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Emerging Regions Students First Year Experience at Addis Ababa University

Tesfamariam Shimekit*

Researcher at Education Strategy Centre, Ethiopia

*Corresponding Author:
Tesfamariam Shimekit
Researcher at Education Strategy Centre, Ethiopia
Tel: +251912887336

Received Date: 06/21/2018; Accepted Date: 08/21/2018; Published Date: 08/28/2018

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The purpose of this study is to understand emerging regions students’ first-year experience in Addis Ababa University (AAU). To achieve this purpose, the qualitative approach was employed and data were collected from purposively selected eight emerging region students by using the in-depth interview. To that end, the study investigated emerging region students’ expectation of university and their role as the university student, their concern (worries) and the challenges they faced at the first year, and support system needed in the future to improve the socialization in the first year. Findings of the study indicated that emerging region first-year students’ experience is full of concerns and challenges due to lack of preparation at high school and absence of special support system in the university. Therefore, the university leaders should design and implement different support system for first year emerging region students based on their specific needs. Similarly, policymakers should design policies that guide a special support system for the first- year students in general and for needy students such as ethnic minorities and disadvantaged students specifically.


Emerging regions, First year, Socialization.


Background of the Study

Currently, Ethiopia is composed of nine regional states and two city administrations. Out of these nine regions, four regions, namely, Afar, Benishangul/Gumuz, Somali, and Gambella are considered as emerging regions because of a serious lack of capacity to implement different poverty alleviation strategies in order to overcome challenges caused by various social, economic, political and infrastructural problems [1]. The current government of the country provides special capacity supports for emerging regions in order to balance their development with the rest regions of the country and to make the peoples in emerging regions impartially benefitted from different public services such as education.

In the provision of education service in emerging regions different strategies were designed to suit the service with context of the regions and to provide special support. A special strategy was designed for pastoral education; pastoral mobile alternative basic education implementation guideline and provision of affirmative action for emerging region students to join higher education. These support programs focus on primary education and support decreases in TVET and higher education because, unlike in general education, there is no any strategy or guideline which support emerging regions students at these levels.

Emerging regions students join universities based on their results of Ethiopia Higher Education Entrance Certificate Examination (EHEECE) like all students in the country but there is a decrease in cut point i.e. affirmative action is given for emerging region students. Since, higher education has been expanding in Ethiopia rapidly in the last decades; the Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) becomes 2% currently. Likewise, the number of public universities increases from 8 to 33. Because of this rapid expansion, universities were also established in emerging regions. However, since universities are governed by federal government and placement of students in each university is done by MoE, using computerized system based on EHEECE result and students’ choice, emerging regions students also placed in different universities throughout the country including the capital city- Addis Ababa [2].

As shown in the Table 1, emerging regions students contribute 7 percent of students out of national total (i.e.120, 364) who join public universities in regular program in 2015/16. Out of this 8507, 177(2 percent) were placed at AAU. However, because the data (NEAEA data base) do not clearly indicate the students’ specific nation or ethnicity, it is very difficult to conclude that all students (i.e. 8507) are from indigenous ethnic members of emerging regions. Because of the movement of people for different purpose (like job, trade, and social interaction) there is high probability of considering other nationality students (not natives) as emerging region students who are living and taking their grade 12 examination in emerging regions. Because of this problem the current study does not consider all students coming from emerging region instead only members of the native nations of the emerging region were considered purposively.

Table 1. Number of students from each emerging region and Placed at AAU in 2015/16E.C.

Emerging Regions 2008 (120,364) AAU
Afar 794 177 (2% of  the emerging region  students)
Benshangul Gumuz 1110
Gambella 5503
Somali 1100
Total 8507 (7.0% of total students  )

Students who are from members of indigenous ethnic groups of emerging regions have very different culture capital. More specifically, they have different norms, life skills, feeding style, and dressing style. Because of these, emerging regions students in their first year of university education face different experience i.e. expectations, concerns and challenges. In addition, when emerging regions students are placed at AAU, which is the oldest and largest of all universities in the country and found in the capital city of the country-Addis Ababa, socializing to the university environment which is very much different from their homeland make their first year experience unique [3].

