Jace Blunden, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education
In a recent CEEHE whole team meeting, my colleague, Felicity Cocuzzoli, engaged us with a photo elicitation activity. We were presented with a pile of images, scissors, glue, paper of various colours and textures, and a tub of multicoloured sharpies. We were asked to find images that spoke to our work on a personal level – that offered voice to how we understand and value what we do.
As I ruminate on what I created in those short minutes as I was cutting and pasting – transported back to the arty-crafty kid I once was, and seemed to have misplaced along the way - I realise I have a visual representation of my complicated and difficult relationship with education, one that also relates to why I do what I do, and why it is meaningful and valuable to me.
To put it bluntly, university is not for the likes of me. I was born into a social strata where tertiary education happens to other people. The conditions are stacked against people with my background and, despite the rhetoric of inclusion, my attending university, finding success in university and turning that degree into a career represents a statistical anomaly.
Yet, here I am.
If we look at my collage, it begins in the lower right corner: homeless.
I wasn’t born into homelessness. My parents lived in a small, working class cottage in Cooks Hill. I imagine the property now has quite the value, 40 years ago this wasn’t the case. Regardless, I don’t remember it, my dad left, vanishing when I was a toddler, sold the property, and assets that were all conveniently in his name, and left us with nothing.
For the next half a dozen years we didn’t have a stable roof. I would occasionally stay with my grandparents, but they wouldn’t allow my mum there, as she had somehow brought shame on the family.
When I was nine we were accepted into a Housing Commission property. A small apartment in a large block of equally small apartments, in the centre of a huge neighbourhood if identical structures. You may know of these places as The Projects, the Council Estate, The Banlieue or The Ghetto. Places, to use the words of French sociologist, Loic Waquant (1996; 2008), the outside world labels as ‘neighbourhoods of exile', ‘social purgatories’ and ‘leprous badlands’ where only the ‘refuse of society would agree to dwell’. And there I dwelled for the next decade, a ‘Houso Kid’, surrounded by despair, degradation, violence, social exclusion and abuse. I escaped by reading. I would read whatever was in front of me. I read shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, the liner notes of LP records – even wandering down to sit in the waiting room at the local GP to read ancient magazines.
I soon gained the courage to talk to my school librarian, who took me under her wing and piled me with as many books as I could carry.
I read horror stories, fantasy novels, history books, encyclopaedias - anything. But it didn’t translate to the classroom. I was considered disruptive, hyperactive and argumentative. Teachers threw chalk at me for talking, stuck me in corners and insulted me for my poor handwriting. I spent many lunchtimes picking up garbage or sitting outside the principal’s office on detention.
But my love of reading and facts put me at odds with my peers in the Housing Commission. They called me ‘professor’ and abused me for daring to exist differently -they felt I thought I was better than them.
Meanwhile, my family would always tell me “You’ll go to university one day.”
“You’ll be the first one of us to go” is something I was often told growing up.
There was a sense of recognition there. I was being hailed as different. Different: with both the positive and negative connotations attached.
I didn’t even know what university was. No one in my family had even finished high-school. I remember one Christmas my cousin was en-route to the family gathering with her new boyfriend. As an avid eavesdropper, I learned that he had been to university. I was instructed to be on my best behaviour and display my best manners.
University people were obviously important, but also different.
As I grew older, the talk of me attending higher education continued. Matter of fact. Done deal.
Perhaps it was because I read for enjoyment, not necessity. I watched the news with interest. Consumed encyclopedias and asked for Trivial Pursuit for my birthday.
Again, that sense of recognition set me apart. I had a sense that I wasn’t trapped where I was. I could do and be more.
“He’ll go to university, that one.”
Was it me, or did I occasionally hear contempt in that statement?
The problem being, I didn’t have the faintest idea what someone did at university. What was it for? How did you get there?
I was a Houso Kid. My family, and the people I knew, didn’t view education as something for them – let alone something they could advise me on. My peers at school who saw university in their future already seemed to have everything planned out and seemed to manoeuvre and operate within the school system with ease. I held onto my ignorance. It was so delicately wrapped in my pride.
The people I knew with jobs did things like labouring, cooking, house cleaning – jobs in which the pathway to employment was as only as long as it took to turn up and prove you could do it. Nothing with so fancy a term as a career. No one ever talked about their ‘trajectory’.
The extent of my knowledge of how to get into university was ‘do the HSC and get the marks’. I didn’t know what courses were available or where to find that information (this was pre-internet, for the record). I didn’t know how to study effectively….
