On leaving home and growing up

caitlinnunn-smDr Caitlin Nunn is a researcher in refugee studies. Her work focuses on refugee settlement, including in relation to youth; identity and belonging; cultural production and media representation; and generational change and intergenerational relations. Much of her research is participatory and arts-based.

Caitlin is currently an International Junior Research Fellow in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University.

Her fellowship project uses a participatory arts-based approach to explore experiences of local belonging among young forced migrants in North East England and Central Victoria, Australia. 

Photo by Deniz Altindas | unsplash.com
Photo by Deniz Altindas | unsplash.com

I won’t pretend it was what I planned.

It’s hard to ‘plan’ anything as a precariously-employed early career researcher, but I was looking for a position closer to home.

Like the university fifteen minutes from my house.

Nor will I pretend it was easy.

Moving across the world with a partner and toddler in tow to establish oneself in a new university, city, and country certainly has its challenges.

But here I am in the UK on a two-year research fellowship.

I will spend this time conducting an ambitious research project, chipping away at my ‘guilt’ folder of works-in-progress, and preparing to pursue my next, yet-to-be-imagined, academic adventure.

Most days, when I enter my office, it is as though I haven’t travelled at all. The globalised nature of academia means that everything is pretty much the same. The same email program and library search engine. The same bibliographic and data analysis software. And the deeply familiar bureaucracy.

Beyond this, however, something has changed: how I relate to colleagues, potential project partners, my work, and my academic identity.

It seems that moving somewhere new has helped facilitate my transition into a ‘grown-up’ academic. This shift in self-perception has led to the unsettling of some old habits of thought and practice of which I was barely aware.

There are some reasons for this that aren’t about my physical relocation. I have received the approbation of being awarded a fellowship, and I am part of a supportive school and wider academic community that have welcomed me and my research.

But there’s something else.

I’ve been around my academic community in Melbourne for a long time. I began working as a research assistant on a large project a decade ago during my Honours year, and have continued my engagement as a PhD candidate, research officer, and teacher at multiple universities ever since.

My networks are wide and deep, and I value them immensely.

These networks are comprised of people who have known me for a long time – some from my academic infancy as an undergrad. They’ve supervised my Honours and PhD theses, published my early articles, and programmed and attended my first seminar and conference papers. Many others are fellow travelers on the ECR journey. They have all watched me ‘grow up’.

As a community, they are uniformly generous in their support and encouragement. Indeed, I would not have obtained this fellowship without them.

Yet the hierarchical relations from which many of these relationships emerge can be difficult to unsettle. Similarly, the feeling that others in the community will always have more experience, more expertise, is always there.

It’s not that people necessarily make me feel that way. Many actively strive against it. But as I move through Melbourne institutions and networks, I carry with me that long history of (often awkward) growth and development. I see its traces and hear its echoes everywhere I go.

This can be both constraining and comforting.

Here in Durham, however, no one knows me. My history is self-narrated: in person, on my institutional webpage, and in introductory emails.

With the exception of my fabulous academic mentor, no one here feels obliged to support me. I have to actively seek the intellectual and collegial engagement I need. I have had no choice but to be both brave and open.

Since arriving here several months ago, I’ve lost count of the number of emails I have sent out introducing myself and my work, and the number of subsequent cups of tea and coffee I’ve shared with interesting people across North East England.

I have engaged in this process with the openness of someone who is new to this place and context. When I don’t know something here, I don’t experience it as a failure of understanding or effort, as I might in Melbourne. I am here to learn.

At the same time, I have gained increasing confidence in the value of my own contribution, buoyed by the enthusiasm and interest with which these overtures have been met. I feel appreciated both for the knowledge and experience that I carry with me, and the questions and concerns that continue to drive me forward.

This openness and confidence has translated into my work, encouraging me to say ‘yes’ to opportunities to share previous research, tackle unfinished tasks with renewed commitment, and boldly pursue my new project.

The great thing is that my Melbourne community is still with me – this is the transnational era, after all! They’re there in my email Inbox, smiling at me from Skype, and liking my Facebook posts about new challenges and successes. Their support is invaluable.

So, I guess the question is: Did I have to leave home in order to grow up?

I’m not sure, but I’m glad I did.

Can I bring this newly matured academic identity back to Melbourne with me?

Well, I’m preparing to return home for fieldwork, so we’ll soon see.


  1. Hi Caitlin – interesting stuff! What are you finding the differences are – in terms of outcomes, not motivation to move, obviously – between your own move and the experiences of the refugees whose lives you research? Do you think some of the same theories apply, or are the differences in the motivations to leave so crucial that the outcomes end up being very different?


    • Thanks Jodie-Lee. Great questions. I haven’t been away long enough to think in terms of ‘outcomes’, but I have certainly contemplated the resonances in relation to processes and politics of (non)belonging – a key concept in my current research. It has given me some embodied and affective insights into how belonging ‘works’ that have informed my conceptual thinking. These included the importance of habit and routine in accumulating embodied belonging, the ‘othering’ embedded in border controls, the affective value of food and food practices, and much more. That is not to say that my experiences (or their outcomes) are comparable to those of people from refugee backgrounds, but that these processes and politics of (non)belonging can be understood within a common conceptual framework.


  2. My story is quite similar to yours, albeit a different field of study. I too felt that I was leaving home and embarking on a world of academic adults. My 2 years in the UK is now over alas and I am now in yet another country and reinventing myself. It has certainly been a period of growing up. Thanks for sharing your story! Enjoy your new adventures!


  3. Walking away from comfort zone usually makes one grow up instantly and some level of maturity is acquired. in addition different cultural experiences and academic methods also inspires one’s level of thinking.


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