In relation to first year experience, many studies have conducted in the rest of the world regarding first year experience of students in the university and these studies, in general, indicated that first year experience of students is crucial to the success of students in their university life and academic career [4]. However, in Ethiopia, there is lack of research in first year students experience in general and on emerging regions students’ first year experience in particular. On top of that, there is no specific and systematic program for first year emerging regions students or minorities to help them in socializing themselves to university and to make them successful in their academic career especially at AAU.

Statement of the Problem

Many studies have been carried out regarding the first year experience of students in the university and identify different challenges and ways to help students to overcome these challenges [5]. Brinkworth et al, conducted a quantitative study on first year experience and expectations from the perspective of students and teachers at the University of Adelaide [6]. A survey was conducted on 233 students about their 6 months experience. Further, 189 students surveyed again about their 18 months experience to gain retrospective views of their transition year, as were lecturers and tutors of both groups. The findings pointed out that even though students expectations, experience, and teacher views differed, remarkable similarities emerged across the two degree programs (science and humanities). Finally, the study concluded that there is a need for non-specialized transition programs to meet the needs of first year students and facilitate the transition from secondary to tertiary education. Likewise, Gibne et al. also conducted a quantitative study to examine first year students' recollections of their concerns, motivations, level of preparedness and perceived skills on entry to the university. The findings of the study showed that student’ experiences are variable even in one institution and concluded that there should be implementation of specific orientation programs instead of using one-size-fit all programs [7].

Besides, Birks et al. also conducted a quantitative study on first-year experience of undergraduate nursing studies by surveying of 112 nursing students enrolled in their first year of study at a regional university in Australia. And the findings of the study showed that issues faced in adapting to the role of a university student in the first year of study, services or support mechanisms accessed to assist in transition to the role of university student, and services lacking that would have assisted in the transition to the role of university student. Because of methodological limitations these quantitative studies could unable to deeply understand the problems of first year students and didn’t consider the peculiarity of the experience of disadvantaged students.

There are also qualitative studies in the area of first year students’ experience. For instance, Hernandez conducted a qualitative research study to understand the first-year experiences as recounted by purposively selected 10 Latino College students using in-depth interview with each participant [8].The study findings indicated that there are four major areas identified as experience namely, involvement opportunities, family support and encouragement, academic and social adjustment, and ethnic and cultural identity. Likewise, Higginson examined nursing students' fears or worries about and experiences of the first year in their nursing training by employing grounded theory approach. In-depth interview with five students were done two times [9]. The findings showed that nursing students have many fears or worries i.e. worries about bodily fluids/ clinical procedures, financial worries, concerns over role conflict, about examinations, and about managing death patient. These qualitative studies are help full in understanding specific issues like disadvantaged or minority students’ experiences.

In Ethiopia, even though there is no documented evidence, everyone who passed through the university education can be eyewitness to tell his/her freshman experiences was full of challenges, such as tricks (pranks), inspirations, worries and challenges due to socialization and academics problems [10]. In the case of AAU, because of its largeness and it is found at the capital city, for students coming from remote areas or country sides and emerging regions, socialization problems become worsen. These challenges may reduce their effort; create depression and loss their confidences which may affect their academic success in the rest of the years in the university. Even though it is difficult to get the data about dropout rate of emerging region students, data on the first year students indicated that the number of academic dismissal, withdrawals and dropout of students is higher in the first year than other academic years. For instance, according to AAU data base, in the college of Management, Information and Economic Sciences (CMIES), out of 490 students who abandon their education in 2015/16 academic year, 269 (54.8%) students were first year.

In spite of these facts, there is no documented evidence in area of first year experience. Therefore, the current study was dealt with socialization challenges of indigenous ethnic members of first year emerging regions students at AAU. Specifically, their expectations (mental image about the university and reality) and concerns (inspirations, fears/worries or terrors) about university life and their role as university students and different challenges they faced. Besides, the current study is different from previous studies that it considers minority ethnic students experience and it contributes to fill the research gap in Ethiopia in the area of first year program which is very important for quality and equity of tertiary education.

The general objective of this study is mainly to investigate the first year experience of emerging regions students and the challenges they face in socializing themselves to the university life in the first year.

To address this objective of the study the following basic questions were designed:

1. What are the expectations of emergent regions students about the university and their role as university student in their first year?

