‘We’re All On The Cusp Of So Much’ What Happens To Your Friendships In Those Bittersweet First Months After Uni
The Debrief: We’re all facing what comes next, for better and worse.
The room was finally empty. We’d vacuumed, dusted, polished, bleached and cleaned everything, lumping the last boxes down the stairs to squeeze into the already very full car. Suddenly the space seemed awfully large, stripped of all the things that had made it mine: no stacks of books, no ridiculous dressing gowns hanging on the walls, no floordrobe, no desk covered in papers, receipts and a small flock of mugs. It was official then. My time here was done. All I needed to do was leave the keys on the table for my housemates, pull the front door closed, and leave the city I’d learned to call home over the last three years.
For the sake of a good story, it would be easy for the next line to read: 'in the car home, I cried.' But I didn't. Leaving was the easy part. The previous month had been harder, gradually watching friends move away, and saying goodbyes to the ones who were staying. That was when the big pangs of loss hit – when I felt suddenly, unbearably sad to have come to the end of my time with this beautiful place I loved so much, and the people I loved even more. The closer it got to my move out date, the more I tried to relish the city: running around, sitting for hours in favourite cafes, and spending many, many nights drinking and chattering until 2am. By the time I was finally squished up in that passenger seat, bags on all sides, I was ready to go. I had said goodbye. Time for whatever came next.
The summer after finishing university is a strange one. It’s a relief: the final rush of exams or coursework, with all that freedom yawning ahead. It’s also an ending: degree done, friends rapidly scattering, the last few years of work and escapades winding down. And it’s a bloody massive beginning: the start of ‘fully adult life’ (whatever that is)? An exciting prospect? Or, a big, black hole of 'oh Christ, what happens now?' It’s easy to swing from celebration to fear and back again, or just end up drifting somewhere in the middle, already feeling vaguely nostalgic for bad club nights and the adrenaline of making a deadline with minutes to spare.
Recently I spoke with three of my friends about their summers: all of us in similar positions, having just finished our courses, but shooting off in different directions. Although I know them from various walks of life, we’re all originally from the West Midlands, or thereabouts: Shropshire, Malvern, Hay-on-Wye, Solihull. Each of us is standing on the edge of the future, looking out over our own set of unknowns and possibilities. For me, it’s exhilarating and strange – for the first time my professional life (writing and modelling) isn’t being squeezed in around an academic schedule. Of course, still I am aware that I am lucky. Equally, I also have no idea where I’ll be living by the end of this year.
For my friend Helen Stevenson, who studied Theology at Oxford, there’s a solid job waiting come autumn. She’s moving to London with RBS, having interned with them last summer. 'I’d been thinking a year into uni about what I wanted to do. I was working my balls off applying for and doing internships,' she says, pointing out that about 20 places turned her down before she got an offer from RBS. 'But last summer holiday in Edinburgh I’d look at envy with people on the tram in jeans and backpacks, while I was in my tights and polyester-mix skirt. It made this summer extra sweet knowing I spent all of the last one working. I’ve had endless adults asking, “what are you doing right now?” and I’ve been like, “nothing until September. I’m just going to Berlin and seeing Beyoncé.” But I shouldn’t need the qualifier of a comfortable job to justify my time off.'
Kandace Walker, who I first met at sixth-form, is staying on at Goldsmiths – jumping from her degree in English and Creative Writing to an MA in Black British Writing. There’s no moving for her just yet, so this has been a sweet, sweet few months. 'It’s been pretty aimless – but really fun. It’s one of the first summers where most of my friends are in the same place, in London.” She talked about revelling in the nothingness of ‘just going to Poundland and listening to music', but also getting her head down to pay rent. 'I do everything I can get my hands on. Copyediting, copywriting, proofreading articles and essays, web design… Also babysitting and childcare, but less of that now.'