I stumbled my way through the UAC application.
I applied for English teaching. I was able to choose that because I knew what that was. I didn’t know what engineering was. I didn’t know what social science was. I thought ‘Art degrees’ were about painting. It took a while to realise that ‘English Teacher’ wasn’t in the manual. I didn’t know what a ‘bachelor’ was.
I sat my HSC but I did not get those marks.
I stopped thinking about university because I didn’t realise there could be a second chance.
I accidentally stumbled into a hospitality career.
Fast forward a decade – chatting at a party, I heard about this thing called Open Foundation. A second chance.
That earlier sense of recognition fired up.
“He’ll go to university one day.”
So, I did. I quit my job that week, enrolled and completed Open Foundation in a whirlwind six months.
My marks were excellent and I enrolled in a Bachelor of Communications.
I lasted 18 months and dropped out.
Another decade passed.
I still read voraciously. I came across the term ‘Human Geography’. I looked it up and discovered exactly what I was looking for. A little light went on.
I re-enrolled: Social Science majoring in Human Geography.
A third chance.
A few weeks in I discovered a book called Learning to Labour: why working-class kids get working class jobs, by Paul Willis, and I saw myself.
I saw myself in the analysis. I saw the hidden social architectures and power structures that had, in turn, obscured the university pathway from me, even though others could see it so clearly. I had been recognised my whole life as someone who was university bound but was never given the skills of knowledge on how to get there. As if I had been given the postcard, but never the map. I saw what led my family and my peers to view education as ‘not for the likes of us’, with suspicion, confusion and envy that often brewed into contempt.
As my degree continued, despite my good grades, I always felt like an imposter. Small. Why didn’t I belong? Why was I still intimidated? I never had the confidence to think ‘Ps mean Degrees’ because that philosophy only served the people the university was designed for – those who understood that a degree was a means to an end – a necessary path on a longer journey. I didn’t realise that my goal was only their pit stop. I felt I had to get higher marks just to prove I was worthy of my place. I developed a very closed minded view of what success was. At that point a poor mark, or even an average one, was a sign I wasn’t cut out for study. I now know that simply turning up and engaging with this alien world could be defined as a success.
The university campus, the classrooms and lecture theatres were never comfortable – the dynamics, expectations and modes of being were nothing less than alien. Never safe or knowable. Never easy.
I earned really good marks. But at a huge emotional and physical toll.
I did it, though. I graduated with Distinction from a world whose culture, mode of being and approved knowledges – as well as its sense of exclusivity and prestige – was designed not to include me. When my testamur came in the mail, it marked the first time in my life, at 41 years-old, that I had followed through and finished anything.
Now I work here, at CEEHE, and help other people like me. Others who ‘don’t belong’. I climbed that ladder and now I get to reach back down and pull others up behind me.
More than that, with this role is the recognition that there is nothing wrong with who I was and where I am from. Educational institutions position themselves as normative. That those who come from elsewhere need to adapt to the values of the institution. That aspiration only equals aspiring to those modes of being. Teaching others to be more ‘middle class’ does not interest me. The real work is to make the institution recognise that people outside its traditional aperture aren’t ‘wrong’ or in deficit – but have rich skill sets, strengths, values, knowledges and modes of being that can be of benefit.
Outside of raising children, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
That’s why I’m here. To help those like me, out there in any way I can. Widening participation programs abound, but the aperture still isn’t open enough and the obstacles are invisible to those who never had to wrestle with them.
It’s not enough to help people over those obstacles. It’s not enough to point them out to those that can’t see them.
They need to be dismantled. The barriers to even seeing that the pathways exist removed.
Even though I struggled, I recognise the privilege I had. If not for that librarian I may still be reading the back of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles. If not for that early recognition that university was a possibility, no matter how vague, I might never have had the word ‘university’ in my head as a possibility at all.
“You’ll go to university, one day”, they said, with barely concealed contempt.
Now they’ll have to crowbar me out of here.
Wacquant, L. (1996) ‘Red belt, black belt: racial division, class inequality and the state in the French periphery and the American ghetto’, in Mingione, E. (ed), Urban poverty and the underclass: a reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, p. 234-274.
Wacquant, L. (2008) Urban outcasts: a comparative sociology of advanced marginality, Cambridge: Polity Press.
We acknowledge and respect the Gadigal peoples of the Eora Nation and the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People the traditional custodians of the land on which we work.