The Student Cult (Chur)

The Student Cult (Chur)

I bluffed my way into Critic as a fresher, now I’m culture editor. It shouldn’t be like this.

I don’t fully understand why I did what I did, but most of it can be chalked up to desperation, autism, and a strange attraction to this godforsaken city. Not all of it, though.

There’s something about Dunedin. There’s something about going to the oldest university in our young and stolen country. The water tastes better than anywhere in the world. The air is cold and dry and hits your face like carbonation in the back of your throat. It’s exhilarating. We all come from different places but we come with a shared determination. Why the fuck else would you spend the best years of your youth in the South Pole’s nearest social landfill? We get to wear the navy and gold costume of Studenthood – passed down from parents or peers or news or Critic Te Ārohi – and feel grown-up but young at the same time. We wear the costume so easily that we forget we had to consciously put it on. Maybe mine is just more deliberate. 

It’s not imposter “syndrome” if you know for a fact that you are one. 

I was in high school when I came down to Dunners for the Otago Open Day. I picked up a copy of Critic, flipped through it, and in my hubris thought to myself, “Huh. I could do that.” That was the first time I set foot on campus. The next time would be almost four years later – after multiple gap years spent working and being mentally ill (obviously) – when I was on my way to the first Critic meeting of 2022. 

I had taken one Otago distance paper and so wasn’t technically a fresher (I was also 20), but when I applied for the writing job I definitely didn’t know anything about Dunedin, let alone the Uni. So I did what I do when I’m in doubt: research, lie, and research. I had spent the summer practising – bingeing the Critic archives, scouring social media, finding my bearings in town, trying to wrangle advice from the one or two people I knew down here. Fox (then-editor) was in on my secret, but no one else was at the time. As far as everyone was concerned, I’d always been here. 

That first meeting was on ‘Central Lawn’, according to the new Critic chat. I had no idea where that was, so I looked it up on Google Maps at home first, then tried the student app, narrowed it down to a couple possibilities, and decided to confidently stride towards a green space while keeping an eye out. I made my way through what I would later find out was called ‘The Link’ as naturally as I could, watching how people flowed in and out and through the doors. I spied a circle of important-looking students on the lawn. I put my mask on (literally and figuratively) and I played it cool. 

I don’t know what’s crazier: the act or the fact that it worked. Mostly. Sometimes it was obvious. Did you figure it out?

I was an outsider on the inside. I spent all of my first semester feeling like a fucking AI. It’s no wonder – I became a word processing machine, absorbing strange vocabulary and spitting it back out in a new order, praying it made sense. Due to flatting and taking that distance paper, I’d fallen through the admin gaps – I didn’t know that I was meant to have been offered Orientation events as a local. I had to do my orientation my own way. Bespoke. 

I pitched an article taking the piss out of campus architecture. I didn’t know the names or locations of any of the buildings other staff recommended, but I walked around until I figured it out. I put myself on Facebook Marketplace as a ‘Goth for Hire’ for a Critic bit ($10 an hour for all the gothic skulking, stalking, and near-assaults one could want), which was a surprisingly good way to meet people. This went on and on. When you’re already strange, it feels perfectly natural to act like a stranger. 

I did it because I could. Or maybe because I felt like I had to.

It’s the sort of thing that could only ever happen here. Whether you realise it or not, the extensively catalogued and rapidly evolving nature of Dunedin culture makes it a playground for the curious and socially repressed. It speaks to that part in all of us. Sure, it was a bit unusual for me to ‘revise’ Dunedin culture before coming to Otago, but don’t you kinda do that weekly by reading Critic?

After first-year, I burned out, hard and fast. I sought mental health support and was judged for how I participate as a student. I felt oddly guilty being a celebrated culture writer at the end of last year when I wasn’t just a fly on the wall – I was a fly in a different room. Is that what cultural appropriation is? Or do we just need the perspectives of outsiders on keyboards to document things for the next batch of newcomers and strangers? 

There’s a general sentiment that student culture is currently in jeopardy. I often feel like I’m part of the problem, as a ‘Culture Editor’ who genuinely isn’t able to leave the house much. It’d be an actual struggle for me to name twenty current students. I still find myself revising Critic’s beer pong rules before going out. I blithely nod along while breathas tell me the most god-awful takes I’ve ever heard. I don’t have the energy to participate the way I think I should. And there’s a good chance you feel the same way. 

So much as saying “Otago” to a non-Dunedinite elicits immediate eyebrow raises and concerned glances, while the locals seem to barely tolerate us. “Otago student” never just means a person studying at Otago: it’s now a headline, a Critic piece, an affirmation, the “Dunedin Dream”. We just want to make it out of here with the career prospects and lifelong friends we were promised, but studying is now more of a gamble than an investment. We sink under the weight of life-changing amounts of money and pray that we’ll be lucky enough to get a job to make it back one day. No wonder we’re all in self-preservation mode (shoutout neoliberalism, yet again). 

Unfortunately, this kind of individualism is the antithesis of a communal student culture. When Critic mourns the Undie 500 or initiations or student protests, it’s not just about the booze or depravity – we’re pining for the days when students had the freedom to band together. Students are lonelier and more disengaged than ever; the institutional supports we were promised are dwindling. It’s getting harder to turn to the drunken camaraderie and shenanigans of previous students’ generations when we are risking so much more by participating – bonds, fees, careers, our futures. 

While it’s good that munters are facing consequences, I’d say that your average student feels the brunt of it more. Student culture has become a game of dress-ups that you can tuck away whenever you leave Dunedin, rather than fostering something long-term for yourself and the student community. The fact that student culture has become so factioned into subgroups just proves that it doesn’t serve all of us the way we need. Our culture keeps splintering (look at the evolution of “scarfies” to “breathas” or “not breathas”) into those that can afford to take that gamble and those who can’t. But we’re united simply by being students, and how we’re therefore treated as students. 

That’s the real problem with student culture here: it’s at odds with how most students actually are. Culture is dependent on community, and if we look to binge-drinkers who host exclusive parties, rag on marginalised people, and refuse to talk to outsiders for our sole definition of “student culture”, then it’s no wonder it’s dying. It was never the culture, and it does have an expiry date that feels like it’s inching closer. It’s as disposable as vapes and cans and Looksharp gear. And people get disposed of along the way, too. 

It’s not sustainable, and I found that out the hard way. I’m an extreme outlier, but I was probably more like your average student last year when I was isolated and struggling than I was when I was putting on a front to fit in. 

But honestly, playing a character like that was the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s exciting to fully immerse yourself in something brand new, as every fresher knows. Where else could you crashland as a stranger, don some new vocabulary, and be welcomed with open arms on hazy nights in the Octy? Writing this, it was easier to paint myself as a culprit than just another try-hard crushed under the wheel of how self-suffocating our environment has become. Drink heavily, but not too heavily. Join clubs, but don’t neglect your studies. Study, but don’t neglect your part-time job. Be an Otago student without being a bloody Otago student. It shouldn’t be like this. 

But we can change it. If you’re a student, you’re part of student culture. You do belong here, and there is a place for you. We need more of a culture, and less of a costumed cult, an act that we all put on for a few years. We all deserve better. Students get enough shit from outsiders without giving each other shit, too. I have imposter syndrome because these expectations force you to fake it to get by. But I don’t have to, and you don’t either. The best thing about culture is that it’s malleable; we can mould it into something that serves us. I want to broadcast your student culture, authentic fakery and all. 

Reach me at Let’s finally have some fucking fun. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2024.
Posted 5:01pm Sunday 17th March 2024 by Lotto Ramsay.