Then there’s Tahmina Begum, who did Publishing at Oxford Brookes. She’s also CEO and Editor-in-Chief of XXY Magazine. We met through a series of fortunate events – chatting on Twitter, then bumping into each other at a bookshop. She’s still looking for a full-time job, between giving talks, organizing events, and dashing around in a whirl of sparkly shoes and pom-pom earrings. She’s also spending several days a week 'mindlessly moving files for eight hours straight' to tide her over. 'It’s like when I worked in retail: I couldn’t stand it, but it’s important because it forces you to think about what you really love. With XXY, the world is my oyster.' She’s frustrated, though. Despite writing, commissioning, and generally co-ordinating a successful online publication alongside doing a degree, her work hasn’t quite paid off yet: 'the worst thing to be told is that you’re too experienced.'
This summer we’re all on the cusp of so much. I had the same conversations again and again: about the flustered, final rush at the end after hours hunched in the library dreaming of being done; the glittering months of liberty and holiday; the sense of both mourning and moving beyond a very formative stage in our lives; the weird, hollow moments; the tears; the sharp awareness that the world we are entering is not an easy one to navigate. News is bleak, especially for the young. From Brexit to climate change, to the prospect of joining the ranks of Generation Rent, plenty seems scary and uncertain. As Kandace points out, 'there isn’t any clear path to achieve things that used to be big ‘adult’ deals like home ownership, or buying a car – I can’t afford to drive.' However, there’s also lots of potential too: for exploring, fucking up, negotiating, making, and discovering ahead.
All four of us have also worked alongside our degrees. I wrote a book: veering this summer between celebrations, sloth, and launching Notes On Being Teenage. Helen had her internships, and a ridiculous number of other projects. Kandace worked at Tesco’s early in the mornings, doing her assignments during the day. Tahmina spent her evenings overseeing the rest of the XXY team: always on her emails. 'Complacency is my biggest fear – in relationships, friendships, work. Maybe that goes back to having immigrant parents,' she laughs. 'Ironically though, they’ve instilled in me the need for a 9-5 job that pays the bills, and I’ve headed into the industry where that’s not the case. But saying that, I think their work ethic… that’s a great thing.'
Now we must all face what comes next, for better and worse. Some have complex life plans stretching out over the next decade. For others, it’s vague. Either way, as the days begin to draw in, responsibility is settling. 'Uni was a time of being excited,' says Kandace. 'Even when I was stressed and wanted to sleep for the rest of my life, I still never knew what was going to happen - in a good way. I’m a bit sad that I’m leaving that part of my life behind: where I can just wander around, and it’s chill.'
We’re all aware that adolescence is firmly behind us, adulthood calling. Helen adds, 'I’ve been desperate to move to London since I nine. But I know, come this time next year, it’ll be bittersweet. There’ll be moments where I sit in an office on a warm summer’s day, and think: god, I didn’t appreciate my post-university summer. All the limitless weeks to devote to doing whatever, being able to wake up and wonder, ‘where shall I go?’ From now on, summer’s not going to be a holiday full of endless potential. It’ll just be a season.' For some, like me, there’s actually more time ahead –my summers up until this point spent working solidly through.
I’d started out just wanting to chat about our summers – imagining I’d write about music festivals, afternoons lazing in the sun, and one too many nights of partying. We did talk about all of that. But I realized very quickly how much any conversation about these bittersweet few months would be wrapped up in everything that went before, and everything yet to come. We are in flux: simultaneously looking backwards and forwards. It’s wonderful and terrifying and dislocating and bloody weird. There’s nothing quite so discombobulating as dealing with life in the future tense or, worse, the subjunctive – ‘if this happens and that becomes a reality then I can do that’. The future is an unknown. For now, it's just imagination and speculation.
It’s easy in the glow of this summer to start filling in the cracks, glossing over the less-than-lovely parts but, of course, there were plenty of hard moments too. I want to keep hold of those, to remind myself of the things I’m glad to be leaving behind.
With these three though, I’m firmly looking forwards to what comes next. They’re a trio full of grit, grace and drive, with an eye for an excellent outfit. I can’t wait to see what they do. As Tahmina sagely pointed out: 'this isn’t even a new chapter – now, it’s another book in the series.'
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