Do Something Different


Today the A level results are published in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I remember vividly when I found about my A level results.

image ccarlstead at flickr

I was working in a summer camp with a friend of mine. It was a day camp and the kids were from about five upwards. I was helping with the youngest group and she was helping with the older ones, so I was doing a lot of the singing and dancing type stuff that seemed to come more naturally when I was 17.

I asked my Dad to call the school for my results. I can’t remember why it was done that way, but basically they could call the School secretary and she’d tell parents/students. It was a small school anyway.

So my dad called the centre were we were working – I asked my dad to get my friend’s results too (she agreed) so he could tell us both.

He spoke to me first and told me my results. I’m a worrier and they were better than I’d expected and more than enough to get me into my first choice university. I shrieked and shrilled with joy.

I passed the phone to my friend. Cutting to the chase, I’ll say that she did a lot worse than she (or anyone) had expected.  She burst into tears.

As she handed me the phone back, my dad muttered something to me about never doing that to him again – because naturally, he’d been very happy with my results, and then had to tell my friend that she basically wouldn’t be going to university – at least, not the same year.

Anyway, it dulled my celebrations enormously. I just didn’t want to be happy but I couldn’t help it.

But for both of us it was a point of reflection – She took a year off to re-take her A levels and do some part time work. I considered taking a year off to apply for a subject I genuinely wanted to study rather than one that I’d thought I’d be able to get an offer with. I didn’t though.

I think if I could re-draw my life, that would be the only thing that I would change. I would have taken a year off before university – I think I would have enjoyed it more in retrospect, if I had had a bit of a broader view.

So on that note and  feeling for those students who are having those experiences today, I thought I’d relate a later experience to something which may prove relevant (bear with me here, there is method to this madness.. ).

And that is CSV (Community Service Volunteers) – I can confidently say that my experience with them changed my life.

I graduated from University with a rather pretty but not necessarily competitive – at least from an employment standpoint –  BA (Hons) II (i) in Philosophy.

I applied for countless jobs. Mostly the usual generic graduate management scheme and accountancy jobs. Ones that I would actually have hated doing.

I read up about interview technique but I don’t think I had anything to offer that was unique to any employer. I’d done some voluntary work at university but it didn’t look very impressive alongside people who had been much more active in societies and events organisation.

I didn’t have much/any money left and was sleeping on the floor of my sister’s flat in London.

I came across CSV at that point – and in particular their full-time volunteering programme.

They said on their literature that they accepted all applicants. I liked that. I liked my chances with that. The deal was that they provided food and board and an allowance and in exchange I did some voluntary work.

I didn’t even think about it in terms of career development although I realised that it would probably be more positive than watching daytime TV and applying for admin work that I wasn’t very qualified to do.

I wanted to sleep on a bed again so I applied.  And CSV – true to their word – accepted me!

I had word within a few weeks, that I’d be moving into the rooms of a convent to work with an order of nuns who were running a quite remote residential community to assist adults and children with learning disabilities.

image kevindooley at Flickr

To be fair – and probably because I’d made a point of stating I was Jewish, they asked me if this would be a problem for me – working and living in a Catholic religious community.

I replied that as long as they didn’t have a problem with it and made no expectation that I attend church, I was happy to go and do the work.

And they did. And I did.

It was possibly the best thing I ever did. I spent a year there, as promised. I ran a small current affairs discussion group there and a chess club which then became a board games club when we realised that only a couple of people liked chess. I did more of the ‘fun’ activities and took people out and about in the local area (or supported staff to do so).

And that’s really how I got into social work. I used the experience I gained there to get a job in residential care when I returned to London. The environment though, had offered me time and a place to decide what it was I really wanted to do and I never applied for another accountancy type job again.

So.. and back to my point, if there are any A level students who get the results they aren’t expecting, or even if they do – you could do a lot worse than having a glance at CSV and what they offer. They really did change my life.

5 thoughts on “Do Something Different

  1. Isn’t it amazing what actually drives us to our career destinations? I’m not sure how it works exactly in the UK, but from what you wrote it appears that most people tend to assume their whole future depends on a single test score. It’s similar with university entrance exams here. Your story is refreshing as well as very real–other life experiences really can mean so much more than entrance exams in terms of linking to work that fits.

  2. I wish I had taken a year off too. We have Americorps here, which sounds along the same lines as CSV.

    I’m (lapsed) Catholic and I think had I been assigned to hang out with nuns for a year back then I would have shot myself! I’m glad it was a good experience for you.

  3. BJ – Basically, here, you choose the university/subject – university offers you a place on condition of your A level results, and then you have to wait until the results are published to find out if you get in or not.. there are, of course, lots of inbetweens but that’s a basic summary!

    Reas – I grew up in a fairly traditional (but now completely lapsed) jewish family – for me, hanging out with nuns was as rebellious as it got 😉

  4. I am lapsed Catholic, too – that’s a good way to put it. In retrospect I might have enjoyed something like that. At my school, they endorsed the Jesuit Volunteer Core, but I didn’t go…good to know more about you, cb!

  5. I’m always a bit uncertain about how personal to go with things but in the end, it’s mostly whatever I’m thinking about at the time. I did have another version of this article which promoted voluntary work in general but sometimes I think I just like talking about me…. 😉

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