First-generation Learning & Teaching in COVID-19

Photo of 4 graduates

First-generation Learning & Teaching in COVID-19

by Rhoda Malgas and Dr Ethel Phiri  



The COVID-19 lockdown brought into sharp relief the constraints that first-generation students faced even before the pandemic. Here we report on the incredible efforts of students to stay academically productive and on insights that we have gained as we support them.  


Ukumiswa ngxi kweenkqubo ngenxa yeCOVID-19 kuye kwezisa isiqabu esimandla kwimiqobo ebijamelene nabafundi abazinzalelwane zalapha kwanangaphambi kwalo bhubhani. Apha, sinikela ingxelo ngemigudu emangalisayo eye yenziwa ngabafundi ukuze baqhubele phambili kwizifundo zabo nangobulumko esiye sabuzuza ngelixa sibaxhasa.  

  Die COVID‑19‑grendelstaat het die beperkings waarmee eerstegenerasiestudente selfs voor die pandemie te kampe gehad het, opnuut in die kollig geplaas. Hier doen ons verslag oor studente se ongelooflike pogings om akademies produktief te bly, asook oor insigte wat ons opgedoen het terwyl ons steun aan hulle verleen.

We were reminded that poverty of resources is not poverty of the mind.

As lecturers we are investing large amounts of our time and energy into sustaining the academic and personal wellbeing of students under lockdown. We are especially concerned for our first-generation students. As first-generation graduates ourselves, we are familiar with different aspects of being that first one in the family/ neighbourhood/community to graduate from university. Under COVID-19, we are seeing the usual pressures mount, exposing faultlines of inequality. But we are also seeing remarkable agency and leadership as students dig deep to sustain themselves and to help others.

The lockdown precipitated many challenges for lecturing staff. Lecture series were disrupted, field and lab experiments came to a halt, and weeks of unprecedented change lay ahead of us. The consequences for students included quick decisions about accommodation arrangements, uncertainties about the academic year, prospects of delayed graduation, and the financial implications of it all. Our responses as lecturers, supervisors, and members of staff have been informed by a glimpse of the effects of COVID-19 still unfolding around us. While all of our students are affected, we are acutely aware that, for resource-poor first-generation students, the fallout is far greater.

First-generation students are those who are the first in their families, or of the first generation in their families, to attend university (Heymann and Carolissen, 2011). They usually will have overcome incredible odds to join a university campus. Once in the system, they join their peers in the milieu of the novel experiences of university life: transitioning from high school into university, from teenage years into adulthood, and from family life to independent living (Nel et al, 2009). This is to say, if they overcome the shock of living expenses, anxieties over family constraints to meet these new needs, responsibilities of self-care, and any personal or cultural prohibitions to asking for help.

Not all first-generation students are resource-poor, and not all resource-poor students are first-generation candidates. But the demographic realities are that first-generation students are predominantly students of colour from resource-poor households. Institutional responses to the needs of these students are usually focused on material necessities: subsidies and concessions on accommodation, food, fees, and other services. But the COVID-19 lockdown effectively closed down other vital channels of sustenance – student jobs were shed, unemployment dried up the trickle-feed of cash from home, and those essential social gatherings amongst peers are now reduced to variably active Whatsapp chat groups. Added worries of family in distant locations, and social isolation from peers add to the mosaic of challenges that risk academic success. As we faced the unprecedented demands of lockdown ourselves, we made a commitment to provide academic support for the most vulnerable students in our (virtual) classrooms.

Being sensitive to the realities sketched here afforded us as lecturers an opportunity to partner with first-generation students on their learning journeys. As we learned more about the contexts of all our students during weekly check-in meetings, we created our assignments, adjusted our style of content delivery, and even the content itself, to integrate and welcome the array of lived experiences in the classroom (Jehangir, 2010). Acute awareness of exacerbated constraints for our first-generation students kept us thinking about how we may offer our science subjects in ways that do no further harm with regard to any systemic challenges that these student face – issues with data, access to a printer, language and writing styles, etc. But while we focused our attention on resource deficits, we were becoming increasingly aware of abundances elsewhere and in other forms amongst our first-generation students.

We were reminded that poverty of resources is not poverty of the mind. Under the lockdown we have seen first-generation students rise to the occasion, coming up with novel ideas to take hold of dramatic changes to their research assignments. In two of our modules, it is first-generation students who are top of their class and furthest advanced with regard to research and assignments. First-generation students in our circles are submitting papers for publication, reporting on research topical to social issues such as food insecurity and the agronomy of neglected and under-utilised crops. We have identified students reaching out to others with offers of help and support, even while they themselves are in need of material goods. Others have shown leadership, helping fellow-students with research tasks and assignments, offering tutoring and help with analysis.

