The Stigma of Staying After High School

Words by Sol, 19 WA

With a population of just under 2 million people, Perth lags behind other Australian cities such as Sydney (5.23 million) and Melbourne (4.94 million). Still, Perth has all the landmarks of a capital city, from a bustling CBD to diverse communities and even an international airport. Yet I never thought of my home for the last five years as an urban metropolis. Maybe it’s because I moved around so much as a kid, going from town to town without giving them a second thought, or maybe it has something to do with the familiar faces of the strangers I cross every day. Whatever it is, I can’t seem to shake the local stereotypes— Perth is a hole, Perth is irrelevant, Perth is just dull

I often dreamed about leaving home and exploring the world by myself.  There’s a sense of pride and freedom that comes with moving to a new country, a sense of ‘I finally made it’ that nobody can take away. On the other hand, there’s a stigma attached to studying in your hometown, one I had shared when I decided to stay in Perth for university at the end of Year 12. It’s the idea that those of us who didn’t leave failed to do so because of our own failures, whether financial or otherwise, whereas those who leave are seen as more successful, self-assured and open to experience than those who do not.

Perhaps it’s because of this that when I was given the chance to study in the United Kingdom for a semester, I jumped at the opportunity. 

My time in the UK was amazing, but more than that it was eye-opening.

I was eager to settle in and prove to everybody that I was just as good as all the kids who moved away as soon as they turned 18. As I met my new peers and looked for an apartment, I felt grown. To me, growth meant finally becoming independent and self-sufficient. It was leaving my roots home and replanting myself somewhere else where I could grow into something that was truly only my creation. When my new UK friends asked me about my life back in Perth, I felt embarrassed to admit I still lived with my parents. I was ashamed to say the city I attended university in was also the place where I did most of my growing up— but why? 

Admittedly, part of it was looking into the faces of my fellow students and recognising they had spread their wings and left the nest much earlier than me. I couldn’t help but feel left behind. Nonetheless, as my new peers ooh’ed and ahh’ed at my photos from home, one thing became painfully clear: Perth was only a hole for me and the others who didn’t leave as soon as high school was over.  So why did I stay?

I don’t really have a one-word answer for this. The truth is that while far from perfect, Perth is a nice place to live. I can walk home from the train station after a night out and feel safe as I do so. There’s endless parks and beautiful beaches where I can take my little siblings or walk my dog around. Most importantly, my closest friends are here. 

For me, my main reason for staying was a sense of familiarity that I desperately craved after attending over seven different primary and secondary schools throughout my childhood. It was also financial: I didn’t have the funds to leave after finishing Year 12, regardless of how much I wanted to. Research shows that 43% of Australian 20-24 year old’s were living at home in 2016, and that number has only grown since. With increasing financial insecurity, high tuition costs and an impenetrable property bubble, it is no surprise that more and more young people are choosing to stay at home for longer. 

This trend may soon change the way we understand the university experience. For many young people, financial and domestic independence have never been further away. For those unable to find work or scraping by on minimum wage, staying at home may be the only way they can afford an education— and why should they feel sorry for that? The university narrative of self-sufficiency is beginning to fall apart under rising living costs. If nothing changes, staying at home could become the new norm. 

So where do we go from here? For now, the stigma remains. Not because Perth is a hole but because for many who remain, staying feels like failing to complete some young adulthood rite of passage. However, with the economic future looking bleak, perhaps it’s time to rework our hyper-individualistic expectations around the university narrative. Extra-curricular activities such as clubs, societies and exchange programs equip students with the same set of skill sets as moving away, including leadership, independence and self-sufficiency just to name a few. Sure, there’s a certain strangeness about self-discovery in a place filled with younger versions of yourself, but after moving away to study not just interstate but internationally, returning back to Perth has come not with a sense of shame but with a sense of home. 

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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