By Michael; https://tumbleweedwrites.com/
A few years ago, I wrote a somewhat zany post in which I explored the differences between the nightmares I have as an adult and the ones that plagued me as a child. In that post. I listed returning to education as one of my most frequent recurring nightmares as an adult- specifically in the form of a postgraduate degree. In each version of the dream, I would be unable to perform basic tasks- keeping up with deadlines, concentrating on assignments, or simply understanding the work. It all amounted to a general sense of being “out of touch”, of going back to something I used to do and finding myself no longer able to function in that setting. I’d lost that part of myself forever.
And yet here I am, right now in my waking life, in the thick of postgraduate education. After graduating from the University of Winchester with a BA in Creative Writing in 2014, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, or better yet- what I could possibly offer to the job market. I came close to doing an online MA in Creative Writing, but my heart wasn’t in it. Delaying adulthood didn’t seem like an adequate justification for taking on more debt. After that I stopped considering education- though as I mentioned, it would continue to creep into my dreams for some reason.
I spent the next 7 years traveling and doing odd jobs, during which there were many peaks and troughs, but in which I never made any headway toward a career. In 2020 I realized an uncomfortable thought that I’d long been avoiding- the likelihood that without a proper, full-time career job, I would at some point lose access to my friends across the Atlantic. Flying to Texas is expensive. The fear that I would gradually lose my closest friends gave me a renewed drive to find a career. At first, I fired off applications in all directions in the hope that one would stick. None did.
Soon my search began to focus on proofreading and editorial work within the publishing industry. I had a strong conviction that working on books and being around people that loved books would make me happy. I decided I might as well try to find a career that I would enjoy. This was somewhat new for me- I’d always been resigned to the assumption that I’d never be able to earn a living doing something that made me happy. But all of a sudden, I had a slight confidence.
I saw job ads that I felt matched my skills. I found entry level jobs in publishing- lots of them in fact- that all said, “No experience necessary”. You just needed a passion for books. Easy, right? Well not really. Several rejections later I realized that any job ad that claims “No experience necessary” is going to be inundated with applications, and so experience ironically becomes what you need to stand out from the rest.
I started to feel dejected. There didn’t seem to be any way in. Getting a career felt like an impossible task. And yet it couldn’t be- there are plenty of people with similar economic backgrounds, experiences, work histories, and qualifications to myself who get career jobs. Maybe the difference is that I’m lazy, I thought. But is my laziness innate or is it borne out of feelings of hopelessness and confusion toward the system? I know people that have an almost identical profile to me who have managed to carve out successful lives for themselves, and I also know people who echo my sense of disenfranchisement and tell me they feel as lost and defeatist as I do.
Finding the Right Path for Me
I stopped applying for a while and pondered my next move. Throughout almost all of my twenties, I didn’t know what I wanted in life. Now I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how to get it. A big part of me believed that it was too late to get it. I hadn’t thought about education since 2014. Going back to something has never sat right with me. No matter what the situation, I’ve always tried to move forward. I figured that once I made the jump from education to this vague sense of “adulthood”, I couldn’t ever go back. I’ve always tended to think about life as belonging to distinct, linear phases for some reason.
I’m not sure why looking backward makes me uncomfortable. But it does, and so the idea of returning to education- of taking a temporary step back in order to take a greater step forward- came from an outside source- my brother. My relationship with my younger sibling Francis is without a doubt one of my most precious assets in life; without it I would not be me. My return to education is proof of that. A Master’s wasn’t even remotely in my thoughts. It wasn’t something I was consciously opposed to; I just didn’t even think about it. Not until Christmas Eve of 2020, when Francis suggested it to me. I didn’t need persuading. His confidence in the idea was enough. Francis knew my situation, my experiences, my dreams better than anyone. The more he talked about me undertaking a postgraduate degree in Publishing, the more I became convinced that it was what I needed.
Naturally it’s too early to say whether this whole Master’s business was the right move or not, but I nonetheless feel like I owe my brother a massive debt. It’s an amazing feeling to realize someone is truly emotionally-invested in your own pursuit of happiness. A week after Francis had planted the idea in my head, he rang me to say he had found an MA in Publishing that looked perfect for me at Kingston University. It was in London, which is exactly where I want to live since I don’t like driving, and it involved lots of opportunities for work placements- which was exactly the kind of practical experience my CV was missing. Francis told me how the course was structured and what it covered, and added that there was a virtual open day in March that I should consider attending. So far, he had done all the work for me. He had presented me the opportunity- all I needed to do was take it.
