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Is it your time to say your goodbyes to Bristol? In an open letter to her fellow graduates, Ashleigh Guest asks – and answers – the question looming on the minds of those about to take their first steps into the ‘real’ world: what the hell do we do now?

Let me set the scene: your entire life you have been told what to do. From the age of five (and sometimes younger) you’re told to go to school every day and to work hard and to do your homework on time. At 13 you’re expected to select GCSEs based on what career you predict you might do. Every lesson is taught according to what you need to know to pass your final exams. As soon as you’ve navigated your way through these, your A-Levels begin alongside two years of UCAS applications and personal statements.

And then, after all those years at school preparing, you start university. Opportunities to make friends are laid out on a plate – through your course, your accommodation, and countless sports and societies. Your bubble grows and you make amazing friends and you are a part of your university community. Your days are structured, with each lecture, seminar and tutorial working towards the final aim of getting a degree. It becomes your purpose. Being a student is your identity.

And after years of studying, the moment finally comes. The moment that you’ve spent hours in the library daydreaming about: the moment you put down your pen for the final time in your last ever exam and breathe a sigh of relief. You get home, put the kettle on, and realise it’s all over. No more deadlines, no more exams, no more university. And you wait for the magical feeling of relief to wash over you. A euphoric feeling of freedom that comes with all that free time to watch all those shows and to read all those books you told yourself you would as soon as exams finished.

But that feeling never comes. Instead you get a horrible feeling that starts in the pit of your stomach – the feeling of having absolutely no purpose. Up until this moment, your life has been filled with tangible, final goals – GCSEs, A-Levels, Degrees. But all of a sudden those purposes are ripped away from under your feet and you’re left thinking ‘what the hell am I supposed to do now?’.

You’ve lost your identity as a student. Your expired student card no longer gives you access to the university libraries, where you’ve spent countless hours learning, laughing, and sometimes even crying. You’re no longer allowed to play for the sports teams that you’ve dedicated the last 3-4 years of your life to. You receive an email that notifies you of the ‘IMMINENT CLOSURE’ of your student email account. Your access to student health, careers, mental health and accommodation services are cut off. The easy opportunities to make new friends are suddenly taken away from you. Instead, you receive a brief ‘congrats’ message from the university, with a link to the Alumni LinkedIn page, and you’re sent on your merry way.

Your university bubble has been popped and you’re left floating in the ‘real world’ of unattainable careers and mortgages. You’re left to move back to your parent’s house after years of freedom and independence, with no solid form of income, no plan, and no purpose.

Counselling, student health, and careers services should be kept open to new graduates. Emails recognising the problem and ensuring that graduates are aware of the availability of these services should be circulated, rather than cold-hearted surveys asking for your career plans to make their employability statistics look good.

This is a conversation we should be having. With articles on the subject dating back as far as 2001 and flocks of newly fledged graduates going through the same thing every year, it’s clear that more needs to be done to help people through this unsettling time. Universities themselves need to be doing more to recognise what happens after graduation. Counselling, student health, and careers services should be kept open to new graduates. Emails recognising the problem and ensuring that graduates are aware of the availability of these services should be circulated, rather than cold-hearted surveys asking for your career plans to make their employability statistics look good.

The thought of no longer having a plan, a direction or a tangible goal is quite frankly terrifying.

But it’s also down to us as students. To support each other as we take our first steps into adult life, just in case we do lose our footing. To stay in contact through this period of huge change and to maintain a sense of community. To acknowledge that nobody really has a clue what they’re doing in the ‘real world’ and to recognise that that is absolutely okay. There are no real careers and there is no right way to do life. And yes, the thought of no longer having a plan, a direction or a tangible goal is quite frankly terrifying.

1st 🎓over and out Briz, its been a huge three years

A post shared by Laura Campbell (@laurabeatricecampbell) on

But having just had this crisis myself, here’s my advice to anybody struggling to stay afloat in the weird post-university limbo: treat it like a break up. Relish in the time you have off – put greater value in the time you spend with friends and family; take up new hobbies or join a sports team. Get a job (any will do) and start saving for something. Go travelling. Learn in your own way – read books that aren’t set in a curriculum or watch documentaries that you find interesting. If you thrive off routine then set one for yourself. Your time is your own and that is something that should not be underestimated.

What the hell do you do now? Whatever the hell you want.

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