Look after yourself and care about what you do: the prize giving speech I made to my old High School

A month or so ago I was approached by my old high school who had found out about my ‘successes’ in academia. They invited me to give an address at the ‘Prize Giving Evening’ for former Year 11 students. Its more or less a commencement speech. Out of all of the talks I have given, this is the one that I found most difficult to write, and certainly the most nervous I was about giving. What could I say to these students that would matter to them? Last year sport presenter Jake Humphrey gave the talk, and save for a few appearances on local media, Jake Humphrey I am not! These students had no reason to care about what I had to say, so I figured I should at least take the opportunity to tell them what I wish I had heard when I was their age. I hope that it came across that way.

So here’s the speech I gave (more or less), feel free to share with young people that you might think could do with some reassurance as they try to figure out where they sit in the world:

You probably hear this all of the time, but you are the future. You guys, sitting here in front of me. Be the change that you want to see in the world. Be loud. Be heard. Command respect. You deserve it. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.

Take a deep breath and say: I matter. Because you do matter. Each person in this room matters.

I spent a long time thinking that I didn’t really matter. It was a bad habit I got into around about the age that you are all now. I didn’t think I mattered until someone told me that I mattered, so I spent a long time running around trying to get validation from other people. I was constantly trying to prove to other people that I mattered and I did this so much that I never stopped to realise that actually the only person that could really define my own self worth was me. I would walk around thinking, is this the right band to like? Am I wearing the right clothes? Do people like me? I still have to work to silence that voice of insecurity, doubt and uncertainty.

But then it’s only been a short while ago since I realised what an unhealthy way of living that was. That’s why I want to tell you this now. You matter. You don’t matter because I’m telling you that, you matter because you matter. Tell yourself that everyday. Truly believing in yourself can only come from within you.

You can do things and you will achieve things. I mean you’re sitting right here right now. You made it through high school! Some people say that high school is the best time of your life, and in some respects that’s true, but they can also be some of the most difficult years of your life too.

Just because I am telling you to believe in yourself does not mean that I am telling you to have all the answers, or even any of the answers. In fact, not having the answers is what makes where you are in your lives so exciting. You have the time, the space and the opportunity to figure all of that out.

When I was sitting where you are now I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I think I may have had some vague ideas but that was about it. I did know that I wanted to keep learning, so I did what everyone else was doing, I went to sixth form. Maybe you’re going to sixth form, maybe you’re doing something more vocational, maybe you want to try and get a job straightaway. Whatever you’re going on to do, I guarantee you this, you will be learning. And that’s fantastic, but I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for you to take on challenges and get some qualifications. They open doors.

When Mr Vandenburgh asked me to speak to you I wondered what I would say. Reflecting back on the past 11 years since I was sat where you are now I felt that I’d just kind of fallen into where I am now. ‘I got lucky’ was what I used to say to people. But then when I sat down to write this speech I realised that actually, it wasn’t luck, it was a lot of hard work and a whole load of passion for what I was doing.

I realised that when it came to making choices about what I would do, I made sure that I cared about it in the first place. Sometimes what you’re good at and what you care about don’t always match up. When I left Fram my GCSEs were good but not great. My A-Levels were just okay. I figured I was going to be academically average for the rest of my life. And that kind of fit every image I had of myself and to be honest with you, I was a little disappointed but I was fine with it.

I felt that science was interesting but that it didn’t really click with me. For me, it was all about the humanities. I loved learning about the Vietnam war – I’d just discovered Rage Against the Machine and I suspect my Mum was worried I was going to grow into a communist revolutionary (which is really only partly true). People will tell you that studying the humanities will be a waste of time and that you’ll never get a job with them. Well let me let you in on a secret. Those people are lying to you. The humanities opens up the world to you. You start to see the world for what it really is. You can identify problems and enact change. The humanities gives you the skills to keep learning well beyond the time you will be at university. It gives you the skills a whole bunch of employers will appreciate.

After finishing my A-Levels I decided to take a gap year, but rather than go somewhere glamorous like Thailand I went to Hull – quite possibly the exact opposite of Thailand! When I was 19 I went to York University to study Sociology because that’s what I most enjoyed. But I found it hard to be away from home and the majority of people up there were a bit posh. My family say I’ve gotten posh in my speech but I am and always will a council house kid – posh I am not! Finding it hard I decided to move back home. But rather than drop out I wrote to the UEA to see if they would take me as a second year student. And maybe luckily, or maybe because of my perseverance, they did.

It was in transferring to the UEA that I shifted my focus from sociology to cultural studies, and in that shift that I started to realised what I cared about. I cared about people and their politics, people and their power, and people and their oppression. At UEA I discovered race studies, and class studies, I discovered the thing that changed my life, feminism. There was finally stuff that I really cared about!

And because I cared about it my grades started to rise. At York I was a 2:2 average, which was fine, but at the UEA I started getting firsts – for those of you that don’t know, that’s the equivalent of going from a C to an A*. In 2008 I graduated with a first class degree with honours and I knew I wanted to do more, I wanted to do a Master’s Degree.

I applied to charities, I wrote to rich people, I worked two jobs. I got onto a Master’s programme. A year later I graduated with a distinction in Media and Cultural Politics. But even then I knew I wasn’t done.

If you watch the Big Bang Theory you might have a rough idea of what a PhD is. Only, rather than sitting a lab all day I went to schools and talked to teenagers, year nines to be precise. I wanted to know what impact gender has on young people’s lives. Writing a PhD is hard. You have to write a 100,000 words and you have three to four years to write it. You just can’t do it if you don’t care about it. You can’t do it without friends because they keep you sane. You can’t do it without family because they are the ones that remind you what it important in life. And this might go without saying, but you can’t do it without looking after yourself. And I think that is true of all things in life, whatever your path.

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