‘Beyond Your Tasseled Caps’ – Rising to the Challenge of Adulthood

For Mental Health Awareness Week, we look back on Iona Holmes’ thoughts on coming to the end of university and handling the stress of ‘the real world’. For Issue #18 ‘Rising’.

Leaving the university bubble is daunting. Not only is there pressure to get an actual, real life adult job, but the days of free rein over how you spend your time suddenly disappear. Don’t get me wrong, university has its ups and downs. But studying (hopefully) engaging subjects, revolving your time around friends and finding people passionate about the same things as you, is a pretty sweet lifestyle. 

As I’m approaching my final term, this is something I’m trying to keep in mind.

Speaking to friends who’ve already made the transition to working-life, I’ve realised how important it is to embrace the opportunities open to us  – whether that’s throwing yourself into campaigning, finally learning how to tango or simply enjoying the luxury of spending a Thursday hungover in bed. In our last few months, we should reflect on what we’ve learned throughout our uni years, both personally and academically. Recognising the hurdles you’ve already cleared is just as important as looking for the obstacles up ahead. 

Despite my best efforts to focus on the here and now, inevitably, the dreaded question hangs over me. Whether it’s from distant family members round the Christmas dinner table, or over a pint with school friends I haven’t seen for months, the words  ‘so, what are you going to do next?’ seem to be coming at me from all angles. I know they don’t have malicious intentions, but this doesn’t stop the fear setting in as I reluctantly admit that I’m not quite sure. As much as I’m delighted for friends who have had their five-year plan in place since day one of freshers’ week, I find it terrifying how secure the next few years of their lives are, while I’m still floundering in a state of limbo. 

Whenever I feel a bit lost about what to do, I turn to Maya Angelou’s ‘Letter to my Daughter.’ Part memoir, part poetry and all-round feminist guidebook, her words echo like comforting blues rhythms. With graduation looming, I’ve been flicking through the pages, searching for both comfort and inspiration around approaching the next chapter of my life.  

As ever, Ms. Angelou’s words of wisdom deliver. Her advice seems intuitive but is often obscured in anxiety-inducing conversations about the future. If I were Hugh Brady, I’d have this extract etched onto the walls of every teaching space:

Look beyond your tasselled caps, 
And you will see injustice. 
At the end of your fingertips 
You will find cruelties, 
Irrational hate, bedrock sorrow
And terrifying loneliness. 
There is your work.

Find what moves you. Find what makes you feel, what makes you outraged and what you want to change. Of course, this line of thinking does not directly lead you to a job. But, it’s an important starting point. Sometimes, it may even be a case of carving the space for that work by yourself. University of Bristol alumnus Liv Little channeled her frustration at the lack of diversity at university into creating the sensation that is gal-dem, to platform stories of women and non-binary people of colour.  

Once you’ve worked out where your passion lies, reflect on your strengths and what you can contribute to the big picture. This could be conducting empirical research, directly supporting vulnerable individuals or developing budgets – we need to utilise our various skills and work collaboratively to make a difference. 

Beyond this, consider what you want to achieve outside the workplace. Just as essays aren’t all there is to university, work isn’t the only component of ‘adulthood.’ Ponder how much time you want to spend working, where you’d like to live and the role you want to play within your community. The career path you follow will impact what you’re able to do out of the office.

It’s also important to remember that even if you think you have it all planned out, your first grown-up job may not be everything you hoped. Our expectation that things will fall into place once we land that grad job tends not to reflect reality: life is always messier than we’d like. Your 20s are your time to explore your options and allow yourself to grow. A significant part of this is being able to admit when things haven’t quite gone right and figuring out how to move forward.

To rise to the challenge of adulthood, we should continuously reflect on what we’ve achieved, where we are now and where we want to go. Nobody can tell you exactly what to do next. Nor do you need them to, because in Maya’s words: ‘’you are intelligent and creative and resourceful, and you will use your life lessons as you see fit.”

Artwork by Laura Stewart-Liberty.

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