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Open Letter: I Don’t Participate, I Barely Exist

By Anonymous

Dear everyone drinking the UNSW Kool-Aid,

I’m a dual degree student in their 5th year living at least 2 hours from UNSW.

Commuting isn’t a ‘hassle’ for me. It’s a way of life. My life is so scheduled that I literally block out free time a month or two in advance – the same way others would block out holidays. Except for me, it’s a few hours where I get to exist as myself, not a student or worker, not a daytrip or weekend where I can relax or go somewhere else.  

I am only home to sleep. I work a job that finishes at 2am. I get into pyjamas and am dead to the world for 8 hours. 8 hours is the bare minimum for me. Any less and I can’t concentrate, contribute in class, or focus. When I wake, I roll out of bed and start driving to the next place I need to be. For someone who loves sleep more than anything, I don’t seem to do it much. Sleep is the only time I feel safe from the world. It’s the only time no one expects anything of me. Too often it is taken from me by the commute and compulsory existence at a location.

To leave the house when the sun is up is a luxury. Birds outside and my alarm go off and I want to strangle them both, but I can’t. I pull on clothes and get out the door while shoving food in my bag that I hope will stay cold next to ice blocks. I dress in layers because although my toes are frozen now, it can quickly reach 30 degrees later and how the hell do I dress for all that?

Driving to the station takes 40 minutes.

Walking from my car to the station takes 10 minutes.

Waiting for the train takes 10 minutes.

The train journey takes 20 minutes.

Walking to the bus takes 10 minutes.

The bus takes 30 minutes.

This is the average journey. 2 hours in transit. This is not accounting for delays, for lines at the stops, and is reliant on me finding a parking spot almost straight away. There is no way to make the journey faster. I change between 7 or more sets of temperatures. I am tired. I don’t eat breakfast before I arrive at UNSW. There is no time. There was a semester where I had a significant leg injury. By the time I got to class I was in excruciating pain and crying. Back then it was a 3-hour commute.

On normal days, I get a cup of tea from the coffee cart. It’s the cheapest thing on the menu. Here I exist in the UNSW community.

I can’t afford to buy food or drink every day. I live below the poverty line. Let that sink in.

I work 3 jobs, pay board, all car expenses, transport, meals, and forgo anything new.

I EARN LESS THAN THE MINIMUM NEEDED TO LIVE. Why is this normalised?

I collect my hot tea and go to class.

I cram as many classes into as few days as possible. I will not travel 6 hours a day for a one-hour class. My backpack is 10kg on a good day. I don’t have breaks in between classes.

I keep track of what I eat each day, otherwise I might accidently skip a meal, or eat a whole lot of fast food. I honestly sometimes forget that I need to eat. I’ve lived so long on barely enough that it’s just par for the course. Now, I meal plan like a pro. I’ve got containers full of roast and vegies ready to get shoved against freezer blocks. I’ve got snacks in every pocket.

As it turns out, constant exhaustion due to travel is not good for overall health. My immune system has more holes than swiss cheese. I’m a frequent visitor to my doctor who is thinking about giving me a loyalty card. The only time I can rest and recover is with a doctor’s certificate. Emailing ‘I’m too tired to trek in’ has attendance repercussions. I catch illness simply by looking at a sick person. And do you know the prime place for catching illness? Public transport.

To go home from existing at UNSW is the same transport process in reverse, except now there are more people. The later it gets, the greater chance I will be mugged or assaulted. Places that are safe in daytime are not at night. I cannot attend Roundhouse parties or night events. I do not stay in places I do not feel safe. I don’t get home before almost 9pm. I then prep for whatever the next day brings and go to sleep. I then get to wake up and do it all again for 5 years straight.

On-campus life isn’t built for commuters. We travel a shittily long time to get the best education we can. On-campus accommodation isn’t an option due to financial and support reasons. We don’t have enough work to cover it or parents able to pay costs. My mother wept when I bought my first car because she couldn’t help me pay for it. My first laptop was a birthday present from both sides of my family. I can’t afford to rent closer to the city. If I did, I would have to work more than the 20+ hours I do now and I could fail classes.

Where I live keeps me tethered to my world. With the advent of mass online learning at UNSW, I have been able to have adequate meals, adequate sleep, to adequately dress, and adequately participate in UNSW life. Where in this half-life is there space to be involved? Should I pay for club events and skip meals? Should I do a sport and get attacked going home late? Do I volunteer and miss a paying shift?

Making friends at UNSW is difficult. I cannot and will not be in anyone’s lives on campus enough to warrant more than the occasional wave as we see each other going in opposite directions on the Basser steps. It’s crap, but that’s the commuter reality.

Here’s a look at what online learning has allowed me to participate in:

I arrive to class having eaten breakfast. I have a mug of hot chocolate. I sit at my own desk where I have everything that I need. I don’t have to carry a 10kg backpack with laptops, cables, pens, books and lunchboxes. I can listen to recorded lectures and not panic if I miss something. I can pause and write notes at my own pace. I sit in a comfortable and ergonomic chair. I don’t have to sit still. I make myself a hot lunch from food that has been stored at a correct temperature in the fridge. I can adjust the temperature in the room to suit me. I can participate in quizzes, in fitness and sport, in writing jams and I can volunteer an hour instead of carving out an entire day where I then lose working hours and gain stress. If I am ill, I won’t make myself worse by going all the way to UNSW. I can attend class without compromising other students. I don’t walk in fear.

During this unprecedented time, I finally get to read books again, watch TV shows. I get to go for walks and I get time to myself. I’ve now got a tether to UNSW life and I have made friends with people who won’t leave me on ‘SEEN’ for just saying ‘Hello’. I’m allowed to be a participating human.

My commute is 15 seconds.

Returning on-campus means that I will again be excluded, as I have been for most of my UNSW life. I don’t look forward to the return of on campus life, and all that that entails.

Sincerely,

A Commuter Student.

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