By Liam Mannix
Photography by Andrew Melville-Smith
In South Australia, fifty seven percent of citizens hold a qualification – a TAFE course, or a Uni degree. Of the hundred snot-nosed little kids in Kelly Costello’s 2004 year 7 class, at the private Sumaritan School in Whyalla, less than thirty will finish year 12. Maybe fifteen of those finishers are currently at uni. For country kids, university means something very different than for city folk.
‘Whyalla: Where the Outback Meets the Sea’, reads the tourism brochure. It’s a nice town, nestled into the Eyre Peninsula – about 5 hours drive from Adelaide – and is home to almost 25,000 people. UniSA has a campus in Whyalla – modern, accessible, well-resourced. But Whyalla has two other things: a deeply entrenched sense of its own ruralness, and a bustling steelworks.
Identities are formed less by designating who we are; more, they are about outlining who we are not. It’s called mutually constituted identity, and for regional towns, towns on the fringes, it means a very strong sense of not being part of the big city. In Whyalla, a uni education has become a symbol of everything that the country isn’t. “We’re all country people – we don’t really think it’s as important as city people do,” Kelly says. “University’s not that big here, I guess.”
Kelly’s nineteen, and is working her way through ‘foundation studies’ – a course that bridges the gap for school leavers looking to get into higher education. “I started year 12, and then kind of thought it was a little bit too hard. And I wanted to do hairdressing, so I quit and I applied for TAFE – and didn’t end up liking it. And then I realised that University’s just so much better for my career,” says Kelly. She’s softly spoken, but clearly bright, and it sounds like she’s going places. It must be an interesting experience – at uni, while still prescribing to an identity that rejects higher education, and in the middle of a town that rejects it.
There are few expectations or pressures placed on rural kids – Whyalla’s very “laid back”, Kelly says. The relaxed mood – and perhaps the advertised 300-plus days of sunshine every year – create an atmosphere where kids aren’t expected to seek anything more than leisure. Kelly says that some parents “suggest to them you don’t need to do this [uni] you can just go get a full-time admin job or a full time apprenticeship. Some [parents] think it’s not a valuable thing”.
In Whyalla, the leisure-time of choice is drinking – heavy drinking. Its a costly hobby – a reason, Kelly suggests, for kids dropping out of school. “All that there is to do in this town is go to the pub and drink, or go to Adelaide. So I guess that a lot of teenagers feel that they need money to do that. So most of them kinda decide that ‘I’ll drop out of school and get a job so that I can have a relaxed lifestyle”. Kelly says
Check out one of the emails UniLifeMag received from one of Whyalla’s residents
Read the article that helps set the record straight – Whyalla: Limitless Expanse, Limted Options