When I am 18 I am running very fast
This university is not the ends of the earth
I am studying tequila, I am critically assessing other people’s tongues,
I am stress-testing the lies of the sexual revolution
When I am 19 I surf a slippery slope
This university wants an active activism
I am studying immorality, I am political scandal burgeoning,
I am veering dangerously on course
When I am 20 I give and give and give
This university frowns kindly down at her listless child
I am studying hands, ones that hold and choke
I am a pile of pulsing fish-guts
When I am 21 I hear the term ‘digital feudalism’
This university makes me worry
I am studying panic attacks, I am writing an autoethnography,
I am becoming the problem
When I am 22 the world ends. Predictably, inevitably
This university wraps it all up in theory-bows
I am studying the future-void, I am the no-truth,
I am the oracle-cave, sad and sober at the circus
When I am 23 I go home
This university pushes me into the fog-words. I wounded-hound limp deep-dark-down
I am studying the post-colonial body, I am living haunted frameworks
I am looking in a mirror and pinching my ghost-thighs
When I am 24 I am made solid
This university puts her palm on mine when I tend towards extremes
I am the something wicked come, the me of the nth degree
I am shortly sharply graduating
At four am in our darkened flat in Dublin, I submit an online exam. My undergrad is over. The sun rises to the sound of my partner’s gentle snoring. I stare at Inspera, feeling like cotton candy in the rain. How did this happen? This anti-climax, this staircase-towards-empty-air, this lonely little finish line ending my marathon?
By numbers, I stretched the “three-year degree” to double its purported size; nearly six years out of high school, two different universities, and an embarrassing tally of declared (and then redacted) majors. There was more than one panicked gap year in the middle of it, more than one building knocked out from under me as the University rejigged the City Campus. At times it felt like the administration was intentionally stamping out study spaces for BA students, squashing their overly-opinionated bug infestation. I almost wish I’d held back from finishing just a little longer, waited to see the gutted shell buildings on Symonds St get refilled with rooms again.
In the uncertain dawn, it’s a cold comfort to know I’m not alone as a late-grad. When I think about the friends I made in undergrad, I realise that most of my peers have actually, for various ~reasons~ (the pandemic/their finances/mental health/odd work opportunities/weird flatting situations), taken their sweet time too. We’ve all been the cousin, stubbornly avoiding the subject of grad dates at family get-togethers. For most of us, a longer degree was not a meandering leisurely stroll, but a series of sporadic sprints—papers lined up around lives that are, for larger structural reasons, incompatible with straightforward academic success. As the Greens’ recent inquiry announcement reflects, student well-being in Aotearoa is careening off a cliff.
The crippling cost-of-living in Auckland meant many of us took semesters out to save, or hustled hard and dropped to part-time. The pandemic hit student-income industries where they hurt too, closing the hospo-and-retail backbone that traditionally bankrolls a ramen and Shadows beer diet. A number of us took time out caring for kids / parents / grandparents / partners / roommates—another example of how existing inequity can hinder academic opportunity. When I look around at who lagged behind in their degrees and why, the young women in my cohort have essentially become a micro-study for the feminised burden of care.
Essentially, there’s a whole heap of privilege in getting to university at all, and that extends to getting through it quickly too. It takes incredibly stable support systems to prioritise your studies over paying rent, or your mental health. The reality is that the people who flunk a semester, or take time away, are also usually the people who can least afford to do so, and would benefit most from the jump in life prospects that higher education can provide.
Like many students, my degree dream was coated over with a fine unshakeable layer of scepticism during the pandemic, as our tutorials Zoomified and our politics radicalised. In my worst moments, my papers were just fences I needed to hurdle, ones I watched grow higher and higher in the dark lockdown months. In the best semesters (i.e., when I wasn’t also working / locked down / caring for siblings), I found an intellectual hunger I couldn’t satiate, a childlike curiosity and joy in learning that had me burrowing into the library, and bugging my professors through their office hours.
Sometimes I felt like my lecturers were wizened fishermen in post-nuclear waters, watching our generation flop around like three-headed-fish on the deck, scratching their beards with concern at our apathy and our rage, our lack-lustre work-ethic, our crippling climate fear, our disdain and distrust for our leaders, elders, and institutions. One of my favourite professors once said he was “continuously impressed by our impassioned conviction that we’re the only young people who’d ever been hard-done-by”. When I started my degree, I had that healthy fear of teaching staff, re-writing emails, being anxious to sound polite. I’m now a ‘sent from my iPhone’ gal (hint: true respect is not conveyed through over-thought punctuation).
It’s been a strange mixed-bag of a BA. The final paper I took for my English major was titled ‘The Modern Novel’, a course that featured only a single book written by a woman and not one female protagonist in its whole curriculum. I’ve since done the maths; less than a quarter of what I read for my English major was written by female authors. With a perverse irony, it seems that my mostly female peers are racking up debt for a major that writes women out of literary history.
On the flip side, in my time at Auckland, the University grew in ways that made me proud to me a student here—a new name in Te Reo Māori, world-leading science communication throughout the pandemic, and research projects feeding back into the community across Tāmaki Makaurau. One of my Communications professors wrapped up every single one of his intro lectures with the usual reminder that he’d prefer us to attend in-person, but made the point to explicitly include breastfeeding mothers and their babies in the welcome. As someone whose own mother was stuck breastfeeding in a dingy toilet through her degree here, this was a lovely full circle.
Brain-draining away, I look out at what’s becoming a rainy day on the other side of the world. Dublin is just as expensive as Auckland; Irish students riot about rent and fees, stuck shivering, beholden to apathetic landlords. I worry that the world’s major cities are becoming inhospitable to student life, that the global gains in access to higher education are being ripped away from future students. I’ve been very privileged in my path towards graduating, and wayward circumstances meant it still required 200% of the effort and time I’d expected.
I remember being 18, thighs burning up Grafton Road, the OGGB gleaming ominously ahead of me; I’m now on Grafton Street in Dublin, 24 and a hemisphere away, when I get the email I can graduate.