The rollercoaster that has been 2020…

Since finishing the 12 days of blogmas, life hasn’t exactly been how I pictured it would be! The year started with my Museum Traineeship Application being rejected, which led to a lot of introspection and the realisation that not only did I not have ‘what it takes’ to work for a museum in a paid capacity, but that I genuinely enjoyed and missed volunteering. I spoke to staff at the Museum of Archaology and Anthropology and enrolled as a Front of House volunteer, volunteering on a more regular basis.

“Great! I can volunteer every week!”, I excitedly thought… And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened…

I’ve not been in any museum since mid-March. The MAA isn’t reopening until the new academic year, and my capacity to volunteer will entirely depend on whether it is safe for me – as someone with compromised immunity – to return.

I’ve ‘met up’ virtually, over Zoom, with the rest of the team on a couple of occasions whilst in self-isolation, which has been lovely… but I do miss museum-ing. And yet, I have not had the time to dedicate to much ‘virtual’ museum engagement! I’ve been working full-time as a member of staff within the University of Cambridge; I started in my office-based role in February, only to end up working from home since mid-March! My job has been really fulfilling, but has left me feeling completely drained at times. The little spare time I’ve had has been filled with online courses, skyping my family, growing-my-own and attempting to stay sane by keeping life ticking over as ‘normally’ as possible – cooking, cleaning, gardening, and so on.

It has been a *very* strange time. I’m actually relatively surprised by how well I’ve coped, given how I’ve struggled with my mental health in the past. It’s been far from easy, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve not become a total hermit, or picked up a bad habit, or completely buckled under the pressure of living every day in a contained environment. There were a couple of occassions when times were particularly tough: I had a real crisis of self-esteem with my work, because isolation and reduced communication meant I struggled to position myself within the team; and my partner and I were meant to be going on holiday to Hawaii – a trip that was two years in the making – having not holidayed together since 2018, but that trip was inevitably cancelled. I know, such a hard life... I’ve felt very lucky, in fact, to live in Cambridge and have the luxury of a nice garden and the support of a great partner… I know many others have not been so lucky…

So, what does this mean going forward? I *hope* to keep working broadly within education, and I *hope* that the pandemic improves to the point where, at the very least, people are safer than they have been. I’m not where I imagined I would be a year ago, when I graduated. I don’t have a museum *job* and I don’t have control over my career. But, actually, I’m doing okay. I’m looking forward to eventually returning to volunteer at the MAA. I’m looking forward to seeing where this bonkers rollercoaster will take me next. I’m looking forward to making it out the other end of…*this*.

I hope people are keeping safe and well. Please, continue to take care.

A New Year…

80697409_648762552328923_6515338579122585600_n.jpgThis coming year, I want to exercise my mind and body on a daily basis. I was to live in a sustainable way; I want a lifestyle I can manage that is also sustainable for the environment. I want to secure a job with prospects – a traineeship, a long-term contract, or a foot in the door on the museum careers’ ladder. I want to spend more time with my friends, which includes volunteering. I want to look after myself, so that I can continue to build a bright future for myself.

I don’t think the above is too much to ask of myself. Regardless of what 2020 has to throw at me, I would like to think that I *can* have a really positive and productive year. Cheers, to a fresh start.

When life gives you lemons…

After the wonderful experience I had working full-time at Balik Arts, my standards were set pretty high for the opportunities that came my way from September onwards. I knew that my contract with the charity was temporary and so was applying to jobs throughout September for an immediate start on my return from Georgia. I remained relatively picky in my job search, only applying for roles that I genuinely wanted, in the Arts & Heritage and Charity sectors. And after dozens of unsuccessful applications, I was invited to interview at a refugee-resettlement charity.

I was ecstatic. I had found a charity that focussed on young people, was international and made me feel like I was making a difference. I interviewed at their Head Office towards the end of September and was offered the job I applied for within the week. I felt very proud of myself, especially given that I had to prepare and present a pitch as part of the interview process, which was something I had never done before. The team seemed lovely, as did my future boss, and I was offered the job with a starting date in mid-October. It was not an ideal contract, as it required me to spend the first couple of months away from home, but all in all it seemed like I was finally in a favourable, stable position.

Unfortunately, the job was not what it said on the tin, and the leadership team… left something to be desired. I spent four weeks working perfectly happily within the charity, being inducted into the role I had convinced myself would be *the one*, blissfully unaware that my role was rapidly morphing into something I did not want it to be. Out of the blue, I found myself in meetings with my line-manager where I was reduced to tears, character-assassinated and patronised, told that I wasn’t yet allowed to do the job I had signed up for… There was a fundamental misunderstanding of what a probation period is meant to be, and I was expected to roll over backwards and obey instructions until I could prove “strength of character” and thus be granted the role I had applied for… It didn’t seem right to me, and I wasn’t going to sacrifice my mental health and my happiness for the sake of a leadership team that didn’t have their priorities straight, so I resigned. In the space of six weeks, I had gone from employed, happy and motivated to resigning, resigned and low.

