Op-shop clothes have given way to active wear, but one aspect of uni stays the same

I can only vaguely remember orientation week at Melbourne University. It was many years ago and, as my aunt often said, the secret of happiness is a bad memory. By the end of it, I was completely disoriented.

Last week there was an influx of young people for the start of semester at Australian Catholic University at the top of Brunswick Street, not far from where I work. I am well past the age of remarking that university students look so young these days. Or even that their professors look like undergraduates. At my stage, I visit retirement homes and wonder that the elderly look so young.

A new cohort of students has embarked on university life.Credit:Joe Armao

I did think about what this moment might mean to the new cohort. What did they take to university? What did they hope their education might enlarge and open for them? In my day, we wore clothes that made us look like we lived in op shops. These days, it looks as if the students live in gyms. We used to pay 45¢ for coffee that tasted like dishwater; they pay 10 times as much for coffee that is 12 times as good. But other than that, who can guess?

Somebody had put up a board where people could post responses to the prompt “what I am really excited about this year”. One said, “Starting my course at long last.” Another said, “I guess I’ll find out.” I liked the sound of the second one. The writer had not decided what the experience was going to be like before it had happened.

I am naive enough to believe that there is more to university than tooling up for a job or acquiring a couple of lines on a CV for LinkedIn, the holy shrine of self-marketing. CV is short for curriculum vitae, which actually means the run of your life. I wish these students do have the run of their lives: a heart-pumping encounter with reality. I hope they discover that the mystery of the human family raises a sweat.

I found myself in a cafe in nearby Gertrude Street, indulging in a bowl of pho. Four young women arrived and sat at the next table, all carrying reusable bags from the university. They looked like first-semesterists, and I couldn’t stop myself listening to them. They seemed to have recently met; no sooner had they sat down than they began to exchange star signs, which is more efficient than providing your entire backstory. They agreed to share meals, another efficiency. Then they got down to discussing courses.

The first one said she wanted to do masters of law and education so she could be a kick-arse teacher. I quaked at the prospect that teachers might need law degrees these days. She said she had always wanted to be a teacher, and now she knew she could kick arse. I was inclined to tell her that kicking was no longer highly regarded as a form of pedagogy, but the others were all laughing now.

She was sending up a motivational speaker they had encountered. She didn’t want to kick anything. She wanted to teach. Her parents resisted the idea for all the usual dreary reasons, pouring scorn on a profession they probably didn’t understand. I hoped that she would get the support she would need to find the sheer joy of teaching, as opposed to completing online tasks designed in some Lubyanka of the soul.

The second speaker said the UN had helped her mother get to Melbourne from a refugee camp, and now she, her daughter, wanted to study human rights law. It was hard to get into this course, apparently, but she was going to kick arse in the attempt. They laughed so loud about the arse-kicking that their glasses inched towards the edge of the table. I was sorry I’d missed the professional motivator who broke them up time and again. The student wanted to specialise in migration and asylum seekers. She mentioned the asylum seekers who had drowned off the coast of Italy the day before.

The last to speak was going to study psychology. Her friends asked why. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do after I’d spent almost the whole of year eight and year nine crying,” she said. The fourth just gave her a hug and said: “And now you’re gonna kick arse, sweetheart.” They were close to tears of laughter.

Here were young women who wanted to do so much more than kick arse – they were using their experience to find direction. Maybe I should never have been eavesdropping, but I was elated that these people were so deeply motivated and so hungry for lives of service.

My aunt was wrong about memory: part of the purpose of education is to help people find a special place within the vast human memory we call culture and tradition. One reason students discontinue their course is because they can no longer see the point. I believe the point is not just pragmatic. I hope that university can channel their idealism. It didn’t stop them from arguing over how much sauce to put on the chips, but it did make my day.

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