Being a young woman in academia is no small achievement, especially in South Africa. It was in 1903 that South African activist Charlotte Maxeke became the first woman in Africa to obtain a university degree. In present-day reality, so much has changed since then. Because of progress made with gender equality in South Africa, the opportunities for young women to achieve their dreams have increased (but not without its challenges). Breaking the glass ceiling is the new norm, and there are many ways to do it. For some, the path of higher education does precisely that.

When I was a first-year at university, I remember feeling confused, lost and quite intimidated by the whole environment. It seemed everyone knew what was happening except me – this is a feeling many had, now that I have reflected on it. But for those that are entering university in 2023, there are different things to think about, especially because, for some, there is the transition of going from online classes to in-person attendance for the first time. And that can be very scary!

As a young woman, I wish someone had shown me the ropes or guided me in what things to look out for in academia. So here are some tips and tricks to keep you ahead and make the most out of it. And even if you’re getting a degree, diploma or certification, the advice can apply to all.

Really get to know your tutors and lecturers! This sounds scary, but they are there to help you with any questions about your course or assignments. Double-check their office hours, or email them anything you want clarity on. When a student can communicate, it often counts in your favour and puts you at an advantage when it comes to tests and exams, as they might be more willing to share extra tips with a student they know versus the ones that only pop up when there are deadlines. Creating relationships with your lecturers and others within institutions may seem intimidating and unnecessary, but it makes all the difference.

Use the resources to your advantage. When you’re young and wild and free, it seems like the party will never end! Of course, it’s important to have fun while studying, but prioritising your well-being and knowing what is important to you makes navigating campus life so much easier. Figure out what services your institution may provide to students (campus health resources, writing labs, support groups, clubs/societies, leadership opportunities, certification workshops) and choose the ones that you know will help you best. Most students often do not maximise the services that are included or complimentary for them, so knowing what’s there can give you a leg up in your development while you’re completing your studies.

3 The final advice I’ll give is never to be afraid of taking up space. Ask the questions (even if they sound silly), be confident in your abilities and know your worth. Oftentimes the systems and institutions we’re a part of assume that because you’re a girl or woman, you will not be able to achieve certain things. But your future is yours to take, and no one else will see the vision you have for your life or go after it for you. Grab the opportunities with both hands and take it as far as you’re willing to push yourself!

Academia is not easy, but with the right support and steady motivation, anything is achievable.

Tell us: what advice do you have to add for women in academia?

Read tips for living your best life in res here