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

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

Last week there was an influx of young people for the start of the semester at Australian Catholic University at the top of Brunswick Street, not far from where I work. I’m past the age to notice that college students look so young these days. Or even that their professors look like students. On my stage I visit old people’s homes and marvel that the elderly look so young.

A new class of students has started university life.Credit:Joe Armao

I’ve been thinking about what this moment might mean for the new cohort. What did they take to college? What did they hope their education would enlarge and open up to them? In my day we wore clothes that made us look like we lived in a store. Nowadays it seems like 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?

Someone had put up a sign for people to respond to the question “what am I really excited about this year”. One said, “Finally starting my course.” Another said, “I think I’ll figure it out.” I loved the sound of the second one. The writer hadn’t decided what the experience would be like before it happened.

I’m naive enough to believe there’s more to college than getting a job or acquiring a few lines on a resume for LinkedIn, the holy shrine of self-marketing. CV is the abbreviation of Curriculum Vitae, which basically means the course of your life. I would like these students to have the run of their lives: a blood-curdling encounter with reality. I hope they discover that the mystery of the human family makes you sweat.


I found myself in a cafe on nearby Gertrude Street enjoying a bowl of pho. Four young women arrived and sat down at the next table, all with university reusable bags. They looked like first semester students and I couldn’t resist listening to them. They seemed to have met recently; once they sat down, they started exchanging zodiac signs, which is more efficient than giving your whole backstory. They agreed to share meals, another efficiency. Then they started talking about courses.

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

She sent a motivational speaker they encountered. She didn’t want to step on anything. She wanted to teach. Her parents balked at the idea for all the usual morose reasons, pouring scorn on a profession they probably didn’t understand. I hoped she would get the support she needed to find the pure joy of teaching as opposed to completing online tasks designed in some Lubyanka of the soul.