Dear St Andrews students and grads,
What a time to be alive. I’ve been asked to give some “alumni advice.” Oh dear.
I graduated from St Andrews coming up on 10 years ago, as the world was slowly creeping out of the Great Recession. I had been fortunate. The pound fell next to the dollar, and tuition, rent, drinks – the lot – got 25% more affordable for me. It was only when I graduated that I felt the sting of bleak job prospects and months of fruitless searching. They call it “the bubble” for a reason. It sheltered me.
A decade and one global pandemic on, you don’t have the luxury of that bubble. I can’t know how that feels. But I can relate to being trapped back at my parent’s house, desperate for what’s next, uncertain in the face of the future, ambitious with nowhere to go.
That’s all a bit of a bummer. I wouldn’t be American if I didn’t transition to a bit of “it gets better” advice with an undercurrent of High School Musical (“we’re all in this – together!”).
I spent my St Andrews days doing more theatre than all my friends who went to university for theatre combined. I was studying Sustainable Development but spent most of my time drinking Pimms in various gardens and memorizing Shakespeare. At university I started dabbling in poetry, hosting Inklight’s slam, penning Victorian erotica in iambic pentameter to amuse myself. I would get a serious job later, I was confident.
I would never have suspected, at the time, that this dallying about would be the part of university that gave me a career. After graduation I tried to be practical. I started working in fundraising for charities, but found myself frustrated by my workplaces, perpetually at the mercy of personalities and funding trends. After being laid off a few times and a particularly bleak 6-month stretch of job hunting and unemployment, I started writing poems for strangers on the street. I never stopped.
Poetry, the most unlikely of professions, has become my career in the intervening 6 years. My second book, my first with a major publisher, is coming out next month – The Poetry of Strangers, 30 June 2020, available for pre-order now [end of mandatory shameless plug!]. People commission me to write poems for occasions and organize avant garde poetry projects and teach spoken word and, prior to COVID-19 at least, to write poems on a typewriter for attendees at everything from weddings to underground speakeasies.
The world, I discovered, was not so blandly practical as I’d feared. The whimsy I’d struggled with all through university as unmarketable turned out to be exactly what people wanted.
More than anything for me, St Andrews was a sandbox. A place to find out what I would do when left to my own devices. The answer, apparently, was mostly theatre and country walks.
When I asked a friend at university about his experience studying abroad in the US, he winced. “It was an academic sweatshop,” he said. He was supposed to stay a year and came back after a semester. He designed fonts in his spare time. The idea of not having that creative time shuddered him.
It wasn’t the practical career-y stuff I did at St Andrews that ever amounted to anything. It was the avenues I explored when I wasn’t working toward my degree, my flights of fancy that the university created a space for. My experience at St Andrews was far from perfect. I did more vomiting and crying in the rain than I’d now consider expedient. But I also sort of figured out what made me tick, not by doing homework, but by doing everything else.
To be clear, my position is: do your homework, too.
Now, as we head into an uncertain future, I’m not as anxious as I thought I would be. I’ve learned a lot since I graduated. Ten years from now, the world will look very different, and we will look very different. I suppose my advice is this: trust your passions. We cannot know what will be needed in the times ahead. There is a terror in this, but also a freedom. In the absence of a right path, we can – we must – forge our own ways.
Don’t forget this is a playground. Don’t forget we learn through play.