Gene Pinter on the ups and downs of attending university in the town you grew up in.
With a population breaching 400,000, Canberra is hardly a small town. It has the markers of a true city, international airport and all – and yet I’ve never considered my hometown to be a bona fide metropolis. It’s something about how I walk around the Civic Centre on muscle memory despite twenty years of shifting shop-fronts and renovations. Something in the way I look at certain people and they look at me – the unfamiliar intimacy that comes from crossing paths with the same strangers every single day. The borderlines of this city continue to grow, sprawling to the edges of the Territory and expanding what Canberra means – but, inexplicably, I feel like nothing has changed since my family moved here at the turn of the millennium.
Tell me about Canberra, is something I hear a lot at the start of each semester. There are students from Jakarta, from Joondalup, from just-south-of-nowhere, and there’s always this bright, anxious energy in their eyes. It doesn’t matter if coming to ANU is plunging into the deep end or wading in the kiddie pool; if it’s new, it’s new. I wince and start with the old local jokes – Canberra is a hole, Canberra is boring, Canberra is one huge roundabout you’ll never get out of – but eventually I stop and realise that what I’m saying is only really true for myself and the handful of others who didn’t leave the moment they finished high school.
Growth, at least in the hyper-individualised West, means standing on your own two feet and walking away. It means clipping off some part of yourself and replanting it elsewhere, waiting for it to sprout something fresh that you can finally call yours. There’s a messiness to becoming yourself when your roots remain; dig a little deeper and the growth blends together, old underbrush framing the new.
Tell me about Canberra, and I can’t say anything without peeling back the greenery. Maybe that’s the point; maybe the first step to getting to know someone is to show them your laneways, your alleys, lakeshores and corner shops. But being here, so close to memories you can practically touch every past version of yourself, feels a little too real for a Monday morning tutorial. For the out-of-towners and international students, it takes a couple of rum and Cokes to throw open the doors of those closets.
There’s a messiness to becoming yourself when your roots remain; dig a little deeper and the growth blends together, old underbrush framing the new.
There’s a stigma attached to staying in your hometown, the pervasive idea that you’re insular and less receptive to otherness. In their 2009 book on the demographics of rural Iowa, sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas categorise individuals into four groups: the ‘stayers’ who remain, the ‘returners’ who leave and then come back, the ‘seekers’ who want to leave but are unable to, and the ‘achievers’ who are encouraged to spread their wings. The overwhelming “success” of the ‘achievers’ have caused ‘brain drain’ in rural North American communities; the best and brightest kids are encouraged to leave their town and find a better future in the urban jungle. What’s left is a generation of people told they’re underachievers, not quite good enough to expand their horizons, stuck in a socio-economic rut.
Tell me about Canberra. It’s certainly no rural Iowa; the median income is over $20,000 higher than the rest of Australia. To say Canberra stayers are inherently economically disadvantaged due to their lack of mobility would be a bald-faced lie. Still, the stigma – the affective response to those who stay – remains: why would you want to stay? What’s keeping you here? For me, it’s convenience: with a university like ANU twenty minutes away from home, why wouldn’t I stay?
I’m not alone: 43% of Australian 20 to 24 year olds were living at home in 2016, and that number continues to grow as the new decade approaches. Of course, there’s the elephant in the housing market: the increasingly impenetrable property bubble (let them eat smashed avo). This difficulty in accessing the real estate arena is a symptom of larger financial insecurity shadowing most young people. It makes sense, then, that more people are staying at home longer – and this might be changing how we understand the university narrative. The promise of reinvention that higher education once allowed is restricted by the stage on which we can imagine ourselves.
So, where do we go from here? Can the strangeness of self-development in a place surrounded by older versions of yourself be negated by the financial security blanket of living at home? With the economic future looking bleak, staying at home may be the only viable option for students trying to scrape by on minimum wage. The narrative of studenthood we’ve come to accept, one built from emancipation and self-sufficiency, is beginning to crumble under the weight of fiscal instability. Stories like mine – the people who stay – could become the new norm.
Tell me about Canberra, and my answer always has a hazy edge of embarrassment to it. Not because this city is a hole or boring or one huge roundabout you can never get out of, but because I’m still in it after years of being told I should leave. Staying home feels like a kind of failure to do young adulthood properly. However, with the tide turning against financial and domestic independence, living with your roots might just become the yardstick against which we will soon have to understand student life
Gene is about to embark on their Honours in Sociology after four years at ANU. You can follow their descent into academic madness on Twitter @sociologene.