2. What are the concerns (worries and fears) of emergent regions students in their first year?

3. What challenges emerging regions students face in adapting to the role of a university student in their first year of the study?


Research design

Different studies that have been conducted overseas in the area of the first year experience adopted both qualitative and quantitative research design [11]. Particularly, qualitative study by using grounded theory approach is helpful to understand student’s experience. By considering the lessons from different studies depicted above, the current study also adopted qualitative approach to deeply understand the first year experience of emerging regions students. In addition, most studies in this area of first year experience employed in-depth interview to collect data. Therefore, the current study also employed in-depth interview with the selected emerging regions student to collect data.

Research site

The research site of this study is Addis Ababa University (AAU) and it is the largest and oldest university in the country. Beginning with 33 student’s enrolment in 1950, it has now reached eleven colleges and 14 campuses, 48673 students (33940 undergraduate, 13000 masters, 1733 PhD) 2408 teachers and 3,635 administrative staffs [12]. AAU is selected because of the fact that first year students who came from outside Addis Ababa , especially from emerging regions, were faced many challenges to socialize themselves to the university due to the cultural difference( like norms, communication, dressing style) between AAU and its surrounding and students’ home land. Besides, the proximity of the university to the researcher residence is another advantage to deeply study the condition by taking enough time and energy. These conditions make AAU suitable to study the first year experience of emerging region students.


The participants of the study were first year emergent region students who join AAU in 2016/17 academic year. Purposive sampling is used to select participant students. Five male and three female a total of 8 students were selected. Three criteria were set and used to select participants. Accordingly, first, he/she should be from a native (indigenous) ethnic member of emergent region. Second, He/she should come from remote area of the emerging region, and the last, if there is; priority is given for a student from “best and difficult” or “attractive” fields like medicine, engineering, and law. To get students who fulfill these criteria, snow ball sampling technique was used. This care full sampling process was adopted to improve the quality of the findings.

Major findings

Based on the research questions and ideas emerged during data collection five major themes were identified. More specifically, expectations, concerns (worries), and challenges, were emerged from research questions and the other two themes, namely, preparation for university and support system were emerged during interview with participants. Pseudonyms are used to present the participants idea. The findings of the current study were presented as follow in each theme.

Preparation for university

Emerging regions students prepared for the university in their regions’ (home land) secondary and higher education preparatory schools. Regarding home support for university preparation, all participants assured that their parents like father, mother and older siblings had not gone to the university and participants did not get enough information about university from their parents. Mohammed from afar region explains his parents support as follows,

I was the first in my family to go to the university and no one was there to tell me about the university experience .The only advice I got from my father was about Addis Ababa i.e. the largeness of city and how I can take care of my properties from thieves in my first visit of Addis Ababa.

Emerging regions students in their preparation for the university in preparatory schools (11-12), due to several reasons, they have not got enough awareness about the experience of university education. Even though, the curriculum in higher education preparatory schools (11-12) is taken as first year university education, it looks like secondary education in all its aspects like the teaching learning methodologies, student engagement and, the facilities used for teaching learning. Okure sum up the idea of most participants as follow,

In my higher education preparatory class, I have not got much awareness about the university education except some teachers told us as their university experience during the class. When I came to the university, I found that the teaching and learning in preparatory classes is totally different from the university education.

Tesfamariam: Have you observed specific differences on your role as a student between preparatory schools and university?

Oukure: In secondary and preparatory schools, the teachers teach all content by giving notes while here in the university, the student involvement is high and the teacher teaches only selected contents. We (students) search and collect different ideas from different reference books and the internet then we made ourselves prepared for exam.

In the contrary, out of eight participants four of them have had an opportunity to get some information about university from the senior students in their district. In relation to this Kemal describes his opportunity as follow,

Kemal: There was a senior student in my village and he always talk to me about his first year university life which I actually do not have that strong appetite of giving my two ears to him. But I am more curious to know more about university after I assured of going to university, especially after the announcement of EHEECE result, I have got much information with him and I tried to use his advice in my first month of university life.


