As part of our Student Insight blog series, Harmanjit Sidhu, BA History (grad 2017) and Ambitious Futures Graduate Trainee at SOAS for 2017/18, takes an inspiring look at how her first job actually cemented the world-changing qualities SOAS had instilled in her.
My first lecture at SOAS was H101: Approaches to History, taught by a fantastic lecturer who left me believing that I could change the world. Three years later, I was trying to make my degree in History ‘marketable’, drawing on all of my ‘transferable skills’ (which were often the bits about my degree I enjoyed the least) for long and arduous application forms. I was lucky, and managed to grab a spot on a great graduate scheme called ‘The Ambitious Futures Graduate Scheme for University Leadership’ based at SOAS. I’ve had a great three placements, and I’m currently on my way to new things in October, but starting out in the world of work after a SOAS University experience is not easy.
My first day at work in SOAS consisted of working through several spreadsheets, and at times summoning the will to live. That’s not to say that the work wasn’t interesting, or important but rather that my own expectations were tripping me up. Most of the students here at SOAS have things that they are passionate about, and as the JCR so aptly summarises, ‘be realistic- demand the impossible’ we are taught to believe in our ability to make the world a better place. As was the case during my very first H101 lecture, I truly did believe it, but going in to the world of work with a narrow view of this belief planted so firmly in to your head can do wondrous damage to your mental health and your self esteem. During my first few months of work, I struggled to map up everything I had been taught and everything I believed in with the work I was doing. I had spent years researching revolutions and social justice movements, but how did this correspond with my 9-5 desk job? And if I couldn’t figure out how it was all connected, surely that meant I had failed somehow?
These were the thoughts I had to contend with in my post-graduation phase, and speaking to others has confirmed my suspicions that there is a commonly held belief that you have to eventually ‘settle’ and leave behind your aspirations and dreams in favour of living and thriving in the ‘real’ world. This belief didn’t sit right with me, yet I continued to struggle to make sense of it all to conjure up a real alternative. That’s when I stumbled across a brilliant article by Toni Morrison, which gave this advice- ‘You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.’ We can not allow the work that we do to become a measure by which we judge ourselves. In the same vein, Maya Angelou once said, ‘People will forget what you said, People will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel.’
That’s when it clicked- my education at SOAS had informed the person that I was, and that person wasn’t going to change depending on where it was that I worked. I let this advice change up my world view, and actually accept that no, my job was not going to let me change the world in ways I thought it would. What it could do, if I opened up my mind to it, was to give me the skills I needed to change the world around me in small and significant ways. What it could do, was provide me with financial means to help to develop myself further and contribute to causes that were close to my heart. What it could do was allow me to make connections with people who allowed me to see things in new and better ways. This to me was not ‘making peace’ with my situation, rather it was a revolutionising and liberating way of bringing 100% to my work, and recognising all the many ways my efforts have had important and meaningful impacts on the processes, and most importantly, the people around me.
As a SOAS graduate you have so much to give, so be realistic and demand the impossible but open yourself up to interpreting and implementing this in new ways. The world will be so much the better for it.
Please note that the views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not those of SOAS Careers Service. If you consider this content to be in breach of the SOAS values, please alert email@example.com