“So, what school did you go to?”
It’s an innocent question and you hear it quite a lot during those awkward first year icebreakers, especially among Victorian students. When I explain I went to a public school in Geelong, reactions vary from blank to surprised. I suppose people have a vague sense of Geelong as a small town somewhere ‘out in the sticks’, a world away from trendy, hipster Melbourne. They’ve never heard of my school, only the private school on the other side of town where Prince Charles was educated for a year. My actual hometown, about half an hour out of Geelong, is pretty unknown.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met lots of nice people who went to elite Melbourne private schools and none of them have ever made me feel bad about my so-called humble origins. They are not the entitled snobs that people from my high school might imagine them to be. However, it was inevitably jarring moving from an underprivileged school to an elite university course full of driven, intelligent people, some of whom come from legal families.
I always knew I wanted to move away for university. It’s not that I didn’t like where I used to live, I just couldn’t picture myself staying there forever. I quite liked the idea of being closer to the city and I felt the Arts/Law course at Monash was much more suited to my interests than any course I could have taken closer to home.
The first challenge I faced moving to the city was not knowing anyone. This is a common first year experience but it’s exacerbated by the fact that most people from my school can’t afford to move out of home and Monash is too far to commute. As the only student in my graduating class who came to Monash, I always knew I wouldn’t see any familiar faces in my first tutorials. Some students, on the other hand, seem to have half their school here and don’t need to desperately seek out new friends.
Meanwhile my high school friends are all moving on with their lives in a different way. They’re living at home, working retail jobs and saving up money for travel or uni next year. They still catch up at weekends and have impromptu sleepovers. I love them a lot and I’m keeping in touch, but sometimes I worry we’ll grow apart living such different experiences.
At high school, I was always ‘the academic kid’, the person everyone predicted would get dux at the end of year 12. It wasn’t hard at a school where most people didn’t have high educational aspirations. Law school, however, is full of people like me. Everyone’s studious and well-informed about a range of subjects. A lot of people are good public speakers. I thought I’d be unique as a French speaking Law student but there are a surprising number of us. While this is all very enriching, it’s sometimes hard to accept I might not be the most talented person in the room – something people from bigger, more academic schools are more used to. I am gradually learning not to hold myself to the same ridiculously high academic standard though, it’s not good for my mental health when I expect to be the best at everything.
Although I’ve got no idea what it’s like to go to a private school, I get the feeling my university peers have had a lot more opportunities than I have had up until now. Even though I did French up to year 12, I’ve never been on exchange there. At my school, activities like high school debating, model UN and big budget theatre productions were virtually unheard of. I’ve had a fantastic start to the year with Monash Association of Debaters and I can probably get a travel grant if I want to do a French exchange but sometimes I get a bit of FOMO when I imagine all the things I never got to do in high school. I also know I’ll have to rely on financial aid for pretty much every future educational opportunity.
Still, when I tell you I went to a public school in Geelong, don’t assume I hated it. I am saying those words with pride. Academia aside, every student at my school was accepted for who they were and I can’t overstate the importance of inclusivity. I had some amazing teachers who helped me achieve my potential even when the rest of my class were pretty unmotivated. If I could turn back time and magically give my parents enough money to send me to a private school, I wouldn’t even consider it. I’m lucky to have met some very privileged people, some very underprivileged people and everyone in between. After all, a justice system where only the privileged can become lawyers is unlikely to be truly just. Maybe I’m an idealist, but ultimately, I’m studying law because I want to ensure justice is done for people from all walks of life – no matter where they went to school.