Emerging regions first year students have many expectations about university in their first year. Out of 8 participants four participants expect that the university campus and its surrounding (e.g. city crowd) are very complex and difficult to easily associate themselves. Other four participants expect that they will face a difficulty of identifying themselves with the other ethnic group students. All eight students have similar expectations on confusions and tricks made by senior students and the language problem they face due to the mismatch between their mother tongue and dominant language (mostly Amharic) in the campus. Halima, a female student from Somali region, puts her expectation about university as follows,

I expect that AAU is very big and the city Addis Ababa is more sophisticated and more civilized then my home town. I also expect that the instructors are difficult to communicate about the teaching learning process and the courses are very difficult. So that before joining the university I expect many difficulties.

Tesfamariam: Which of your expectations become real?

Halima: I found the city as I expected and the instructors are not all difficult to communicate except very few (not properly advice student). However, the difficulty of courses is continued to be my worry until the end of second semester of first year.

In addition, most participants (six out of eight) expected that students coming from other regions (mostly from cities like Addis Ababa, Adama, and Bahirdar.) are more able and can perform better than emerging region students. Regarding this Okure puts his idea as follow,

As I join the university, I expect that students coming from cities such as Addis Ababa, are able and better performers than emerging region students because of different challenges we faced in secondary and preparatory school (like lack of qualified teachers, absence of laboratories, lack of computers and internet access). I expect that because the challenges in secondary and preparatory school are less in these cities and students are better prepared for university education.

Furthermore, four out of eight students expect that they will face isolation and stigma from other region students due to language problem. Besides, they also expect difficulties in living together in dormitories with the other region students. In relation to this, Ojulu puts his idea as follow

Ojulu: After I knew my placement is at AAU, I thought that students from other region will not want to make a friendship with me because I am poor in Amharic and I cannot communicate with them properly. In addition, I also thought that if I have roommates with other region students they may isolate me from their group.

Concerns (worries)

Emerging region students have many concerns (worries) in their first year at AAU. Among the concerns in the first year homesickness, time management, developing close friendships with other students, worried about meeting new people, information access, and under representation of their ethnic group in the university were the majors.

Regarding homesickness, especially participants coming from Gambella indicated that there is a big difference in the way of life in university and in their homeland and described that in the first year they were unhappy about the food, the dormitory life, city crowds and the weather conditions (very cold). In this regard Woynetu puts her idea as follow,

In the first weeks of my first year I was unhappy about the type of food served in the cafeteria and I also dislike the city crowds outside the campus. In addition, the weather was very cold in the month of October. All these things made me to be highly homesick.

The major worry of participants is time management and all participants agreed that using time effectively and deliver assignments on time was a major worries of them. In relation to this, Kemal, from Benishangule/Gumez region, also describe his concern about time management as follows:

In my beginning of the first year, I was worried about for how long I should study per day, is it for limited hours? Or Should I spend all the night in the library? Or Should I have a program? I ask one of the senior students from our region about this issues, he told me “you have to work hard and use your time effectively to have a good grade in the first semester and it will help for the next semesters because the courses become harder and harder as the years increases.” I tried my best but I cannot score a good grade the problem may be my study style.

In connection to friendship formation, Mohammed from Afar region showed that developing close friendships with other students was his concern in the first year and puts his idea as follow,

In my first year, because my Amharic fluency was poor, I worried about how I can develop close friendship with other region students. This challenge limits me to be a friend of my region senior students in the first semester of the first year. However, as time goes I begin to communicate and develop close friendship with my class mates due to different group assignments

Further five students out of eight indicated that they were concerned about meeting new people and accessing useful information from others like other region students, teachers and administration staffs. In this regard, Fatima describes her concern as follows,

I was highly worried about meeting and communicating with new (strange) people who have different language and culture than me. In my first year, I was very salient and used to isolate myself from the students in my class room and I did not ask any help or information from teachers, staffs in the library or cafeteria. These problems subjected me to lack of proper information and wasted my time in wrong doing with assignments and tasks of various courses

Besides, Hakmel from Somalia region also describes that in addition to time management, homesickness and getting information about different academic services were his worries in the first year. He puts his idea as follows,

I was strongly suffering of homesickness in my first year and I used to think about my parents during my class and study time. In addition, I disliked the cafeteria food and I was repeatedly faced health problem. Because of this, I could not use my time effectively. Instead, I am tried to have information about how instructors evaluate students and how should tackle the exams and assignments given by instructors. Therefore, I was very much concerned about how to get information about these issues from our senior students.

