This rather personal blog has been adapted from an internal post Sim shared with the team on her seven year work anniversary a few months ago. We wanted to share this with our wider alumni community who might resonate with the lessons shared. Over to Sim!
It’s been seven years since I started my first full-time paid role. I’d spent the previous 23 years of my life following the only trajectory that was clear to me. I had done my time in Sixth Form, moved my life all the way to Southampton, and when my undergraduate degree had finished in 2015 and I realised that doing a PGCE wasn’t for me, I threw myself into the only thing I knew, more education. I had started volunteering with Southampton Hub as a student leader for Branch Up in the final year of my undergraduate degree, and I continued doing so whilst doing my Masters. There was this voice telling me I needed to figure out what to do next, but instead I threw myself into volunteering even more. It was during this time that I realised how strong my passion for social action was, and also quite frankly, how my great project and crisis management skills would serve me well working in the voluntary sector. So on the 25th August 2016 I started my first paid role with Student Hubs as a Projects Officer at Winchester Hub.
When I think back to the person who I was that day when I caught the train for my very first commute to the office, I don’t think she realised she’d still be working for the same organisation seven years later (albeit in a completely different role). 2023 has been a big year for me both personally and professionally, and so though seven years might not be a standout anniversary, this year it feels like a momentous and significant milestone. And now, after spending half a morning reminiscing on the past few years, I finally have some concrete thoughts on working in the voluntary sector I’d like to share.
1. You belong
On my first day, I turned up an hour late because I misread a spreadsheet. That was one of the myriad of moments in my first year that made me feel like an imposter. That first week in particular was full of excitement, but also opportunities that made me feel like I had lucked into this role: I wasn’t politically active enough, I didn’t have a social issues specialist area that I had spent my degree or all of my non-academic time on, I hadn’t done a placement year, or had a gap year volunteering. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do once my initial fixed-term contract had ended with Student Hubs. All things that everyone around me seemed to know and be working towards.
Feeling like an imposter in my role as a Projects Officer was hard because term time hits you fast and there was lots to do, leaving little time to address some of the underlying feelings I was having. I always thought that it would be a matter of time and suddenly I would feel like I fit in, that I belonged. I’d have opinions on the day’s most pressing social issues, I’d be an inspirational leader who knew exactly how I was going to use my skills to solve all the challenges facing young people. I thought I just needed validation from my line manager or peers, but when I did, I didn’t truly believe them. But the year seemed to go well and little by little I thought, hey I have a hold on this even if I don’t have all the answers. And then I started my next role as a Hub Manager, with a whole new set of responsibilities, and those feelings returned to me.
It’s taken a while for me to be able to take a step back and acknowledge the skills which have allowed me to take a hold of the opportunities that have been available to me. It was only when I shed the self-conscious feeling that I didn’t belong that I was able to engage in them and get the most from them. It’s not perfect everyday, but more often than not, I’m now able to replace that self-conscious voice with one of curiosity. It’s no longer “I’m the worst because I can’t do something someone else can”, but instead “I wonder how they developed that skill? Let me ask them”.
It can be so easy to get caught up in our perspectives of other people, what we think their life is like, and the journey they are on, and compare ourselves to that false idea. Student Hubs has always been a place of openness and willingness to learn. It was only when I allowed myself to be comfortable with what I did and didn’t know, that I was truly able to be open and learn new things. Student Hubs told me that you belong here no matter where you are on your social action journey, and that you always have space to grow.
2. Leaving the comfort zone
In order to take the opportunity to learn and grow, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone and take a risk. I am an incredibly risk averse individual, possibly why I was the right person to be Network Director as we navigated the pandemic. However when you are risk averse it’s comfortable to stay in the familiar. You know what you’re good at, so you stick to that. But in doing so, you cut yourself off from opportunities to grow, learn new things, and experience things you didn’t even know were possible. Taking a risk, however big or small, can have a profound impact on your life. Until I became CEO, my job title or role description changed every year. Partly this was due to the opportunities available at the time, but also because I cultivated an attitude that helped propel me forward. The risk averse voice would shout “stay in your lane, perfect your craft before you look to do more” but that voice was wrong, you don’t need to be perfect. A gutsy ‘what if’ voice grew in me asking what’s the harm in asking? In line with being more curious, what was the worst that could happen if I just asked what the plan was, or if there was space for me to support national impact measurement? Turns out that particular line of small steps outside of my comfort zone would put me on the path to my current role. It can be uncomfortable, but I didn’t know what I was capable of until I made myself uncomfortable and learnt the skills to make the space comfortable for me.
3. You are more resilient than you think
This is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year as we’ve been working on developing our new strategic direction. The Student Hubs I joined in 2016 does not exist anymore, the people who trained me, that I ran events with, the activities and initiatives I helped cultivate that don’t exist anymore in that form, and that’s okay. All those experiences and opportunities have helped mould me into the person I am, and overall, Student Hubs into the organisation it is today. Each academic year has brought a different set of challenges, problems to hold us back, and there have been more times than I can count where we didn’t know how things might resolve, or if I was the right person to do it. But several years later I’m still here, and I have more fight in me, maybe even more conviction in what we are trying to achieve, than when I first started. Many times a challenge can seem insurmountable, and yet we have consistently overcome them and have made it to the other side. We underestimate ourselves all the time, what we think we are capable of. Give yourself some credit and acknowledge your strengths, the challenges you’ve solved – you have the skills and the energy to get through this. And on the off chance that you don’t there are always people around you who can help, if you can just find a way to ask.
4. it’s all about the people
Being resilient isn’t about battling through things alone, we’re better as a team. I’ve always been so passionate about the Student Hubs team and the culture we have collaboratively created. Some of my closest friendships have been cultivated through work, and it’s been interesting considering how you keep your professional and personal relationships going (and separate). Not everyone has to be your best friend at work, and it’s good to know your boundaries there, but we all benefit from working in an environment where our egos are left at the door. Where we can be challenged but also supported through difficult times and celebrated too. Even with colleagues that I haven’t had a strong personal connection to, I’ve always felt encouraged and uplifted. I hope that’s a feeling everyone who works here gets to feel. The single most important thing about a workplace is its people. Student Hubs is nothing without us, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the support, constructive challenge, and care of the people I’ve been able to work with. We all have a responsibility to create this environment; if we want to benefit from it, we need to nurture it.
So how to sum this all up? My work life hasn’t progressed in the way I thought it would, and it definitely hasn’t been smooth sailing. I’ve ended up battling my own self-consciousness (a lot), but in the times where I’ve been open with others and taken risks, wonderful things have happened. This milestone has prompted me to reflect on the past seven years and collate my thoughts into something coherent. But I’m a strong believer that no matter where you are, reflecting regularly about your journey is powerful, and should be embedded throughout our lives. I hope in reading this, it prompts you to take a step back and consider how far you’ve come – I hope you can take the time to feel proud of yourself too.