A month has passed since I handed in my resignation and I have no regrets about doing so. I deserve better. It has been a difficult month, and I still haven’t found a new full-time role yet, but I have taken on smaller freelance gigs and am much surer of myself than before. I look on the time I was employed by the refugee charity as a learning curve. More than anything, I am proud that I did not allow myself to be walked all over and I am proud of myself for getting back on my feet and not losing hope that I will soon find a job that is right for me.

There is a saying – “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” – that, in spite of its simplicity and overuse, has been worthwhile remembering over the last month. In common usage, it suggests that a positive “can-do” attitude can help in the face of adversity or misfortune. I think it means more than just seeing an opportunity and taking it, however; I think it implies that if life presents you with something that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, only time and effort can turn that into something sweeter – something positive, desirable and valuable. It’s less about what you *can* do and more about what you *must* do if you want a positive outcome.

Time and effort have, indeed, left me in a more positive mindset where I have been able to learn from my experience. I have rejected roles that compromise what I am comfortable with and prioritised my wellbeing above all else. I have restarted my job search and, as before, have only applied for roles that I genuinely want. I hope that my perseverance will pay off in the long run, but only time will tell… In the meantime, all I can do is focus on maintaining a positive yet realistic attitude, and keeping on “keeping on”.

I Graduated (6 Months Ago)! Reflections on my Time at Newnham College, University of Cambridge

65009780_2281698548551298_3337149774645166080_nOn Friday 28th June 2019, I graduated with a 2.1 in my BA Hons in Modern and Medieval Languages. At many points over the last 5 years, graduating was something that seemed very much beyond my reach. And yet, just shy of 57 months after matriculating, I graduated. But rather than delving deep into my personal journey to graduation, I would like to dedicate some time and space to some of the things that I learnt during my time as a student at Newnham College, and to some musings on my experience at the University of Cambridge:

  • I do not feel like a Cambridge Graduate; I feel like a Newnham Graduate. From the start of my Cambridge ‘career’, Newnham was incredibly nurturing. When applying to the college, I was already aware of the homely atmosphere that made its students feel so welcome, but it was only when I arrived that I appreciated the difference between Newnham’s ethos and that of the rest of the collegiate university. Being at Newnham, specifically, made me feel part of a community that was encouraged to think, learn and conduct itself in a certain way. For example, the Newnham MML cohort could take part in Literary Theory seminars that the college made available to us and held open ‘Pudding Seminars’ where students, alumnae and teaching staff could talk on a topic of their choice to whoever turned up to listen. Newnham felt like a ‘safe’ space, in which we could discuss a host of topics without fear of judgement, and as such we as women had the opportunity to grow in strength and confidence. Our extra-curricular and personal pursuits were also encouraged, and I personally felt like my Director of Studies genuinely cared about my wellbeing as well as my academic attainment. The things I learnt whilst at university are a result of not only my course but also the informal education that I received at Newnham College.
  • I love learning, but not studying. The focus on attainment in exams, and the idea that you had to “study for the exam”, often became toxic. Knowledge and understanding were often overshadowed by information recall and ‘playing the game’ or ‘cheating the system’ with rehearsed, adaptable answers and stylistic techniques. In a place that is infamous for its successful alumni, thinkers, scientists and academics, it was disheartening to realise that what you wrote in the exam hall during Finals was all that mattered. I was personally told by some members of staff that I only needed to pick and choose excerpts of the texts I was studying, rather than bothering to read the texts in their entirety. Your grade is dictated by the words you scribble on a page under timed conditions, regardless of previous demonstrations of understanding, knowledge or even expertise. Students at Cambridge are, of course, encouraged to learn… but they are first and foremost urged to study.
  • Everyone should consider taking a Gap Year. I say this because out of the most mature, grounded and confident individuals I met at Cambridge, the majority had done this. When I refer to a Gap Year, I am not referring to the obligatory Year Abroad that MML students have to complete, but instead a period of time taken between Sixth Form College and university study to NOT study; some people choose to work during this time, whilst the lucky amongst us travel and take a break. Like most British teenagers heading to university, not only did I not take a Gap Year but I was actively discouraged from doing so by my school. Had I taken a Gap Year, I think I would have been much more prepared for university study; mentally, I was keen – and ready – to go, but I had never been expected to do anything else. I think that the lack of time school-leavers have to reflect on what they want to actually do with their lives before embarking on a high-cost, high-effort degree has contributed to the mental health crisis among university students. I think everyone should at least consider taking a Gap Year and reflecting on what they actually want before heading to university.
  • I loved MML… but I did the wrong degree. If you do not want to go into academia, be a language teacher, a translator or an interpreter, or ‘sell-out’ as a Cambridge graduate to Oxbridge-favouring City firms, MML is probably not the degree for you, as far as career progression is concerned at least. Admittedly, when I started my degree, I just wanted to learn, and academia was on the cards for me at the time. But I wanted to study languages because I was interested in people and culture, rather than linguistics or translation. When I applied to Cambridge, I was not aware that (a) you could sit language papers at the University Language Centre regardless of the degree you took, thus obtaining recognised qualifications outside of the course, and (b) ANTHROPOLOGY EXISTED AS A DISCIPLINE. The number of students I knew that realised this early on and switched out of MML to HSPS (Human Social and Political Sciences, under which you could study Anthropology) is frankly ridiculous. Why was I not advised against doing the degree that I did? Because this kind of information is not disseminated, and the people advising me probably had no idea that this option of Anthropology and extracurricular language study was viable. In the end, I did enjoy the content of my degree, and I was able to tailor my modules to my interests; I wrote on Baroque Art and the Incan Empire in my Golden Age Spanish paper, intersectionality in my Nineteenth Century French paper, and urban space, gender politics and contemporary philosophy in my European Cinema paper. I loved learning about these things. But the option to do a degree that was more appropriate to my interests was not one that I thought I had, and I wish that I had at least known that I had that option.
  • At Cambridge, you are in more control than you think you are. At the end of the day, even though Directors of Studies and Supervisors can chase you for work, they cannot force you to do it. I knew many students that would pick and choose the lectures they attended because they knew they didn’t want to study certain topics. It’s easy to forget sometimes that you are doing your degree for no one other than yourself; you chose the degree, and you have control over what you do and don’t do.
  • There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, the earlier you realise that it is okay to ask for help – academically or personally – the easier your university experience will be. At Cambridge, there is this huge pressure to succeed that ends up being crippling for many. Asking for help is often seen as a sign of weakness, and the thought of asking for help is considered to somehow damage your pride, making you ‘lesser’ than your fellow students. This is sooooooooo untrue, and academics generally really appreciate students who aren’t too proud to ask for help. Odds are also on your side that you are not alone in how you are feeling. Studying at Cambridge is tough, and no one that studies there has their life completely ‘together’. In this knowledge I hope that going forward, instead of this manifesting as a communal feeling of inadequacy and failure, this understanding will lead to more people asking for help and supporting each other.
  • Going to Cambridge is about so much more than just studying. I, a stocky 5’4” woman, learnt to row competitively at Cambridge. I took part in charity events. I went out on the town with my friends. I stayed in and watched TV with my friends. I stayed in and cried with my friends. I realised that I wanted to work in museums and volunteered for a University Museum. I learnt about other people’s subjects and taught others about mine. I relaxed, stressed, lived, slept, worked, panicked, ate, had mind-blanks and eureka-moments and felt a sense of belonging… in a place with people who think like me.
  • The amount and quality of support you receive at Cambridge can vary massively. I feel very lucky to have received the support I did when I was at Newnham, and so sad for the people who struggled during their time at Cambridge because they were elsewhere. I was lucky to be in a college that offered generous travel grants, book grants and bursaries. I was lucky to be in a college with an excellent, well-stocked library. I was lucky to be in a college where it was generally acceptable to walk around in your pyjamas, and where girls would huddle in the Buttery to talk as Directors of Studies and Supervisors wander past and join in with conversations as they go. College support at Cambridge is incredibly varied, and I have no regrets about choosing to study at Newnham. University-wide support has to be sought if it is wanted or needed, but at least the provision is the same regardless of your college.
  • Cambridge *does* open doors. I need to keep reminding myself of what a blessing this is and how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to have gone to Cambridge. I often feel that so many doors have been opened that I don’t know which one to choose, but I know that I am in a privileged position to have such a choice. I have taken the opportunities Cambridge has offered me for granted at times, and I hope that when I find myself in a career that I enjoy and that fulfils me, I will be thankful for the chances in life that going to Cambridge has given me.

In conclusion, I am a more resilient person because I went to Cambridge; I am a more confident woman because I went to Newnham.


Introduction: The 12 Days of Blogmas

I have decided to publish 12 blog posts over the 12 days of Christmas. Why? Because I realised that I had a backlog of content that needed publishing, of course!