The application process couldn’t have gone smoother. Before I knew what had happened, I was setting up my PC on a new desk and hanging up my clothes in a new closet. As I unpacked my things in the small room I’m leasing for the next year, it struck me how strange it looked to see all these familiar belongings arranged somewhere new. I had seemingly upended my life without a hitch, and the smoothness of that process made it so surreal.
I hadn’t applied to or looked at any other universities. I didn’t have any doubts along the way; from the moment my brother had pitched the idea to me I’d latched onto it wholeheartedly. I hadn’t been waiting for it, but I acted as though I had, as though this was the natural and obvious conclusion to the personal journey I’d been on since 2014. The ease with which I’d adopted this dream and committed everything to it in the blink of an eye was very strange to me. I slept well the night before I moved in. And when I woke, I wasn’t that nervous.
Baptism of Fire: The Week One Presentation
Now I’ve been here over a month and my life prior to KU feels like a faraway dream. Perhaps my body was ready for this long before it had entered my mind. As strange as it was to think that I was now playing out the scenario from my recurring dreams, stranger still was the fact that my first week of classes tested me on the very challenges that had characterized them as nightmares. During that first week we had to undertake a group research project worth 20% of our module grade and present it to the rest of the class.
While I think I thrive in small group projects, I’m not used to research-based assignments whatsoever. Data is very alienating to me. I’ve also got a phobia of public speaking. In the past I’ve given into this fear by worming my way out of presentations whenever they came up. By avoiding them altogether, I never confronted the fear and so the fear never went away. I told myself that I couldn’t do it instead of testing that belief. I remained anxious, because the only way to get rid of anxiety is to lean into it. So far, KU had been a fresh start for me, in which my overarching mission statement was to start living the life I wanted to live. Beginning on a weak note was therefore unacceptable. I had to start strong and make a conscious, concerted push to rewire my code of behavior. The assignment stated that not every team member had to speak during their group’s presentation, but I decided I wasn’t going to run away from it.
Everyone in our group had one segment to read out, but as it happened, I had three segments: the introduction, one of the middle pieces, and the conclusion. I didn’t mind. I could have stayed silent and waited for someone else to volunteer to do extra segments, but I had an instinct that the more I took on, the sweeter it would feel when I executed it. I had a good group to work with too. The night before the presentation, I was working late at the Town House with two of my team members (from Seattle and Southampton respectively). We ordered pizza to keep ourselves going and got to know each other better.
It felt good to be busy, to be connecting with people after the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, to be working on something out of my comfort zone. To test the limits of my abilities and find out that those limits aren’t where I thought they were, as though reaching into a dark pool expecting to find the bottom only to find it was deeper than it looked. None of my team members knew my personal story- and even if they did, so what? It would change nothing. Who I’ve been in the past doesn’t matter. It mattered, I realized, only who I chose to be in that moment. And I could choose. I discovered through talking with my new friends and classmates that my fear of public speaking was in fact the least-interesting thing about me. Almost everyone hates presentations. I found that people volunteered this vulnerability willingly. After all, it’s thoroughly ordinary, and a fear has less weight when it’s shared.
While my delivery might not have been the most polished, I got through the presentation well enough, and felt immensely satisfied when it was over. The kind of adrenaline rush you can only get by confronting fear took over me, all the week’s built-up tension released at the sound of the classroom’s applause, leaving me feeling pleasantly light for the rest of the day. When our team sat back down, we all smiled at each other and said how proud we were of one another.
We’d gotten through it without incident, except for the fact that the slide projector died halfway through and needed to be rebooted. But that wasn’t our fault. In a weird way it eased my nerves. A month later we got our grades. Our group achieved a 68, just two marks shy of a distinction. For my American readers, the grading system at U.K. universities works like this: 70 or over is the equivalent of an A, 60-69 is a B, and 50-59 is a C. So naturally we were all delighted to begin our Master’s degrees with on a high note.
I have a lot more I want to share about my time here at KU- be it academic, social, personal, or cultural in nature- and plan to release more blog posts as soon as I get the time!
28 October, 2021
Michael, London, UK