What we expected from uni

by Claire Barley | @clairembarley

For most students wrapping up Year 12 and starting university is a shining beacon of light at the end of a tunnel of shit. It’s often described as a magical land of late afternoon starts, constant drinking and increased independence. Finally, you’ll be able to cast off the shackles of the compulsory school uniform.

Perhaps you attended a single sex high school and will now be able to actually meet members of the opposite sex and have numerous new sexual partners. Oh, the parties you’ll attend! The friends you’ll make! The wild philosophical discussions you’ll have with a tutor wearing a kaftan and no shoes! The excitement of life as a young adult!

While for some the only trial in adjusting to university life involves your liver getting accustomed to goon, for others the beginning of uni is a difficult time – both academically and socially. It seems society’s depiction of carefree uni life fails to mention the actual studying you’ll have to do, or the difficult and sometimes isolating transition. If your experience of high school was positive, starting university can feel like someone has cut the metaphorical umbilical cord that tied you to your cosy former life and tossed you in the deep end with no floatie.

In 2014, the Age reported one in seven university students drop out in their first year.  Of all Victorian unis, RMIT fared pretty well, only ranking lower than Monash and Melbourne in student retention. Aside from the lures of travel and work coaxing students away from their studies, it seems there are other aspects of the RMIT world producing a less than inspiring experience.

Thea Lamaro works at Compass, RMIT’s student welfare referral service. She sees many students who have difficulties during first year.

“There are lots of students who struggle with the transition,” Lamaro says.

Except for the odd occasion where one of them might, say, call you by the wrong name in a parent teacher interview, high school teachers generally know who most of their students are. While small high school classrooms lacked the ventilation of a uni lecture theatre and often reeked of BO, they were much more conducive to fostering actual relationships with your teachers. At uni, whole subject units can pass without a lecturer or tutor knowing  who you are or how you’re going academically.

“The type of study you’re expected to do at university is very different [to VCE]… it’s completely self directed,” Lamaro says.

“The big lecture and tutorial scenarios don’t lend themselves to people going up and saying, ‘Hi, I need some help’.”

Lamaro says it’s not only students fresh out of high school who struggle, but mature aged students as well. For them, it’s out of university commitments which often make settling in hard.

“They’re probably still working, will have a family at home or a partner. Often they’re feeling inadequate because they may not have studied for a long time and they’ve forgotten how… So each group are struggling similarly,” Lamaro says.

Let’s put studies aside for a moment and address the main reason most of us go to uni: the real exciting part of starting uni is looking forward to meeting new people and partying like there’s no tomorrow, right? It seems not only do your low contact hours allow for more sleep ins, they also don’t make for a huge amount of social interaction.

Claudia Lombard is a 20-year-old studying Environments at Melbourne University. She constantly has that ‘I-love-uni’ twinkle in her eyes; something most people only enjoy after their third coffee.. She points to the media and movies about American college life, saying this is essentially what shaped  her expectations about what uni would be like.

“It always seemed like three years of insane fun and forgetting the purpose of your studies,” Lombard says.

Perhaps the most involved university student of all time, Lombard is Social Chair of the Environments committee and her favourite on campus attire is her Melbourne Uni varsity jumper. Sometimes she even wears it on weekends.

She’s one of the selfless few who serves sausages to the masses at campus barbecues instead of swiping the free food and leaving like the rest of us do.

Aside from undertaking various jobs within the student union, she also mans the university’s merchandise store. Being this busy doesn’t stop her from managing to attend just about every single party the uni organises. She also doesn’t drink alcohol and currently holds the record for most uni parties attended while sober.

Despite enjoying university life to it’s absolute fullest these days, Lombard spent her first year out of school studying fashion at RMIT, where her experience was vastly different.

“That kind of [party] culture wasn’t really present for me at RMIT- straight away I felt quite isolated, like ‘wow, this is quite scary’,” she says.

“That meant that I did struggle to make friends. I was kind of expecting it was going to be hard, but I didn’t think it would be that hard. There was almost no social interaction among people.”

But when she moved to Melbourne Uni in 2014, her experience was very different. Aside from start-of-year-camps, she says student run campus tours and seemingly endless club events (hello, free sausage sizzle every damn day of the week), helped create an immediate sense of belonging and community.

“I feel like on the whole, there isn’t a massive club presence [at RMIT],” Lombard says.

“There are clubs, but I don’t think it’s really promoted in the same way, whereas that’s a massive focus of the union at Melbourne.”

You don’t have to have experienced daily death-by-flyer at the hands of RMIT’s socialist club to know we do in fact have many groups and societies for people to join. Despite this, many students seem unaware of the opportunities to get involved on campus, and feel lonely as a result. Lomaro notes this lack of awareness extends to other support services and people often don’t know where to seek help when they need it.

“There’s the study and learning centre, often some sort of mates or buddies program within schools, counselling…people often don’t even know about that until they get into a position where shit has hit the fan,” Lamaro says.

Unlike its outer suburb counterparts, RMIT sprawls through the Melbourne CBD without any real defined boundaries. It definitely benefits from a cool and urban feel – full of well-dressed people and surrounded by cute cafes. Any food craving can be satisfied without venturing more than ten minutes from Bowen St, not to mention the close proximity of Central Dumpling District. The campus is also ridiculously accessible by public transport. We can thank our lucky stars we don’t have to travel out to Woop Woop to get to class. (Apparently LaTrobe’s campus has bird life! How quaint!)

While our location has many upsides, Lamaro says the layout and inner city location of RMIT contributes to the lack of social connection between students.

“There’s definitely a lack of friendship forming places at RMIT in particular,” Lamaro says.

“In the city there is a sense of being an ant in the race, being one of thousands of people just walking back and forth. There’s no central area or way to create connections with people.”

Lombard echoes this sentiment, saying, “RMIT is in the middle of the central point (of the city) where people are walking past all the time – it doesn’t encourage people to stay in that area.”

“You just naturally get swept up in that crowd and you kind of just go with the flow and go somewhere else.”

Institution related woes aside, it seems some hiccups along the road from high schooler to latté sipping uni student are inevitable. Like any big life change, it involves adjustment and takes time to get used to.

Abrar Abd El-Migid is a third year Public Relations student. Now at RMIT, she spent her first year studying Arts at Melbourne. Offering the perspective of someone who has experienced Lombard’s transfer in the opposite direction, she has some sobering words of advice for people starting their degree.

“I had really high expectations of how social uni would be – I thought there would be parties every night, pub crawls all the time and just all round social awesomeness,” says El-Migid.

“Really the truth is nobody should start first year uni thinking they’ll meet their bestie straight away, because, well,  everyone is an awkward 18-20 year old, and besides, all that warm fuzzy friendship stuff actually takes time and happens much further down the track of your uni life.”

Perhaps RMIT clubs aren’t as in your face – or as forthcoming with the free BBQs – as Melbourne. Perhaps we aren’t offered camps and goon soaked weekends of bonding to kick start our friendships. However the opportunities to get involved are definitely there.

After 12 years of primary and high school education, university is a gold mine of choice and freedom. It’s important to remember this choice extends to just how much you get involved. There are news pals to be met, volunteering to be done and high quality student magazines to write for [Bloody oath – Ed.]. But just like a delicious free beer poured by a union representative, they’re not going to come to you – it’s on you to seek them out.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

Sign up for Catalyst Magazine

Get the latest on what's happening
* = required field