Nothing brings about the feeling of “oh god what am I doing with my life” quite like a birthday. Except, I have found recently, the start of the university year. Luckily for me, February is the month I get to tackle both. I have just celebrated a birthday, I won’t tell you which. Another year older, another year wiser and another year at university. I am about to start my second year of the Museum and Heritage Studies Masters at Victoria University of Wellington. Orientation week this time is a little less toga wearing and a bit more keeping that pesky “tick tock” at a quiet whimper.
The decision to return to university was not an easy one. It was fraught with ums, ahs, and maybe a few too many pros and cons lists. I still wonder if I made the right choice. When I finished university the first time I thought I was done. I had slogged through several qualifications and thought I was ready to tackle the real world. The two years that followed were disheartening. The rejection letters were one thing but the deafening silence was worse. I was a cliche: I was a barista with an arts degree. Admittedly, I had a hand in this as I stubbornly refused to apply for any job not in the GLAMs sector. And while I may have had the vague idea that I wanted to work in the sector, I really had no clue what that meant. Did I like collections? Did I want to work with people? Curate? Public Programming? What did a Registrar even do?
At the very least the feedback and advice I did receive was consistent, I lacked experience. I could certainly write an essay, but I had never hung an artwork, never put on a pair of white gloves, never written a condition report, never handled taonga. I then managed to land an internship, one that even paid a per diem, and undertook several volunteer projects. I started to gain experience and began to figure out how the sector worked. Most importantly, I met people. I met artists, I met curators, directors, and board members. I met gallery managers and technicians. I met mentors. This new exposure to the workings of the sector taught me a huge lesson, up until then I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I could see the gaps in my knowledge and despite coming face to face with the “experience vs. education” dilemma, I realised I needed to work on both to move forward.
Having finished the first year of the Masters, contemplating another year at university has brought back some worries. I can hear those things I listed in the “cons” column whispering behind my back, trying to get my attention. Student life is a balancing act. I, like many of my fellow students, need to work to support myself while I study. It often means working six days a week and getting paid just above minimum wage for three. Despite working I still need a student loan to cover all the costs. Borrowing money knowing a job is not guaranteed in a sector that already seems glutted is a heavy burden. Working, studying, and undertaking placements demands a sometimes unforgiving pace, and I worry about burning out. I wonder how long I can keep it up. I worry about losing my enthusiasm, that I will become too cynical about the sector before I’ve even really started.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. I especially don’t want this to be just another piece by a millennial, whining about the tough job market, student debt and how hard life is. I guess what I do want is for people to talk more. I know these worries are not unique to me. In fact the more people I meet the more I am amazed by what we do: working full-time and studying; raising children and writing PhDs; paying off student loans while spending time volunteering. Through the Masters I have met another network of people, a group of emerging professionals. These are my classmates, they are graduates and guest lecturers. Some are a few steps ahead of me on the journey, some are just starting and then there is everyone in between. They are making their own way, navigating their own paths into and through the sector.
And here comes the second big realisation I have had. It’s not ground breaking, it is not new or revolutionary. Another cliche. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Don’t get me wrong, I have my compass set towards that end goal and I am figuring out how to get there. Those first naive stumbles are turning into confident strides. Just like birthdays, I am finding there is so much to look forward to and be excited about.