Thursday 12 December 2019

The dreaming spires give way to reality of being a 'menu pimp'

Students should not expect the gentle hand-holding to continue after they leave university, writes Eliza Preston

AS I stand in the windswept corridor which links Temple Bar's Fleet Street to Cecilia Street in Dublin, the words of Bob Dylan interrupt my thoughts . . . "20 years of schooling and they put you on the day job . . ." Having just graduated from Oxford University, I must admit that promoting early-bird menus to stag parties on the streets of Temple Bar was not exactly what I had imagined I would be doing when I finished university

This year, more than 8,000 graduates have stepped forth from university and entered the jobs market, confident that years of temporal and financial investment in their education would open doors to dream careers and coveted paycheques and even a glamourous lifestyle. Most will be disappointed.

Some have taken to the streets, demanding jobs. Others have given in with a shrug of their shoulders and joined the dole queue. There is public sympathy for us, no doubt. All that effort and no jobs. As with everything else, the Government is surely to blame. "Ah you poor thing, after all that work . . . isn't it shocking . . . the Government has a lot to answer for . . ." This well- meant universal grumble endorses a sense of alienation and grievance which they assume resides behind the forced smile of a 'friendly service'.

As with most university students, I indulged in the usual self-absorbed pity, copious amounts of coffee and dramatic 'all-nighters' as I journeyed through the university system and the dreaded finals. After the latter hurdle, I found myself suffering from what I imagined was the equivalent of post-natal depression. I loved my degree and had poured my heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into it. At the end of it, I found myself spat out by the education system, 2.1 in hand, somewhat bewildered and utterly directionless. Throughout school, we strode on, confident in our direction. From Junior Cert to Leaving Cert, from Leaving Cert to degree, from degree to career. It all seemed so simple and seamless. Indeed, until this point, it was. However, this simple linear progression lands us abruptly at the edge of a vast expanse of

possible opportunities and pitfalls, more familiarly known as 'the career'.

The possibilities are endless and, for that reason, terrifying. What lies ahead appears like a minefield. How on earth, after 20-odd years of being coaxed and guided through the corridors of educational institutions, are we supposed to know where we fit in the real world? Terrified of taking a wrong step, I teetered on the precipice, edging forward under the weight of pressure from peers and parents, not to mention the €15,000 debt that I have amassed in tuition fee loans and student overdrafts.

And then comes the steakhouse. Each evening, I don my finest black T-shirt and trousers and pester potential customers with special early-bird deals and set menus. As much as peers and parents may be unimpressed with such lowly earnings, my self-titled position as 'menu pimp' has given me self-esteem and a bit of breathing space, a chance to consider at a little more leisure the ever more intimidating waters of 'the career'. I tried a month in television production, am currently interning with an advertising agency and have a stint in international development lined up for the winter. Busy though it is, this regime has lifted the pressure which has weighed on my shoulders since my finals. The career minefield no longer appears quite so daunting and even begins to feel just a little exciting.

Yes, the job market is extremely challenging but despite this, there are opportunities to be had. Working 8.30am to 9.30pm and four hours on Saturday and Sunday is a bit of a kick in the bum after three years of amateur dramatics in stressing over the odd essay deadline. Maybe that is what we need, a dose of old-fashioned reality.

Hand-guided through the education system, it is a shock to the system to suddenly find yourself on the far side, with no timetable or comforting institutional regimes. But the fact is that we are no longer being spoonfed jobs and juicy paycheques and special pleading for graduates is not justified.

University students choose to invest expendable time and money in their education, a wise investment and no doubt one which may deserve to be rewarded. But over the past 15 years, many people made what were considered wise investments and now find themselves in dire straits. Why do the whinings of students receive such special sympathy?

It is perhaps not surprising that those who sympathise with our so-called plight are children of the Seventies, a generation which was subject to its own economic woes. Then too, educated young Irish men and women left our shores as Irish industries and public sectors floundered in recessionary struggles. However, emigration today is not what it was then. Technology and cheap flights have made the world a much smaller place. What was a tragedy then is an opportunity today, an opportunity to travel and experience new frontiers, both culturally and career-wise.

A university education is a privilege, not a free pass. Like everyone else, graduates should expect to have to roll up their sleeves and toil a little harder than assumed. There are jobs out there, perhaps not with the glamour and dinner-party prestige that the children of the Celtic Tiger have come to expect. However, my job has given me a welcome break and a bit of breathing space from the pressure to achieve a career.

Engaging with people from all corners of the world and all walks of life on a windswept street in Temple Bar has not only been a refreshing and supporting experience, it has opened my mind to the world of possible paths that lie ahead, allowed me time to realise what sort of future appeals to me and taught me a little about myself. The first step need not be so definitive nor irreversible as I had thought.

Sunday Independent

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