University culture shock

I dropped out of uni twice before making it stick the third time. I once shared this in a conversation at a networking event – I can’t remember how we got there – and a man about 10 years my senior, who had gone to Scotch College (proudly declared earlier in the conversation) spent the next 20 minutes preaching the importance of discipline.

The others – like me, all recent graduates at this event to make connections – nodded along earnestly. So I asked, ‘How much was your rent while you were at uni?’ He dismissed me and continued, ‘No hold on,’ I interrupted, ‘I worked full time through all of those attempts at university and I made it here today, I don’t lack discipline.’

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that articulate, I just like to remember it that way. And it didn’t have some profound effect. The group found a way to close ranks and cut me out and I left the event, still holding the full stack of business cards that I was encouraged to bring.

I didn’t grow up wealthy. Importantly, I also didn’t grow up poor. There was never a day in my childhood that I missed a meal. And while there were many times where I didn’t have something I wanted, I always had everything I needed. This is a position of privilege. I want to acknowledge this position and contextualise the subsequent discussion with the fact I started with more than many others do.

When you grow up in the country it feels like the world is designed to hold you back.

Regional and rural employment opportunities are limited. Regional and rural education opportunities are limited. Every year thousands of Year 12 graduates make the move to a major metropolitan centre to attend a university with the opportunities they want to pursue. And when you get there, you will be surrounded by people just like my older friend at the networking event who went to school in the city and are living rent free in their childhood home. They might have jobs for ‘spending money’, but ultimately this is an extension of their childhood experience, to provide a soft transition into adulthood.

I didn’t fit in during my first two attempts at university study. This probably had something to do with my maturity as a 19-and-then-20-year-old (my age at each attempt) and the pressure I put on myself to fit in. But I was also told that people thought I was a snob because I didn’t go to lunch with them (I couldn’t afford it), I didn’t go out drinking with them (I was at work and I couldn’t afford it) and I didn’t hang out with them in downtime between lectures and tutorials (I was in the library using a computer as I couldn’t afford internet access to work on assignments from home).

It wasn’t until my third attempt that I finally stuck the landing. I enrolled in an online degree through Griffith University (working full time meant internet access was available). Suddenly, I was just like everyone else. There were a lot of people who grew up in the country, lots who were still there. All of us were working full time and I would argue we demonstrated great discipline. I’m so grateful to that online degree program and wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is a new understanding and world of thinking about how we work. I know many people who are making the move to the country (many are moving ‘back’ to the country) because the shift means we don’t have to give up our city-centric career to move out of the city – we can all work from home.

I think the influx of new people into regional and rural Australia is going to be a good thing on many fronts. Many of these areas will see service industries reinvigorated. Many will welcome new industries and new ways to grow their economy.

While COVID-19 is changing the way we work, it’s not creating the same level of conversation about the way we study. Universities are delivering online because they have to, and the conversation is consistently about returning to campus. But maybe there’s an opportunity for the sector to be more inclusive and accessible. Not just to those in rural and regional Australia, but to all those who don’t fit the mould of the classic university student.

We have to make sure the higher education system responds, as well. Greater investment is needed in developing degrees to be delivered online – which is different to delivering in person. And, more degree options need to be offered at regional universities.

The demand will be there, because it was already there when I was finishing Year 12 – but will the supply be there to meet it?

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