A Fair Shake of the Sauce Bottle

Illustration: Catherine Nacion

­The ANU is a wonderful place, filled with opportunity and opinions. I’d like to think this is a view I share with most students. Yet, as a regional student, I feel that my university experience is very different to others at ANU.

These students I speak of are those who have come from a place with more than one lane of traffic. Any place where you can drive straight for an hour and still be surrounded by civilisation. To be frank, I’m talking about any person that comes from a place where you can enter a pub and not know everyone’s grandparents.

Seriously – imagine Mooseheads, but it’s the only two-storey place in town with a dancefloor, and it’s primarily occupied by your friend’s mums listening to the hits of the 70s.

To a regional transfer, moving to Canberra is to enter a world of intense sensory overload. The noise here is phenomenal when the loudest thing you hear past 4pm at home are the sheep dogs barking when someone comes up your kilometre-long driveway.

Regional and remote communities don’t have diverse social groups. We have farmers, farmer’s kids, and ‘townies’ (teachers and bank managers, for example – anyone who came for work). Changes to rural culture are few and far between. In comparison, the ANU is open, inviting, and overwhelming politically correct.

Now I won’t comment on the right or wrong of that, but rather, I will say that my ideas of what was normal and acceptable were blown out of the water. I’d like to think I’m a better person for it too.

When I moved to Canberra one thing that happened was that I met a vego for the first time. The idea of shunning an industry that has got you to university is quite confronting. Cattle farming is deep in the veins of many rural communities, and to hear the families I grew up in and with talked about as if they’re environmental warmongers was antagonising, to say the least.

Here, you can speak about climate change without being frowned at. Rural communities don’t have Greens candidates; I’ve never entertained the thought of voting for anyone except Labor or the Nationals because anything else is considered a ‘wasted vote’.

There are endless small differences and absences I keep discovering. Rural kids grow up in places where public transport doesn’t exist. We plan our weddings around harvest, and we play footy based on which Christian denomination you belong to. Meanwhile, in Canberra, you’ll meet people who speak with different accents, there are more than two Asian families in town, and people ask you what you mean when you say words like ‘paddock basher’.

But, to put all this into a bigger picture, every regional and remote student at ANU has fought tooth and nail for their spot here.

Most regional students are first-generation tertiary students. They must prove to their families over and over that going to uni is something worth pursuing. Taking a kid off a farm is removing a labourer, a worker, and they may very well be the only person in their family to have left their hometown.

In my experience, most of the country kids at ANU are likely from rural families who had the cash to send them to boarding school. But for those who didn’t have that opportunity, getting a scholarship is a feat and a half. Others have take a gap year, to work, so they can afford to support themselves.

Our schools aren’t selective – the most qualified teachers don’t want to move ‘out west’ to teach. Schools in regional areas find it hard to recruit capable and experienced teachers in science, math and specialist fields.

Our educational experience is significantly less immersive; bus trips to school are hours long, museums and theatres are hundreds of kilometres away, and we have a drastically reduced choice in subjects. I’d never even heard of the International Baccalaureate before moving to ANU.

Regional and remote students are more likely to drop out of high school because academic achievement is not valued. We’re less likely to complete year 12, and while rural students make up one-third of the NSW high-school population, we make up only four percent of HSC high achievers.

But once you have been offered your place here, you think the worst is over. Then you see how much it costs to live in an urban area. Wages are lower in regional areas, and the capacity of these communities to pay for those studying away from home is limited.

This combination of lower socio-economic status, lack of community support for tertiary education and distance from home means a few things for regional students. First, we must earn our way through part-time employment, often more than 20 – 25 hours a week to get by. Second, there’s a culture shock from living in an urban area, dealing with an entirely different lifestyle, people, values and way of life. Third, in moving to university, you forfeit the tight-knit community you grew up with and instead enter a world which few of those people have experienced or can relate to.

Regional and rural students are present at the ANU, and the challenges we face are largely ignored. We love our hometowns and this university, but we’d also love a bit of damn recognition every now and again.