Better than a degree?

Nan Flory meets Fusion President Caroline Jee and other students balancing their degrees with demanding extracurricular activites

In the cold winter months it can be difficult to keep up appearances; grooming just doesn’t get prioritised when skipping the beauty routine allows for another half hour under the covers. We are all sun-starved and disillusioned, half way through the academic year with another odious 14 weeks looming. In week eight, annual charity fashion event Fusion will be returning to Central Hall to reawaken your fashion consciousness and guilt-trip you into making an effort. With clothes from River Island, Mango, Burton, Free Spirit and Selkie on display, as well as designs from three York students, you’re bound to find inspiration for the approaching Spring months.

Fusion was born last year and is the brainchild of Miriam Ahmed, now a graduate, who wanted to fill the ‘urban’ gap in York. The fashion and dance display was a great success: it sold out and raised £5000 for charity. It returns on Friday, week eight, with second year Writing and Performance student Caroline Jee at the helm of a thirteen person committee. She aims to reach similar, if not greater heights. This time the money will be going to the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation of thirteen UK aid agencies, set up to deal with major emergencies which are beyond the capacities of local organisations. Fusion is also supporting Forward, the Foundation for Women’s Health and Research Development- a group which works to protect the rights of African women in the UK and Africa, in particular those confronted by the horrific practice of genital mutilation.

Despite the achievements of last year’s event, Fusion was originally organised as a one-off evening of glitz and glamour. This meant that Caroline started this term with a working budget of precisely zero pounds. Work towards the ambitious and complex project started during the Summer and kicked off in earnest at the beginning of the Autumn term. As Caroline said, “sponsorship doesn’t just happen.” But it has happened for Fusion, and not in small measures: the Fusion website, www.yorkfusion.org, lists KPMG, Norwich Union, Halifax College, CPP and Rumours Bar as supporters. The team have also organised two campus club nights, sold lollypops and have auctioned models to raise the required funds. Jee plans to raise enough money to give next year’s organisers a budget to start with, and also to establish a bit of an infrastructure for the event- including a ready-made pack, complete with video clips and information, to send out to any potential sponsors.

Fusion was always more than a fashion show for the organisers, who have put in extensive hours organising, booking rooms and financing. This year it is more than a fashion show for the audience too. Fusion now features far more dance and music, and professional choreographers have designed the opening and closing sequences. There will be performances by Pole Dancing soc, Afro-Caribbean soc, Dance soc, and a group doing a belly dancing and Bollywood number. Platinum is providing break and street dancers as well as MCs who will join Fenna Rhodes and The True Ingredients, and singer Grace Ross in providing live music. Two large screens are to be mounted in Central Hall, with YSTV filming a live feed on the night, and Cinematography soc are helping to create some visuals. There will also be a ‘Cordalise’ performance- the circus technique featured in a BBC1 ident and developed by Canadian Cirque De Soleil, whereby dancers descend from ropes attached to the ceiling.

The varied line-up is the result of a great deal of hard work; Caroline is clear that, since at least week two of this term, Fusion has taken precedence over her degree.

She says “It’s my life.” Rehearsals are constant and the bureaucracy of booking rooms, clearing health and safety requirements and fulfilling sponsors’ requirements has been never-ending for her. However, Miriam Ahmed’s current job as an events manager came off the back of her work on the first Fusion and Caroline is confident that, although she plans to focus more on her degree next term, the sacrifices she may be making in her work are compensated by the abundance of transferable skills she is picking up as President of the committee. She is forming important connections through the show, not only with outside parties like the choreographers and charities she has come into contact with, but also with like-minded students, who will go on to form the professional milieu she plans to enter.

This kind of extra-curricular commitment is becoming more and more common in universities across the UK. University education has lost its former guarantees, in that a degree is no longer a passport to success and higher earnings. A recent study, called the ‘Class of ‘99 report’, compared the progress of 1999’s graduates to 1995’s.

It found that students who graduated in 1999 were earning, overall, 10% less than those who graduated in 1995. One third of 1999 graduates were not working in the field they were aiming for and 15% were doing jobs they didn’t actually need a degree for. Undergraduate enrolment increased by 300% between 1984 and 2003 and the graduate job market is, as a result, far more competitive. People like Caroline Jee, who use the extra-curricular opportunities university presents are, nowadays, what employers are looking for. The rhetoric of graduate employers is all about ‘transferable skills’ and ‘initiative’. A simple diploma is no longer enough.

