After weeks of preparation and fundraising, I’m finally getting settled in at Cork and preparing to start the Space Studies Program.
My flight over here was short and surprisingly smooth. I flew out of Bristol Airport; I was joined by another participant who was travelling from Taunton, just a few miles away from me! I flew across in a small propeller-driven plane and expected a bumpier ride, as I anticipated we would be flying at a lower altitude than jets; fortunately I barely noticed anything except for a few bumps on the descent into Cork. Once we arrived we were picked up by the family of another participant for the short run to the University, where we registered, collected some goodies, took care of some paperwork, and set up our IT accounts. We then headed over to our accommodation, got settled in and met some more participants.
A welcome dinner was held that evening at the University, where an enormous illuminated moon has been set up. After dinner the staff welcomed us with a few speeches, then we each went up to the stage to briefly introduce ourselves. I had considered discussing my Aspergers there but in the end I bottled it… I had posted a message about it in the private SSP17 Facebook group, however, and a few people have already complimented me on it so at least some of the attendees are aware. We ended the night with some wine, followed by a trip down to a nearby pub for more drinks and a great party.
Today has been comprised mainly of introductory lectures but the pace will pick up rapidly very soon: we have to choose our team projects by tomorrow lunchtime! For today, though, we have something more important to attend to: the opening ceremony. This is a formal event that will be webast online: go to http://bit.ly/SSP17live to watch.
My thanks are due to the European Space Agency, which provided a scholarship of €12,000 covering two thirds of the tuition; to Reaction Engines, and to Alan Bond in particular, for contributing a further €5,000 toward the fees and for ongoing encouragement and moral support; to my Dad, who has lent me about £1,500 to cover the remainder of the fees and to keep me afloat during the course despite not having much to share himself; and to those who made a contribution to my GoFundMe campaign, which covered the cost of the flights here and back.
First some good news: since my last post on raising funds for the Space Studies Program I’ve received the funding I needed to cover the course fees. I have also raised £140 through my crowdfunding effort; thankyou for your donations! I had been getting anxious last week that it might not come through in time but my Dad has loaned me enough money to cover me until the last payment (a cheque) into my bank account clears, so I no longer have to worry. I can finally start getting excited! I still need to cover flights and other expenses, and unfortunately the exchange rate has dropped, putting more pressure on my finances. I’m therefore still looking for donations to my crowdfunding appeal, but I don’t need as much as I originally thought now that the course fees are paid.
What I want to do next is to start earning my own money so I’m no longer so dependent on benefits or the generosity of others. It occurred to me the other day that If I can bring several thousand pounds into my bank account just from other people’s generosity (albeit for a specific purpose), what could I bring in if I actually worked for it? Having earned a place at ISU has made me realise that I’m more capable than I previously thought, and if I can do that, and find funding to cover the fees so quickly, then I can find a solution to this problem too.
My first priority is to get myself off of Universal Credit. The Jobcentre has been understanding of my personal difficulties but has insisted that I have to divide my efforts between my grad job hunt and looking for temporary work. This has left me struggling to put enough time into both job searches. By earning my own money I will not only have more financial freedom, I’ll be able to get the Jobcentre off my back completely and I’ll be free to look for other work as I see fit. Financial problems we’re one of my main worries while at university and continue to be a worry for me now, restricting what I can do. There are many things I wanted to do while at university, and want to do now, that lack of money is preventing me from doing. In the long run, one of my goals for my time at ISU is to secure my future so I don’t end up in this position again.
I’ve set myself a goal of earning £500 in the next month. That’s a small, easy figure, but it’s enough to get me started and off of universal credit. In the long term I still want to find a job in the space industry—a typical grad job for an aerospace engineer pays at least £2,000 a month before taxes and other deductions—but for now it will make a good start. I’m looking at a more entrepreneurial approach, perhaps as a freelance engineer?
I’m looking for advice on how to do this. There might turn out to be plenty of opportunities in the Bridgwater area; I’m also open to opportunities within the surfing community, or perhaps within skydiving. But I’m most keen on finding a way to do this within tech industries, particularly the space industry if possible; I spent several good years earning my degree and it deserves to be put to good use. I can usually think up plenty of ideas for things to do—my mind ends up buzzing with ideas sometimes—but I feel like I need some pointers on what is genuinely worth doing. My current circumstances are keeping me disconnected from the space industry, so I don’t know what issues and problems the industry is currently facing, nor can I see what opportunities there are waiting for me to contribute to.
