Cerowyn Browne: Real Life
Reflecting on last month's theme of 'transitions', Cerowyn describes some of the anxieties that can confront the new graduate when the transition from university to ‘real life’ makes itself apparent.
The end is upon me
I don’t know where to go next, let alone how
Where I will be just six months from now
In a world where you measure self-worth by CV
I haven’t had time to find the real me
I am jumping off a cliff with no bridge and no wings
Closing my eyes to the terror it brings
I wrote that poem inspired by the feelings I had around the start of one of my biggest transitions; graduation. From the Christmas before well-meaning relatives had started to ask the dreaded question; “What you are doing next?” At that time, it was easy to feel that everyone else had their post-education lives sorted and I didn’t. It seemed like everyone was ready to step into amazing careers, whilst I was blindly tumbling into the ‘real’ world.
I felt suspicious that other people had taken a course on how to do adulthood and not told me about it. To be honest when I try to sort out my bank accounts I still sometimes wonder. However, the more I have spoken to friends of my age or slightly older, the more I have realised that leaving university and being in your early twenties is almost universally a time of feeling a bit lost and unprepared. In a survey conducted by Student Minds 49% of recent graduates felt their mental health deteriorated after leaving university, and 40% felt socially isolated . Clearly the ‘quarter-life’ crisis is no small phenomenon.
Most people graduating have been in education for the past seventeen years of their life, and there is a sense through a lot of that time that you are building up to the grand-finale; a degree. I remember in Y9 choosing which GCSEs to do and the sense that the choice between Art or Geography was one which would set the trajectory of my life. The underlying message seemed to be; “Choose the right GCSEs to do the right A levels to do the right degree for the perfect career”. Work hard and you can achieve anything. Then as you get older even decisions about your spare time starts to become about your career. Are you showing a potential employer you that are interesting? Are you doing enough volunteering in the correct sector? Are you taking on leadership roles? It is therefore unsurprising that graduation can be a time of anti-climax and overly high expectations for yourself.
By university I felt like I was starting to measure my self-worth by what I could put on my CV. I didn’t know what job I wanted anyway, and felt painfully behind because it felt like I should have known since age eleven to be really ahead of the game. The idea of graduating without a solid plan felt terrifying, but I’ve always wanted to work out for myself what’s right for me and not do something because it feels safe. So I decided move back home, travel, volunteer, be creative, find work which I enjoy and have the space to think.
Throughout your time in education it can feel like ‘real life’ is something which will happen once you graduate. As though you were a caterpillar in a cocoon; waiting and working hard so that when the time comes you can spread your wings. However, when I graduated I didn’t feel like a butterfly, in fact ‘real life’ didn’t feel a whole lot different from the life I had been living so far. That’s when I realised that all those obstacles I felt I had to get through to get to ‘real life’ were real life. I think that the important thing is to do what you enjoy right now, throw yourself into what you are doing and try not to worry about the ‘end goal’ too much. Otherwise life can start to feel like a waiting game and you might miss out on exciting opportunities along the way.
Eight months after graduation and I still don’t have a grand plan. I’m starting to feel like maybe I never will, but perhaps that’s ok… The transition from education into the rest of your life is hard and confusing. It’s easy to feel isolated as your old friends spread across the country and the world, and it’s impossible to not sometimes compare yourself to others and feel they have life so much more sorted. However, I think the key is to enjoy the unknown, accept you are a full human whether or not you are making your way up a planned out career ladder, and learn to realise that the only ‘real life’ is the life you are living right now. I am no longer devaluing this time by calling it a ‘gap year’, it’s the start of the rest of my life and what I am doing is important. For now, it’s my time to honour and enjoy the space between what has been and what will be.