Fiona Cooper and Jo Ellis are two more York students who spend a good deal of time doing things other than their degrees. They are, respectively, President of Drama Soc and head of URY, both time consuming, but clearly rewarding roles. Fiona Cooper is a third year English, Writing and Performance student. She acknowledges that being President constitutes a massive time commitment but says she is lucky in that her work in Drama Soc complements her degree; it is moving her towards a career in theatre as much as her university work is. Jo Ellis, studying English and Linguistics, is similarly positive about the benefits of taking on great responsibility within a student society. Aiming to work in the radio in the future, her experience at URY will be invaluable in applying for jobs or further study. However, Ellis does say that her experience is only useful in conjunction with her degree and that, despite URY’s importance, she tries to prioritise her work.

This is all well and good when you’re an English student, as both Cooper and Ellis are, but what happens when you do Biology, the most hours heavy subject on campus? Tom King, Nouse film editor, URY Cinema and Theatre Liaison officer and Drama Barn Manager, says “It all goes wrong”. Retracting this quickly, he says “You can just about cope most of the time, I’ve found up until now that you can just about get by doing work, to the exclusion of all other activities, during the holidays. With Biology, the contact time is a lot but it’s mostly exam assessed so I’ve been able to get by doing hardcore exam revision during the holidays.” King does think he possibly sacrifices his degree for his other commitments but claims this doesn’t really bother him. He says, “I think my degree has given me skills, but I don’t want to become a biologist. It has allowed me to read analytically and made me more numerate than I would otherwise be, but I think I’ll use these skills in my chosen career as a journalist rather than in the lab.”

As King indicates, the subject you study is becoming less relevant. Degrees have never been particularly vocational, but now more than ever subjects are interchangeable. Major graduate employers like Accenture, KPMG and even the Civil Service ask simply for a 2:1, the subject it’s in is incidental. All the specific knowledge needed for the jobs they offer are learned in training- your degree and extra-curricular profile are proof that you can manage your time and think on your feet– skills that you could probably pick up from working somewhere for three years; university just rubber-stamps it. This is all a little uninspiring, but at the same time, it leaves you free to study a subject simply because you love it, without worrying about what it will lead to. It also means that you can involve yourself in everything unrelated to work with a clear conscience, as that’s probably what will single you out for employers.

Sports club captains are another breed of extra-curricular whizzes. Adam Roney is President of the Boat Club. He doesn’t himself row, but has to organise practises, negotiate the difficulties caused by having far more boat club members than boats, and clean the boats themselves- an array of time consuming and occasionally mundane tasks. He explained that his time commitments mean that university work happens in the early morning and late evening, “It changes the way you deal with uni.” Roney is currently applying for Law placements and said his leadership role has been “very valid” in interviews, giving him a source of examples of ‘equitable choices’ and ‘teamwork’. Scarily, Roney said that, as well as a degree, proof of skills within communication and organisation is almost taken for granted now. Employers want you to show great enthusiasm and an aptitude for ‘creative solutions’. Your CV needs something ‘above and beyond’ that of the average applicant.

The University Careers Service offers advice to anyone panicking about life beyond finals. There are several helpful sections to their website, www.york.ac.uk/services/careers. There’s a personal development record to help you review your skills and realise what your strengths and weaknesses are, and there is help with CVs, application writing and interview techniques. They will also help you find a career in the first place, based on the skills you have acquired through extra-curricular activities at university. The internet is full of careers quizes that ask you a series of multiple choice questions and then come up with the best job for you. Although they can be patchy, with ‘crane driver’ and ‘dole recipient’ being two of my more discouraging options, they can be useful to get you thinking about what’s out there. If you have avoided getting involved in anything at all whilst studying, the Careers Service can help you get some work experience to plump up your profile.

It’s pretty obvious that, unless you want to be an academic, an in-depth knowledge of the more obscure corners of the library will be less useful to you in finding a job than spending your days thrust into your extra-curricular activity of choice. This said, you do need to pass your degree too- it can’t be all one way or the other. University is no longer a distinguishing feature; you need to provide evidence that you can cope with the more varied pressures of a working environment. That’s something that Jee, Cooper, Ellis and King will be able to prove to excess but which leaves me a little bit worried. Somehow, I doubt “able to alphabetise CD collection” will match up to “organised the grandest, most glamorous campus event, Fusion”. Post-graduate study for me then!

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