For Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student Ingrid Mahony, talking about her experience at ANU means talking about her younger brother.
Her younger brother is on the autism spectrum. He’s also really friendly and loves people.
“He’s the most extroverted and outgoing person,” Ingrid says. “More than I am!”
At 22, she’s been his carer all her life, alongside her parents. His intellectual disability requires around the clock care.
In her first year at ANU, Ingrid found it especially difficult balancing life as a university student with caring for her brother at home. A typical day looked like this: she would arrive home from uni at around 5:30pm. She’d help cook her brother’s dinner, bathe and dress him, play with him. She would read him a story and put him to bed.
“That would be a calm evening,” Ingrid adds. “It means that your whole evening disappears and you haven't done anything for yourself. And obviously when things are more difficult, you could lose your whole day managing what was going on.”
Her experience made her feel alienated from a lot of her classmates, whom she saw as living a carefree life on campus.
“I definitely had that in my first year of feeling like things were harder than they should be,” she says.
Ingrid has had to battle perceptions of the life the average university student leads – and the consequences of that.
“There's this sense that young students are very separate from their families and are doing their own thing,” she says.
“So when you say that you're looking after someone in your family or this big thing's happening, it's sometimes harder to be taken seriously or for the impact to be acknowledged.”
Day to day responsibilities and unexpected emergencies mean student carers have to miss the occasional tutorial or need flexibility on the odd assessment deadline – which was Ingrid’s experience this year, as things with her brother came to a head.
“My brother's quite unwell, and had to be hospitalised a couple of times,” Ingrid says. “That happened basically the week my thesis was due. So I ended up getting an extension, which was very good, and my supervisor was a legend – she was very understanding.”
Ingrid’s thesis was on the award-winning novel Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It described the interplay of history and fiction; the idea of telling a true story through fiction and how fiction can be used to present individuals in a light that might not be evident through official documentation.
“All the carers I know at ANU are so committed to their studies,” Ingrid says. “They’re here because they really want to get a degree.”
Having completed her Honours, majoring in English and History, Ingrid is feeling prepared to head out into the world.
“I feel like I have a very strong educational and research and communications skills foundation that I’ve really developed in the past few years,” she says.
“Last year I didn’t feel ready to graduate when I finished my degree. Now I’m excited to be done. I feel satisfied with what I’ve achieved despite some of the things that have happened.”
One of Ingrid’s legacies to the university will be a student society that she and a few other students have established. It will support, initially, undergraduate students with caring duties and, they hope, expand to encompass postgraduate students and staff. The ANU Carers Collective will also seek to raise awareness of there being student carers on campus, and their experiences.
“It’s really important to have some pastoral care and support that’s a bit more obvious,” says Ingrid. “Having that student-to-student support is also really good, knowing there are other people in the same boat as you.”
Next year, Ingrid will continue her volunteer work as the Vice President of the Vinnies St Nicks Young Carers program. She benefited from the program as a teen, and volunteering has been her way of giving back. It’s also one of the opportunities that being a carer has opened up for her, which Ingrid feels has enriched her life in the past few years.
“Having a brother [with an intellectual disability has made me] more mature, and a more empathetic person, I think.”
“It's had its set of challenges over the years, but we're still each other's best friends,” she adds.
“He’s a great brother – I wouldn't have another one.”