The last 6 months have been a bit hectic. Discounting my recent post about the British Museum’s ‘Troy’ exhibition, I have not posted anything since June 24th 2019. This is a result of many factors, but above all due to low-self esteem following a series of unsuccessful museum-job applications and confusion about the future. I felt reluctant to post anything when my next steps felt so uncertain and my motivation was dwindling. Since June 2019, however, a lot of noteworthy things have happened which merit acknowledgement on at least a personal level.

And so, I find myself here, hoping to get myself back into good habits by motivating myself to post content regularly. For the next 12 days, I will be publishing 1 post a day, in order to whizz through the backlog of content. From January 6th onwards… Well, let’s wait and see!

Why Museums?

There is no point in pretending that I have always known I’ve wanted to work in a museum, because that simply isn’t true. As a student of Modern and Medieval Languages – a pretentious name for a course that should be called ‘French and Spanish: not just the languages, but the old cultural stuff too’ – there are many directions I could have, and still could, choose to go in. Arts and Heritage is certainly not the most obvious direction. The assumption is that language students end up as translators, teachers, or in corporate roles at an international level. I have always been firmly against the idea of entering the corporate world, the reasons for which are plentiful, and frankly irrelevant to discuss here. I am not good enough/ confident enough at the languages in which I am most proficient to jump into translation work, IMHO. And whilst I love education, and have enjoyed the experiences I have of teaching, *language* teaching is not something that really appeals to me at this stage. Language teachers are those that had the biggest impact on me going through secondary school – hence why I grew to love language learning so much – but I personally don’t feel that I am capable of giving lessons to classes of increasingly apathetic students. I have heard stories from teachers who take joy in the fact that the odd one or two pupils are particularly keen to learn more, whilst the majority treat language classes as a doss lesson, because “what’s the point?”. It saddens me that this is the case, and luckily there are many passionate graduates who are lapping up the government’s financial incentives to teach languages in the UK. I am just not one of them.

So, the question still stands: why museums?

On reflection, an archaeology and/or anthropology degree might have been better suited to my extra- and intra-curriculum interests. When I planned my year abroad, my plans revolved around travel – not ‘oh my god I’m living my best life on my gap yah’ travel, but rather ‘I want to see more of other cultures’ travel. I wanted to see temples, and huacas, and geological sites, and wildlife, and ranches, and cities, and cathedrals, and castles… and museums. I went to South America with the intention of gaining valuable teaching experience whilst also absorbing as much of the cultural heritage as possible. After my year abroad – which ended up being somewhat more eventful than intended – I finished my dissertation on the short stories of a female Argentine author who wrote under military dictatorship, and signed up for a load of final year papers focussing on language and linguistics. It didn’t take long for me to realise that my paper choices were awful, and that I’d chosen them for the wrong reasons. No doubt this added to my already very poor mental health, which led me to intermit for the remainder of the academic year. And it was whilst I was intermitting from study that I had a real chance to reflect on what it was that I actually enjoyed. Much introspection, reflection and self-dissection led me to the answer: I enjoy cultural heritage.

I started looking for jobs I might enjoy, thinking about the times I felt happiest, and what I could do to make myself even happier. I reminisced to the many times when my mum and dad took me and my siblings on holiday as kids, to English Heritage sites, to castles and abbeys and manors. I remembered going into London to visit galleries and museums. I vividly recalled examining the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, aged maybe 9 or 10, in awe of the ways history was documented in early civilisations with already such complex languages and scripts. And it all started to make sense.

Throughout my intermission I continued to teach, tutoring children, teens and adults just to keep my brain active and my finances stable (ish). I looked at summer jobs I could perhaps take, in archives and libraries and heritage properties, but realised before I even got round to finishing my applications that I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready *yet*.

Fast-forward to September and I had successfully applied to work at Education and Outreach events at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. I was an ideal outcome: I could work one-off events over the course of my second attempt at my final year of university study, doing something I would theoretically really enjoy. I don’t think I appreciated on applying for a position that I would enjoy my work with the MAA quite as much as I do. I get to lead handling sessions, where members of the public can come in and touch artefacts that would normally be in storage or behind cases. I get to run activities that encourage kids to engage with celebrations like Día de los Muertos, using knowledge I have accrued from my own studies to help them learn about significant aspects of world heritage. I get to be part of huge teams of people from all different walks of life that run university-wide events, including Twilight at the Museums, which took place this week. I love the work I get the chance to do, because it is no chore to do it. It is all I could have asked for, after a difficult couple of years of not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life or where I wanted to be.

Museums are the happy meeting point of all the things that I love: travel, culture, art, history, education – learning and teaching – and outreach, people, places, and so on. And what’s more, I love visiting museums too! I can’t guarantee where I’ll end up or what I’ll be doing, and I am only a fraction of the way through my life of learning and growing and working and living (I hope). However, whether behind the scenes or simply visiting for leisure, I sincerely hope museums will always be a part of my life.