Against the backdrop of institutional imperatives, our rationale for investing our academic time in our first-generation students, in particular, is based on several convictions. First, these graduates are required in the post-COVID-19 economy. They know and understand parts of society that are most badly affected, and they are well-positioned to detect trends, needs, and responses in different sectors. Second, once they earn an income, they will be in a position to build an asset base for themselves, and if they wish, for others in their circles. Third, of all the students in South Africa to be negatively affected by COVID-19, we anticipate that drop-out rates are likely to be highest amongst this subset of students. Senior students close to graduation should be prioritised with regard to academic support to enhance their chances of graduation. At the same time, academic gains made by lower-year students should be retained. Concessions like the one recently presented at SU – where graduation was delayed until March 2020 – are appropriate as it will avoid extra registration expenses in the new year. Last, the application rate of first-generation students is likely to decline as rising unemployment forces youngsters to seek work to help the family. Disaggregation of new applicants by race sadly remains a key indicator of first-generation student intake. We would do well to adapt and adopt policies to attract and retain students of colour, to effect demographic transformation at the university, but also in the job market. This also requires renewed efforts to adopt pluralistic, inclusive teaching attitudes and philosophies amongst academic staff. This is something we reflect on deeply ourselves.

Our efforts in supporting first-generation students in our departments and faculty have held unintended benefits for us as lecturers. We are collaborating on research and teaching, sharing novel ideas and practices, and sharing resources and support as we navigate our academic careers during COVID-19. We would like to express our appreciation to the scores of students, especially first-generation students, who inspire our research and teaching. We believe that as graduates, these students will be an asset to African scholarship.

Rhoda Malgas (


photo of Rhoda Malgas








Rhoda Malgas is a lecturer and PhD candidate in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology. She teaches and coordinates the third-year second-semester module entitled ‘Conservation in Social-Ecological Systems’ and contributes to second- and fourth-year modules in the Conservation Ecology Teaching Programme. Rhoda co-led the team of young academics that formulated the MSc (Sustainable Agriculture) programme in the Faculty of AgriSciences – the first multidisciplinary-taught science degree at Stellenbosch University and one that includes seven of its eleven departments. She has received three nominations for the Faculty teaching awards in the last four years and continues to think creatively and innovatively about inclusive, transformative curricula in the natural and environmental sciences. Rhoda is also the founder of the Small Things Fund, a non-profit organisation aimed at offering first-line support to first-generation students across South Africa.

Ethel Phiri (

Photo of Dr Ethel Phiri






Dr Ethel Phiri works at the Department of Agronomy as lecturer and researcher since 2019, teaching and supervising on undergraduate and postgraduate levels.  Ethel grew up in Mpumalanga and obtained her BSc and BSc Honours degrees in Biochemistry and Botany at Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and became a Matie in 2005 when she enrolled for a master’s degree in sub-Antarctic ecology. Ethel’s MSc thesis titled ‘Species occupancy, distribution and abundance: indigenous and alien invasive vascular plants on sub-Antarctic Marion Island’ won the prestigious South African Association for the Advancement of Science (S2A3) Medal for the best MSc thesis at Stellenbosch University in 2008. She does transdisciplinary research in Molecular Systematics and Ecology, including an exploration of edible fynbos and indigenous crops. Ethel’s original research also led to her being recognised as one of Mail & Guardian’s ‘200 Young South Africans’ in 2010.  She is interested in promoting Africa as a research-forward continent, in transdisciplinarity, and in inspiring students.


Main Photo’s Caption:  Proud graduates, from left to right:  Mr Angel Aphelele Goldsmith, Ms Dolly Tuaandi, Ms Chimwemwe Tembo-Phiri, Ms Tawonga Mkandariwe


Disclaimer: All views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of the University of Stellenbosch.

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Heymann, L. and Carolissen, R., 2011. The concept of’first-generation student’in the literature: implications for South African higher education. South African Journal of Higher Education25(7), pp.1378-1396.

Nel, C., Troskie-de Bruin, C. and Bitzer, E., 2009. Students’ transition from school to university: Possibilities for a pre-university intervention. South African Journal of Higher Education23(5), pp.974-991.

Jehangir, R., 2010. Stories as knowledge: Bringing the lived experience of first-generation college students into the academy. Urban Education45(4), pp.533-553.

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