Off Campus, on My Mind

‘Which college are you from?’

This is the question that follows every introduction. The residence you live in is interwoven with student identity at ANU.

This focus on residential student experiences, however, often leads to students who live off campus being forgotten. If you’re not a fresh-out-of-high-school Bruce resident, a politically inclined Burgmann student, or a Fenner or Unilodge resident wishing they were on Daley Road, then how is anyone to know the kind of person you are? How can you be defined if you can’t be typed to your residence?

During my first year at ANU I found myself justifying my living situation to strangers who were incredulous as to why someone would not want to live on campus. Mine is a peculiar case. I am originally from Liverpool in Sydney’s south-west, and I am fortunate enough to have family in the ACT who I can live with.

After my first month in Canberra I was close to packing up and going home. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t handle the stress of adjusting to a new way of thinking and learning while in a different city – I didn’t know anyone except my cousins and felt as if no one could understand my feelings of isolation because it seemed that everyone I met was living at a college.

College friendships form quickly and deeply by virtue of living in close quarters, and I found it especially intimidating to try and meet people when they had already formed close-knit groups. Colleges also provide students with an enormous amount of institutional knowledge – what a returning officer is, how to chair a meeting, how to start up a club or society, where to get cheap textbooks – as well as extensive personal connections. I still constantly find myself in meetings or at events where everyone else knows, or knows of each other, because of college networks.

In comparison, students living off campus often lack the valuable support networks that colleges offer. If things go wrong, physical distance from campus can lead to emotional distance, and things can fall apart. If you’re struggling and need help with coursework, you have to travel on campus to get help, which can be difficult to fit in with paid work and other commitments, especially if you live South side. Suddenly, you’re behind on lectures, assessments are piling up and you feel as if no one would notice if you failed or stopped going to uni altogether.

Telling students that they will make friends by simply going to lectures and tutorials may be true to some extent, but passing acquaintances are not a sufficient or stable support network. Joining clubs and societies is an effective way to make friends but, as there is often a big college presence, off-campus students can be relegated to an out-group as these students simply have closer relationships with those they live with.

This is an important issue that must be addressed before students are lost in the cracks. Meaningful and consistent relationships are an important part of good mental health and happiness, and everyone should feel as if they can participate in and contribute to the student experience. Extra-curricular activities and being a ‘well-rounded student’ are becoming increasingly important for graduate job applications, and feelings of isolation and a lack of institutional knowledge can put off-campus students at risk of falling behind. Further, the underrepresentation of off-campus students in student life can lead to a singular privileged experience being taken as the standard. ANU admits that low-SES students make up only 1% of residents, and the lack of affordable accommodation certainly does not help in drawing in low-SES students from less well-off areas beyond Canberra.

So what can be done to engage and include off-campus students?

Griffin Hall was created for this purpose – to provide off-campus students with a college-like support network and opportunities to participate in structured events and sports. This works well for some, but for those who are not interested in sports or arts events, who do not feel comfortable engaging with strangers, or who don’t fit into the main friendship group that dominates the small Common Room and the Hall itself, Griffin Hall can be isolating as well.

Personally, I am active involved in extra-curricular activities – such as Law Reform and Social Justice and the ANUSA Women’s Department – where I have been able to make friends and establish professional contacts. Most non-residential students, however, are often underrepresented in student life because of a lack of pre-existing connections and institutional knowledge about how clubs and societies operate. Although off-campus students make up half of the ANU student population, this is not reflected in campus engagement – particularly in areas like law that have a high proportion of college students.

Change needs to occur at all levels: ANU, clubs, societies and other groups on campus need to become more accessible. This can be as simple as advertising meeting and event times well in advance and in multiple ways. Or, increasing the amount of lighting in the suburbs surrounding ANU so students – particularly women – can attend late classes or meetings without fearing for their safety as they travel home. This semester, I’ve started up autonomous coffee events with the ANUSA Women’s Department to engage off-campus women like myself, and to try and alleviate feelings of isolation. If you’re interested, keep an eye out on the Women’s Department Facebook pages.

Change, however, also needs to occur at the individual level. Every student should be able to enjoy their time at ANU. An important part of this is having meaningful relationships and feeling safe and secure while on campus, and comfortable enough to participate in extra-curriculars. So, to all you college residents, hold your tongue the next time someone says they live off campus, and figure out what kind of person they are by asking some different questions for once.