I leave University a cynic

This whole…blog, is a pretty cynical one. Alright, a very cynical one. A self-indulgently, self-destructive one. A place that I’ve come to rant about how awful everything is. I might have argued that this malignant cynicism began at that exit poll. Maybe not then, because I was drunk as hell and didn’t quite believe it. Maybe it set in when I woke up the next day to one particular text message: “Ed Balls :(“. It was a very personal loss, one that reminded me that the past five years of wage stagnation and crippling debt would continue for me and my family. But I don’t actually think that was the moment I became a cynic. It was two years earlier.

I think optimism either comes from ignorance or privilege. A bold claim, yes, but let me justify it. I was an optimistic kid. You know, the annoying one that put up their hand, finished their work early, joined the Scouts as the first girl of the pack, you know, that crap that comes with years of ego-inflation from stickers, pats on the back, being chosen to hand in the register, and having your name on the gifted and talented list. But besides all of that, I was ignorant as heck. Ignorant as all kids are. We all grow up in our micro-worlds with the same peers for years on end. We don’t think about the outside world. It makes our radical dreams local. I retained this statism all the way up to sixth form, one that at the secondary level had a catchment area, one that my house was not in. But it really began when I had the audacity to pick up a prospectus for Durham University.

What a wonderful place, truly. I remember the day I got off the train. I looked up at that castle perched atop the hill, a monument to the prestige of the place. The Wear meanders in such a way that there is an island untouched by time, as though it stopped at its banks. I walked through the cobbled streets enamored and utterly grateful that I could play the Hogwarts student for three years. I walked past Klute where I’d soon be singing S Club till 2am, Paddy’s Pizza which would be the home of many regrets. This place is wonderful.

It’s also a timely reminder of my innocence about the world being punched repeatedly in the face. The succession of moments in which I realised meritocracy was as real as unicorns.

In the three years before University, I saw EMA abolished, tuition fees trebled, riots, my whole household situation changed drastically for the worst, and then a little bit better, and the politicisation of everything I am.
In my three years at Durham University, I have seen an election lost, maintenance grants abolished as a consequence, my University increase accommodation costs to over £7000, and its grants reduced by £1000.

But more importantly, I’ve seen grant recipients be the minority.

Let’s just contextualise that. The £2000 Durham Grant (It used to be £3000) is awarded to anyone whose household income is less than £25,000. Now, growing up, £25,000 was not ‘poor’, it was normal. It was what the lucky parents earned. And well, that’s correct. The median wage in the UK is £23,000. In Durham, £25,000 is literally considered the poorest in the University. The psychological effect that has is pretty vast. Firstly, it’s made me a bit of an obsessive, almost victimised. I’ve become so aware of that fact, that it’s actually inspired my passion about class, sometimes annoyingly so, so annoying that this blog has become self-indulgent sop. Secondly, it’s had the effect of isolation. Not in the sense that I’ve had trouble making friends or a reluctance to go out drinking (oh, boy), but in the sense that I am very aware of it, and very aware that those around me come from very, very different walks of life.

Durham has given me lots of opportunities, not least my degree itself. I have changed completely as a person through my Labour Club and through my campaigning. But I still think my prospects are incredibly bleak. I have came out the end of these three years more cynical than when I started to the point it’s transformed magically into nihilism.

When I indulged in ‘reverse elitism’ in confidence to my mum, to whom I complained that Durham was the whitest, poshest place I’d ever been to, and how isolating that is, she replied “at least you’ve experienced other people”. Except, actually, I could have very much went my entire life without this, without meeting ‘the other side’. Because, while I’ve made the most wonderful friends, it hasn’t been ‘enlightening’, it’s been downright saddening. Because naively not knowing the gulf that exists would have been a whole tonne better for me than this. I see inherent privileges that I’d never considered before and never had to consider before. I’d never met private schooled kids before Durham, now almost everyone I know is from private school.  It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Because it’s made me aware that there are two worlds and for the past 3 years I have pretended to fit into the second. I’ve straddled between the two.

This isn’t a personal attack. I love my friends here. I hope anyone reading that paragraph doesn’t take offense. In fact, if you did, then you have to realise that is exactly the problem. Anyone that points this out, the overwhelming privilege of not just Durham, but any elite higher education institution, faces immediate backlash, as though it’s forbidden to talk about the elephant in the room.

And this in turn fits into my wider cynicism of most millennials’ prospects. I come out with this degree, and then what? Compete for low-paid, low-skilled jobs, because since the crash all of us degree-educated schmucks have been chasing jobs we’ve been overqualified for while not demanding anything better because desperation pushes us into the shallow end when it comes to wages. I’ll take anything. Except I’ll be handed nothing. There comes a point when job rejections become a norm. I get the email before breakfast. Great, have to keep trying. Go onto my bookmarked sites to apply for the next five I see in the evening. And the more I do it, the lower I set the benchmark. I started, hypothetically, applying to be an astronaut, I am currently settling for shelf stacker. On and on the spiral goes. If I can’t find anything in the short time I have, I’ll have to go on JSA to help my mum. What then? A constant visitation to the Job Centre. When I find a job, onward to renting I go. A life of insecurity, guaranteed. Not just for the ‘poorest’ of us, by the way. Most of us. But nevertheless, not a topic in Durham circles.

It becomes tiresome, thinking about graduation. Here I am, wanting to go back home, tired of this bubble, wanting to talk to my London friends about things only we can share, but also not wanting to leave at all. Because what is out there is worse.

These past years have been the most independent, privileged and fun of my life, up to the point I didn’t think too hard about stuff, but they’ve equally been the most eye-opening, and in a bad way. I was supposed to come out open-minded and ready for the world, but now I just really want to withdraw back to where I came from, with my old friends to whom I can confide about anxieties. I would really have hoped that I would grow up to be hopeful about my future, but I can’t say I have. How much does this suck?

I said that optimism was ignorant or privileged. A bold claim, one I hope I’ve justified, but one I hope you can convince me I’m wrong. Convince me to see the ‘politics of hope’ as more than the patronizing guff I see it as now.

And once again, that’s where politics comes in. I’m a firm believer in parliamentary politics. Or so I was before the exit poll. I can attend protests and take part in internal politics, but the only, only, thing that will change my mind about optimism is seeing a Labour government in my lifetime. But one radical enough to challenge, among others, private schools, Universities with abysmal records for access, inequality; the elephant in the room that has become impossible to ignore over these past three years. Talk about the elephant in the room, Labour, and win. Win so heartbroken working class kids don’t have to have this gut-wrenching feeling of a future of nothingness. If not me, then the next batch of Durham Grant students.

Oh, oh, haha, wait, nevermind, tonight’s poll has us on 27%.

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