Eternal Sunshine of the Accessible University

I hope we never go back to campus

I never want uni to go back to being on campus. I know this online option will inevitably end when (or if…) COVID gets better, but in-person uni is not a sustainable space for me.

I don’t think of the concept of spaces like other people around me. I’m a cis white woman, I’m 21, I’m Jewish, I’m queer. Most of my friends in Melbourne are the same in at least 3 of those categories. Having social justice-minded, often really radical friends – not to mention studying Social Work at RMIT – means that I am constantly hearing about negotiating space in society and politics. It’s all very macro-scale: often overwhelmingly upsetting and enraging analyses about how little space certain minorities have within society. I engage with these ideas regarding other people’s experiences and inclusivity. However, when it comes to myself, I can’t look at space in the same way.

I don’t often have the energy or capacity to consider the space in society that mental illness lives in, because, to be frank, I am just trying to survive the actual illness

I don’t spend time engaging with thoughts about my experiences of homophobia or Antisemitism. This is because I have something which some people describe in cutesy terms: sometimes as a black dog that follows you around. I would better describe it as a really bad parasite that is literally in the process of killing you, but you’re expected to live as if you’re totally healthy. This parasite in my life is mental illness.

I’ve dealt with some quite debilitating chronic mental illnesses since I was 11.  In terms of my day-to-day function, I live out of home, I work, I do full-time uni and I am a leader in a Jewish youth movement. Some days I feel okay and don’t have many symptoms, but at other times, it becomes unbearable. I take every step I can to manage it: I’ve made so much progress and still, in the end, I always end up crying on the phone to my parents in Sydney, unable to manage anymore and needing more help than the system ever provides.

I don’t often have the energy or capacity to consider the space in society that mental illness lives in, because, to be frank, I am just trying to survive the actual illness. Also, if you’ve had any interaction with the mental healthcare system you would probably agree that it’s not something you would want to dedicate your time to analysing too much – unless you have a particular interest in reliving some pretty dehumanising experiences.

But wow, after a semester and a half of online uni during COVID, I never want to be back on campus again

So, for me, spaces in relation to this are purely physical because that’s the most basic level of survival. Campus is a physical space that on a good day can be really lovely, but on a bad day, can be really hard to survive in.

For me, safe physical spaces when I am unwell are either ones that are very quiet with very few people where I feel really held and comforted, or being alone in nature. My routine on my bad days on campus includes racing from class to somewhere quiet, often to have a quick cry or panic attack.

My most cried-in place on campus would have to be the middle bathroom cubicle in the bathrooms next to the library – the most private place I’ve been able to find on campus . After careful consideration, I feel like being in the comfort of my own bedroom during classes on my bad days in COVID would have to rate a little higher on the dignity scale.

Compulsory online uni means I will never even have the option to think like that again, and for me, that is beyond priceless

Don’t get me wrong, RMIT has actually been really accommodating for my needs. But wow, after a semester and a half of online university during COVID, I never want to be back on campus again. It’s not a physically, emotionally or mentally accessible space for me when I am even slightly unwell. Doing studies from home has been good for my health as well as my grades. Also, my energy for things like cooking (as a Platinum Tier Uber Eats customer, this is kind of a big deal) has been rejuvenated in a big way.

The funny thing about all of this is that even when I am so unwell that I can hardly get out of bed, my biggest fear is not even related to anything that could happen to me; it’s that I’ll be seen as a lazy millennial. Studying on campus was like me trying to prove I wasn’t lazy by trying to live as a mentally ill person with no symptoms of those illnesses.

Last year, I literally did the second half of Semester 1 from a psychiatric hospital; missing (admittedly, pretty depressing) group therapy sessions to write my essays. I wanted to prove I wasn’t using being so acutely unwell I needed to be hospitalised as an excuse for not getting work done (I have no idea which non-existent boomers I was trying to prove this to? Another question for my poor psychologist, I guess). Compulsory online university means I will never even have the option to think like that again, and for me, that is beyond priceless.

I really hope COVID gets better, but I hope that this online uni space remains an option, because it has been such an eye-opener to how well I can be (and I’m sure others too) if society was just a little more accommodating for different needs. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d take a breakout room conversation where only one person watched the lecture and did the readings over in-person uni any day.

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