the opposite sex, it may help if you are in some form of relationship.

Dear Fresher, know that if you are a female, you may not want to continue to postpone the acceptance of ‘marriage' proposal from a potential immediate future husband while you are in the university. At a time when some claim that women are in excess and are badly promoting polygyny, you may want to spare yourself the trouble of wasting productive years while you are in the university. It may happen that you moved to the university from an urban slum, like Maamobi or a rural community, where you are most likely not going to find your academic match after school. It is also possible that your national service may take you to an area where all the men there are either married or do not meet the academic standard you have acquired. Thus, if the assertion that ‘monkeys play by their sizes' is anything to go by, then the ideal place to get your imagined ideal man is at the university. This is also true because, in our culture that is androcentric, which privileges men overtly proposing marriage to women, you may want to take chances to be grabbed while you are in the university.

I know many young ladies out there who have regretted because they did not allow themselves to be grabbed while they were in the university. If celibacy is not meant for you, then you must ‘shine your eyes' while you are in the university. And while it is not a must that you must be grabbed, if you desire to meet your ideal man early enough, you must consider the university ambiance. Indeed, I am aware of ladies who found their ideal husbands out of the university environment. But that is not mostly the case. So, look sharp and do not be quick to turn down proposals. What you must guard against are unproductive conjugal relationships. Always know that some men are ready to engage in sex for the sake of adventure. While you may want sex for as the quintessential expression of love and tender care. Do not allow yourselves to be used as an element of a man's sexual adventures and escapades. Know that the university has strong rules against sexual harassment. So, you can appeal to the university anytime you feel a man wants to unduly prey on you sexually. In the same way, most mature men are weak in maintaining sexual discipline when they are alone with a woman they lust after, and so, if possible, avoid being alone in an obscure space with a gentleman you love. Always remember that, ‘below the belt, there is no discipline.’

Also, guard against false and superficial conjugal relationships. At the university, you are likely to meet people who simply are opportunists. They may want to exploit your brain or resources without necessarily loving you. There may also be people who may just want to kill their loneliness with you without any serious commitment to a relationship. There may be others who just want to while away time with you. Be on the watch out for all these people. They may succeed in wasting your time. Use the analytical skills you acquire to sieve serious guys from non-serious guys. Also, pray about all forms of conjugal relationships you establish.

While at the university, you may have the opportunity to travel abroad. It used to be the case that student visa was easy to acquire while you are at the university. While the rise in terrorism and artificial intelligence, which is making labour redundant, may reduce your chances of securing a student visa to travel, always be on the lookout if you can travel. Even if you are unable to travel abroad, establish contact with other students in Africa or the West. These contacts will serve as social capital and social networks for you to leverage on when you are done with your schooling.

After all said and done, do not kill yourself if you don’t get a First Class. Do not see yourself as a failure of you do not grab. Do not see yourself as a miserable fellow if you do not travel abroad. But in all things, remember that, ‘[T]he race is not the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither is bread to the wise nor riches to men of intelligence and understanding nor favour to men of skill; but time and ‘chance’ happen to them all’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra

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