It was February of 2018. I was an avid young Masters student about to embark on a new kind of academic journey. I was fortunate. Why? Because I was a new graduate who could clearly envision the type of future I could craft for myself. I had recently graduated from Massey University with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in sociology. My summer research scholarship was coming to an end but along the way, I learned invaluable skills that shaped the way I perceive, question and understand my place in the world. After spending time reflecting on my experience I felt something I never experienced during my undergrad: a sense of comfort. I was confident in my ability to conduct research, interact with others, make arguments and pursue fields of inquiry that ignited my passion. Without realising it, I generated skillsets that would (hopefully) advance that seemingly graspable future I had imagined. Employability skills aside, throughout my transition from undergrad to postgrad I learned more about myself, what I was capable of and that I was symbolic of a much larger neoliberal narrative.

You see, throughout my undergrad I was really unsure of my future and what I could accomplish. I couldn’t envision anything beyond ‘getting the degree’. Looking back on it now, my experience was rather isolating – I wish I had interacted more with peers, lecturers and student groups. I always thought to myself: “it’s alright, you can do this on your own, you don’t need help, this experience is on you”. Was this my neoliberal self speaking to me? Was this the individualistic narrative playing out? Was this my subjectivity trying to keep itself aligned with neoliberal norms? What I failed to understand at the time but deeply resonate with now was my version of an unsettling and rather depressing truth. Neoliberalism had the ability to purport self-doubt, unease and anxiety around shared experiences.

Fast forward to July of 2018. I had just finished my first semester of full time postgraduate studies. That involved two papers in the first semester following with an investigation of a chosen research topic all crammed into just one year. When I finished that semester, I struggled to come to terms with the reality that I needed a break. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. At the time, I struggled to find a healthy work, life, study balance and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do my thesis justice. I had tried to supress those thoughts. Even entertaining the idea of taking a break from studies was difficult for me because I had equated so much of my identity with tertiary education. Being a student in an institution offered me so much security. It was my safety net. It allowed me to firmly grip what I like to call, my ‘life course stability’. But one day, after some exploration into the literature on the neoliberal university it clicked; it all fell into place. I felt it slipping away. My sense of self was becoming absorbed by my own (albeit common) experience of tertiary education.

For sixteen years, from my first day of school to my current and ongoing post graduate experience my identity has been characterised by education, upwards mobility and career progression. Nairns, Higgins, and Sligo (2012) so eloquently depict my reality: I was the reflection of an individual who ‘grew up neoliberal’. Indeed, neoliberalism infected my mind and soul, like a virus with unrecognisable symptoms. Despite this, somewhere along the way and without even knowing it – I managed to grow and learn and connect.

This first reflection will stick with me for life, it has become my mantra. One day, someone said to me “in today’s society you need to carve yourself out a role in the industry… find your passion, find your niche and insert yourself into that knowledge gap”. This was the crucial point of realisation for me. I did not know it yet, but my mind had detected a way to navigate the neoliberal narrative; I could achieve employment beyond the recommendations of career websites and also defy what students are told as ‘stable’, ‘viable’ and ‘financially secure careers’. The second reflection manifested from a series of thoughts. They reassured me that it’s okay to collaborate, it’s okay to express your ideas and it is so important to explore areas of inquiry that drive your passions. My final reflection is incomplete but in the best possible way. It is not yet fully developed and will be a work in progress throughout my postgraduate studies. But this is what I can tell you: I am realising that there is no harm in recalibrating your identity, separating it from neoliberalism and recognising the self’s potential. My experience of undergrad and ongoing postgraduate journey continue to ignite new and unexplored moments, epiphanies and enlightenments that give me the freedom to detach from those neoliberal thought patterns that had anchored me for so long.

Nicolette is currently undertaking a MA in Sociology at Massey University. This blog post was an entry into the 2018 SAANZ Student Blog Writing Competition.