In regarding to underrepresentation of members of emerging regions ethnic group at AAU, Okure has a special observation and reflects his observation as follow,.

In my first arrival at AAU, I was looking for people from Gambella and I could not find even one single person from my ethnic group as a teacher or administrative staff at any level and I was worried why members of our ethnic group not working at AAU like other ethnic members.


Emerging regions students faced many challenges at AAU in the first year. Because of language and culture difference as well as lack of prior experience about the dominant culture in the university. Out of eight participants six participants faced challenges of communicating with other ethnic group students, getting resources ( E.g. books), and using technology like internet. The remaining two students face challenges like difficulties of sharing materials (books, laptops and iPods) from their friends or class mates. Woynetu, a female student from Gambella, sum up the challenges she faced in her first year as follows,

In my first months at AAU, I have faced many challenges, first my Amharic (national language) was poor and have difficulty to put my ideas clearly and I was also poor in English unlike those students who come from private schools of cities like Addis Ababa, Hawasa and Adama. Therefore, I cannot communicate well in both languages. In addition, I was very new for technologies like using internet and have difficulty in using internet to get learning resources. My friends from other regions did not share their smart phones, laptops and iPods to me.

Tesfamariam: why your friends did not share resource like smart phones, laptops and iPads for you?

Woynetu: Because they are not confident in my skill of using these technology materials and they are taking care for their materials from damage or malfunctioning.

Besides out of eight students three students indicated that they face challenges of forming friendship with other region students and accessing necessary information. In relation to this, Hakmel describes his idea as follow,

I face a challenge of making friendship with the other region students because most students favor to go with their region students. Because of this, getting the necessary information is limited by our friend formation and communication.

In addition, most participants encountered the challenge of isolation and stigma in class room and dormitory because of language and culture difference and because of these problems emerging region students prefer to be with their region student. In connection to this, Oukure put his idea as follow,

In my first year I was in dormitory with other region students and when something like a mobile is lost all of them attribute on me. And they isolate me because I cannot speak dominant language (Amharic) and culture difference. Because of these challenges in the second year (currently) I start living in a dormitory with our ethnic members.

Support system

The participants of the study were asked about the type of support that should be implemented to make emerging regions students’ socialization effective at the first year and they raised different support systems. All participants agreed that emerging region students should prepare themselves for university starting from secondary education and all participants emphasized that higher education preparatory schools education should be more related to higher education culture in its education and training provision [13]. Moreover, at the university, especially for emerging region students, the university should put special support system like short term trainings (e.g. communication skill and using technology (internet), time management, life skill trainings, communication skill, English language, and academic writing.

Regarding the support system Woynetu, a female student from Gambella region, puts her idea as follow,

When I first came to AAU, the university welcomed me starting from the bus station (Mercato) and we had also a welcome ceremony and orientation programs by different departments of the university. However, these were not enough for students like me who comes from emerging and remote area. The university should prepare special support system for emerging region students like short term trainings on different issues like communication skill, using internet, and life skill.

In addition Oujlu from Gambella describes his idea about the support system as follows,

Higher education preparatory schools should give short term trainings about university campus life and teachers or other personnel’s can share their experience for students on regular base in their home land starting from grade nine. In addition, short term trainings should be given for students, who got a passing mark for university entrance, in the summer after the notification of national university entrance exam results,

Tesfamariam: On what types of contents do you think the short term trainings should be given?

Oujlu: It can be on how to socialize to campus life? How to use technology like internet for academic? Or it can be about communication or time management skills.

Moreover, as most participants (seven out of eight) indicated that in the university, there are many written tasks either individually or in group. Notwithstanding, emerging region students writing and presenting it in class is very difficult because of the newness of these activities. Therefore, skills of academic writing are very necessary. Regarding to this idea, Okure puts his idea as follow,

The crucial skill here in the university is writing, in both assignment and tests students who have better writing skill perform well and it is better to have training on basics of academic writing including research.


As most study participants of emerging region students described, their first year experiences were more related to their socialization and academic issues. Most participant students showed that they had unpleasant experience in the first year due to lack of preparation in secondary and higher education preparatory schools. Secondary and higher education preparatory schools, which are found in remote emerging regions, are ill- equipped and staffed with substandard teachers. Consequently, students thought in these schools could not be well-prepared to the university education. In addition, due to the absences of family members, who pass through university education in their home, emerging region students did not get information about higher education from their parents. Due to these facts, emerging region students join AAU with little information about a university. These all made the first year student experience very difficult because of lack of proper information about the university (AAU).

