The End of an Era

I did it. I graduated.

The last three years have been a whirlwind. As I said in my Instagram post on Thursday, “my degree was an endless mix of inspiring, exhausting, frustrating, ridiculous, exciting, stressful, and joyful.” That’s the short version. The long version is very long. I dealt with a lot of grief and disappointment. I struggled with my mental health, discovered I was Autistic, and started to untangle all the threads that come from that. And that’s outside of university. At uni, I wrote hundreds of songs, met some amazing people, got the opportunity to go to Nashville, and ultimately, became a better songwriter. There were classes I loved and classes I hated. It was a constant battle to keep the lid on my anxiety and sometimes I failed. But I wouldn’t change it. My experience is coloured massively by how good my third and last year was. There were moments where I hated it, where it made me incredibly anxious, where I had meltdowns so bad I thought I’d never recover. There were moments I thought I’d never get through, that I couldn’t do what I was being asked to do. But somehow I did. Somehow I’m here, with a first and two graduation ceremonies under my belt.

The first graduation was for UEL, The University of East London. My school, The Institute of Contemporary Musical Performance, is a specialist music college and while it operates independently, it’s officially part of UEL. So we were invited to one of their graduation ceremonies. My Mum and my Granny came to this one. It was very formal – it was caps and gowns. That was something I was looking forward to and something I was very let down by. I’d thought it would be fun but it became a very stressful experience. Maybe it didn’t fit properly, maybe that’s just how it is but my cape kept sliding back and strangling me and my cap kept falling off my head. It took seven bobby pins to keep it on my head. As someone who struggles with sensory stuff, which includes the way clothes feel, that was really hard and really ratcheted up my anxiety. Fortunately, spending time with my friends, messing around and laughing, helped to keep it at a bearable level.

The ceremony itself was a bit strange. Because I only went to UEL once, it kind of felt like I was intruding, like I didn’t belong there. All the talk of the ‘UEL community’ made me feel a bit disconnected from the whole thing but the speakers were very good. I’d like to share something Geoff Thompson, the chair of the governors, said in his speech: “You are strong. Don’t ever, ever forget that you are strong… Never, never, never, never, never, NEVER give up on your dreams. It is not an option. It is not a choice.” You know, that was just what I needed to hear, just as I’m leaving university and heading out into an uncertain world. It was inspiring. It was empowering.

And all of a sudden, we were lining up to walk across the stage to shake the chancellor’s hand. It was weird: I had tunnel vision. No one could have applauded me as I walked across the stage and I wouldn’t have noticed. I was completely focussed on walking towards the chancellor, shaking his hand, and walking down the steps. It’s funny how something that you usually don’t have to think about – like walking – suddenly seems to take a lot of effort. But I did it, I got back to my seat, and I cheered for my friends. We threw our caps and then it was over. Graduation one was done. I’d thought I’d stay for a drink with my coursemates but after all the anxiety, I was completely exhausted. So I (eagerly) returned my gown and headed home.

The second graduation was a couple of days later and much more fun. This was just our school so it felt a lot more personal. Even though I don’t have many friends outside my course, I recognised a lot of faces from the other courses and we’d all shared the same space. We’re all connected by that. We didn’t have to wear gowns but it was still formal. Everybody looked gorgeous; it was really fun to see everyone dressed up. All four of my parents came to this one, which was amazing. I’ve never had all of them at a school thing before so that made me very happy. I was positively giddy.

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I really enjoyed the ceremony. The head of each course made a speech and then presented each of their students with the scroll. My favourite speech came from my programme leader, Jonathan. It was thoughtful and warm and inspiring. He even gave this blog a shout out, along with two other projects my friends have worked on. It was a very special moment. Another special moment was watching one of my best friends receive her scroll while her own song played. That was awesome.

And suddenly, it was my turn and I was walking across the stage, giving Jonathan a hug, and accepting my scroll. We posed for the photo and then I was moving again. I was a bit more aware of what was going on this time. The UEL one was a good rehearsal in that regard. There wasn’t an opportunity to thank my parents so I made the best of what I had. I located them in the crowd and did this:

It was important to me to do that.

Everyone received their scrolls and then we gathered for the reception. It was lovely to celebrate with everyone, to catch up, to introduce my parents to all these people who have played such an important part of my life in the last three years.

And that was graduation. The only other thing to add is that, to celebrate, we headed out for drinks. It was my first experience being in a club and my first experience drinking cocktails, neither of which I would say I enjoyed but it felt very empowering to try those new things and not feel trapped by my anxiety. Major thanks to my friends for looking after me and making it such a positive experience.

I will write more about my experience at university at some point but it’s a pretty big task. I need to go through my diaries and pull together some stuff before I can write an accurate account of that time but I will manage it at some point. It was a crucial time in my life. It’s a big part of who I am.

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