Learning something about yourself

“It’s how you respond to those situations, how you come back from them… that’s why we do this. To learn something about ourselves.”

My coach was speaking in the context of the May bumps. For those not in the know, bumps is a four day competition held at the end of Lent and Easter term in Cambridge. It can get pretty complicated, but the basic aim is to “bump” the boat in front of you (literally) as many times in the four days as possible. Once bumped, the boats swap positions and then race in their new positions the next day. Crews that bump every day win blades; crews that are bumped every day are awarded spoons. This May term will be my sixth set of bumps races.

I’ve never had much luck in the bumps: most of the bumps I’ve rowed or coxed in have been with W2, which has struggled to attract rowers, coaches and coxes over the years. Being bumped or rowing over again and again is demoralising, and it’s sometimes hard to keep motivating yourself. This is part of the reason, I think, for why the women’s side has struggled to field a strong W2 each year: no one gets to taste success, so they leave.

And yet, through all of this, I have stayed positive and kept rowing. I think this has taught me the most: that I care about my sport, and I’m willing to give it everything. As I go forward into the next stage of my life, that’s something that I hope will stay with me. The ability to face disappointment and continue on is something that I’m proud of.

Of all these experiences, the one that hit me hardest was actually that last day of Lent bumps this year. My crew had bumped up every day before, and everyone in the crew was tentatively hoping that we would make it four times and win our blades. Sitting on the start line, my heart was pounding. I knew that my steering on the previous days hadn’t been perfect; not bad by any means, but the margin for error is so small, every single detail matters. We went off hard, knowing that they would be a tough crew to beat. They actually pulled away relatively early on, but I didn’t realise: I’m not a great judge of distance, and I thought that we were holding them. As we came round Grassy, I could see them closing in on the crew in front, and a wave of terror went through me. Luckily, Downing pulled away, and we moved up on them again, but we couldn’t get closer than half a length. It was hard row. We did our “bumps move.” Twice. We took the rate up. There was a point, around the P+E, when I knew that it would take a miracle for us to bump. And yet I was still willing it to happen, still calling the crew on, right until Pembroke’s stern crossed the finish line and they were safe.

Realising that we weren’t going to make it was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. The coxes seat is a unique position for this very reason: you know what’s going on in front, while the rest of the crew doesn’t. I couldn’t let them know that we weren’t going to make it. After we crossed the finish line, I was close to tears. Not just because we’d missed out on blades, but because I knew how much it meant to the eight other people in the boat. We had trained so hard, and it hadn’t been enough on the day. Over the next few weeks, I thought a lot about that race. I wondered if my corners could have tighter, what could I have called differently, what would have made the difference? In the end, bumps is a competition of luck, and I’ve had to accept that. But that moment outside of the P+E is burned into my brain. I wish it has gone differently, but you can’t change the past. All you can do is learn from what came before, and hope that you do things differently next time. Fingers crossed that continues into this week of bumps.

Graduate job hunting

From the second year of university onwards, family gatherings become increasingly stressful. This is primarily because it is the time when relatives start to ask you “so what are you going to do with your life? Do you have an internship sorted? What are your plans for when you graduate?” Over the Christmas break, my grandmother and I had this conversation multiple times, which always went the same way:

Grandma: “So, what are you going to do when you graduate?” 

Me: “I’m not sure yet…”

Grandma: “Hahaha, very funny… what are you really going to do?”

Me: “…”

For some people, they know what they want to do when they graduate. For those doing degrees in medicine or similar subjects, the career path is at least partially decided. For those of us doing an arts degree, there isn’t really an obvious career path. People say “you could do anything!” But that is precisely the problem: I could do anything, and I have no idea where to even start looking.

I didn’t get an internship last year. This was mainly because most of the companies I applied to either rejected to me or ignored me. It was also because I fundamentally disagree with unpaid internships. I believe that they are un-meritocratic, giving opportunities predominantly to young people with wealthy parents. I have spent every holiday since I started Cambridge working two jobs; the money I earn goes directly to buying food and paying rent during term time. My parents could probably support me through an unpaid internship: but it would entail hardship and sacrifice on their part, something that I am reluctant to ask of them.

So, I went into applying for jobs without an internship, but with years of work experience, extra-curriculars, good grades, and a degree from Cambridge. Finding a job should be doable, right?

Wrong: graduate scheme after graduate scheme rejected me, most of them at the first hurdle. For some, I went through to the interview stage. Some of these went well; some went badly. Favourite questions I was asked include “when were you last drunk?”, “tell us about a recent mistake?” and “how will you revolutionise our company?” (The previous Saturday; I panicked and said “I don’t make mistakes” – I don’t think he was impressed; I have literally not even left university yet, cut a woman some slack.)

Along the way, I have navigated the bizarre rules that govern interview conduct: heels, but not too high, a dress, but not too revealing, makeup, but not too heavy. The words “networking lunch” appearing in emails has filled me with dread; I either want to stuff my face with food, or make small talk. Doing both at the same time is not my idea of fun.

In amongst this, there have been highlights. I have learned that I can, in fact, run rather fast in heels; as evidenced by the time my train was late and I sprinted past the houses of parliament to make it to my interview in time, desperately hoping that no one would mistake me for a security threat. I have learned that I am very good at directing a team to make paper handbags, and then taking charge of selling them to an imaginary vendor. I have learned how the buses run in Cambridge (in practise, not just how to get from a to b). I have learned that I can sit in a room of men (all trying to be the “alpha” of the group) and face them down. I feel like when I walk into interviews now, I stand taller, I talk more confidently. It has forced me to think about myself in a way that I haven’t had to do before: my strengths and my weaknesses. Someone is (hopefully) going to pay me enough to live on: I need to think what I can bring to an organisation to warrant that.

Today, I had my final interview for a grad scheme I am through to the final stage of. It was unlike any interview I had ever had. It was with the head of the organisation. He asked me what my personal values were. We debated the merits of different forms of equality. He asked me if Simone de Beauvoir was a hypocrite. We talked about my personal role models, what kind of leader I want to be, whose leadership I admire (my current female rowing captains.)

It was interesting, and intellectually stimulating, and it made me think. The office is based somewhere I want to live, with a river nearby where I can continue to cox. I want this job desperately. For the first time, I can see myself not as a student, but as a businesswoman. It’s a strange realisation, because I have been terrified of leaving Cambridge for so long. But I realise now that there is a whole world outside of the bubble. I have been happy here, and I will be happy in the future. Either way, I will be happy when I land a job and have to stop applying for graduate jobs.