My start stop, start stop approach to university

By Dee Michell, University of Adelaide, South Australia

My journey through university reminds me of learning to drive a manual car – start stop, start stop, start stop, go.

I was fortunate to be in the one foster home for 15 years as this meant one primary school and one high school. I loved reading and I loved school. I grew up in an age of overt gender disparity; it was only girls who did the ‘commercial stream’ during high school and it was only girls who did ‘domestic science’. But something went awry and instead of leaving school at 16 armed with my 3 years of office skills training, I stayed on and matriculated, ie, I qualified to go to university.

It’s easier to say why I deferred my offer to university – my confidence was shaken by a tough final year at school, there was a lot of conflict at home, I left home—than to say why I wanted to go to uni. Reading my favourite childhood book, Anne of Green Gables? The burgeoning 2nd wave feminist movement? The Federal Labor Government’s new policy of free university education for all? Probably a combination of all 3.

I didn’t get to university until I was 21 and then I dropped out 18 months later. I felt like a ‘cultural outsider’ to use an apt term coined by Americans Sennett & Cobb (1973) even though I was a competent student. The excuse I gave myself and others was a good working class one – I needed to earn money.

Working in the corporate sector gave me the confidence and the know-how to negotiate the middle class university environment when I returned there 15 years later. Plus, it was the 1990s, women’s studies was on campus and mature age women were welcome.

With 2 undergraduate degrees, first class honours and a scholarship to do a PhD, I began teaching in a university in 2003. By then I was 47 and I’d been at uni a long time, plodding away at my studies part-time while I raised 3 children, lived below the poverty line and supplemented our meagre income with paid work.

I’d taken my start stop, start stop, start stop, go approach to university as a personal failing until I started chatting with a colleague similarly from a working class background. We had many a conversation after reading some now classic books on the topic, such as This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of academics from the Working Class (1995) – all useful – but where were people like me, people who’d been ‘a ward of the state’?

I finally graduated with my PhD at the end of 2008 and have been working as an academic at the University of Adelaide since 2011. A late-blooming academic I call myself.

I began to find my tribe in 2012. First I found out that one of Australia’s eminent art historians, Bernard Smith, was in foster care from the time he was a wee babe. Then I discovered another former foster kid in Queensland, Reeny Jurczyszyn, was doing a PhD (while she worked full time) on the topic of care leavers and tertiary education, and Gregory Smith also in Queensland was doing one on adults who’d lived in a NSW orphanage during the 20th century. Eventually I connected with Jacquie Wilson at Federation University in Ballarat, Victoria and with her colleague, Verity Archer, we co-edited a collection of Australian stories about growing up working class and going to university, Bread and Roses: Voices of Australian Academics from the Working Class. Jacquie has since gone on to be instrumental in encouraging Victorian care leavers to go to university with the Raising Expectations partnership between Federation, La Trobe and Swinburne universities and the Centre of Excellence in Child and Family Welfare Inc.

As for me, I’m enjoying finding more of my tribe in Australia and overseas and writing about them for my Real Life Super Heroes blog.

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