Emerging regions students anticipate many issues like complexity of the university and its surrounding (e.g. city crowds), challenges of identifying themselves with other students, about confusions and tricks made by senior students, language problem, and difficulty of communicating (e.g. seeking advice, asking questions) with instructors . Most expectations of emerging regions first year students are negative or bad and these bad expectations make their first year full of uncertainty and delay their socialization and interacting with the university resources. In line with this, Feldman and Zimbler also showed that first year students, to successfully socialize to college/university, should interact with college resources early and often after arriving on campus [14].

Regarding the concerns (worries), emerging regions first year students are concerned about homesickness, time management, forming close friendships, and meeting new people in the first year. These concerns have negative impact on their socialization. For instance, emerging regions first year students are highly homesick because of big difference between the culture of homeland and the culture of campus life (e.g. type of food, type of dressing). As well, since emerging region first year students do not start interacting with resources as soon as they join the campus, they are highly concerned (worried) about time management [15]. Moreover, they are also concerned about forming close friendships and meeting new people and these worries stem from language and communication skill problems. Therefore, due to these concerns first year emerging regions students take long time to socialize them to the campus.

Besides, emerging region students face different challenges in their first year. Most challenges raised by the participants focus on socialization and academics issues. Emerging regions students at AAU do not form friendship with the other ethnic group students instead they prefer to be with their ethnic group students. These create challenges of sharing information and resources freely and it may also create feelings of isolation for emerging regions student. In addition, forming friendship based on ethnicity only reduces the experience sharing opportunity among different students from various cultures and these hamper communication and complicate socialization. In addition, first year emerging regions students have a problem of using technology because of lack of familiarity with technology apparatuses such as computers, laptops, iPods and, smart phones. These problems lead them to a difficulty of using internet resource (e.g. e-books) for reading and doing assignments. In general, all challenges made the first year of emerging regions students as the year of practicing and learning for socializing themselves to the norms (customs) of campus life in addition to the courses given in the classroom [16].

Concerning the support system, it should be done from secondary and higher education preparatory schools to the university (AAU). Short term trainings before the emerging region students join the university (summer courses, this may be done by volunteer university emerging region students ), short term trainings in the first weeks of the first year in the university and, continuous guidance and counseling supports can be done to improve the first year experience of emerging region students. These ideas are also supported by different studies like Hernandez and Higginson.


This qualitative investigation provided a glance of what the first-year experience was like for emerging region students in AAU. The experiences of these students lead to several conclusions. First, the participants described their first year in AAU is with a lots of expectations and concerns largely focuses on social adjustments and academic. Difficulty in adjusting academically was attributed to their perception that high school did not prepare them for university level –work and have low expectations about university student role and culture of campus life. Second, lots of bad anticipations and concerns (worries) made most of the participants to be isolated and unable to share information and resources with their counterparts. Third, the wide language and culture difference of the AAU (including the city-Addis Ababa) and their home land, underrepresentation of their ethnic members as staff member (at any level) in the university made their experience difficult. Finally the support system given by AAU for first year students was not need based (specific) and effective to help emerging region students to properly adjust to themselves the university. Therefore, understanding, level of readiness for higher education, expectations, concerns and challenges of emerging regions first year students and help them to shape their expectations to more optimistic beliefs than stress should be the role of the university (AAU).

Implications of the Study

Even though the study is conducted on small scale and cannot be generalized to the whole population, it is important to see its implication for university leaders and policy makers. First, policy makers should focus on effective first year systematic support programs (e.g. Short term trainings, seminars, experience sharing platforms on different issues) and special attention is needed for disadvantaged group of students (e.g. emerging region students, minorities, poor) at national level . Second, university leaders should design different first year support system to enable students from emerging region successfully adjust to social and academic culture of the university based on the context of the university. Third, Higher education preparatory (11-12) program should be strengthen to prepare students for university academically and to orient higher education culture ( e.g. writing activities or research orientation, independent tasks, communication skill, and using different technology). Finally, further studies, including other universities should be conducted on first year program in general and first year experience of different groups of students specifically.