I’ve left it a bit too long following my last post on my search for funding for my attendance at ISU. But I’ve got good news: I’ve secured most of the funding I need! I now need only to secure a small further amount to cover what’s left of the fees, plane tickets and associated expenses, and generally keep me afloat while I’m there. To find this I’ve just set up a GoFundMe donation campaign, with a goal of just £750 to cover all these three things. That’s small compared to some of the campaigns I’ve seen, and I’m hopeful that I should be able to raise it fairly quickly.
The total breaks down as follows: the first £250 is to cover what’s left of the course fees, based on recent exchange rates. The flights there and back from Bristol Airport come to about £170-£180 plus booking fees. Finally, although accommodation and meals are provided, I need to cover some regular costs like car insurance to make sure I don’t go over my overdraft limit (even though I won’t be using my car there), as I’m already a long way into my overdraft and the benefits I’m on at the moment won’t be available while I’m on the course.
I’m normally reluctant to ask for financial help like this unless I’m really desperate, but I’ve decided to do so this time as it’s a small amount and it’s apparent that there is some willingness to help. The support I’ve received so far has opened my eyes to the possibility that some of my beliefs about money might not be accurate and this is something I’m keen to explore further: being accepted into ISU shows I’m more capable than I previously thought, and if I can raise this much this quickly then there may be other opportunities that I have been missing out on, particularly if I apply my talents to them.
I’m keen to get some feedback on my campaign, particularly if there’s something I could improve or if I’m making a rookie error. This is my first attempt at something like this and there’s probably much that I have to learn. I’ll be posting updates from time to time to promote my campaign and provide updates on my progress and I’ll try to put a widget here on my blog to show the latest total (unfortunately GoFundMe widgets don’t play nice with WordPress).
Money has been a source of anxiety for me for a long time now, and has prevented me from doing many of the things I wanted to do with my life. Now I’ve got something to look forward to—something big—and I’ve almost got enough together to go. Hopefully this is just the beginning and I’ll be able to use what I learn there, and the connections I make, to start making my own contribution to the world.
On Friday I got some important news: I have been accepted onto the International Space University’s Space Studies Programme. This is a prestigious and highly sought-after opportunity and I’m excited to be given the opportunity to go. SSP is a two-month long, multidisciplinary, graduate-level professional development program with a highly multinational community of students, alumni and staff. It is also a unique opportunity to network with the best and the brightest of the global space industry. As I explained in my last blog post, I have been keenly looking for a way to re-connect with the space industry and I can’t think of a better way to do so than this.
There are a few obstacles I need to overcome first though: most importantly, I’ve been offered a European Space Agency scholarship covering most of the cost of attending and my Dad has offered to chip in, but I still need to find €5,000 to cover the fees (about GB£4,250 at current exchange rates). My family background is not one with much surplus income and I’m uncertain if they will be able to help further, so I need to find that from elsewhere. Unfortunately, the difficulties I’ve been having since graduation mean that there’s little I can contribute personally. I’m unsure of the deadline for this but the course starts on 24th June so I doubt I have long.
I therefore need some advice. Where can I go to find grants or loans that might help to close this gap? I don’t expect to get it all in one go, but any contribution would be very welcome. If there’s anything I can do in return I’m interested; I have my blog as an example of my writing ability, and I had wanted to resume writing it, if only I had something to blog about. This is exactly that something, and thanks to my background with Aspergers I can take a unique angle on it.
In the long run I want to be able to stand on my own two feet financially but for this opportunity I need to act fast. As someone with Asperger syndrome, having been given very low expectations of what I would go on to achieve, getting accepted into ISU is an extraordinary achievement. It has dispelled a lot of the self-doubt that has been creeping in over recent months and I’m starting to realise that I’ve got capabilities that shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. ESA is also prepared to bet big on me. This alone is already something to be proud of but it would be a shame to have to miss out on it because of financial problems.
I have wanted to get back to this blog for a while. When I set it up I realised that it gave me the ability to convey things to my friends that were hard to do verbally (having Aspergers makes it difficult for me to express myself in conversation). Today I need to reach out for help from my friends from university and in the space community: I’m currently stuck in a difficult situation and I’m struggling to find a way out.
Since graduation I’ve had to go cap-in-hand to my local jobcentre and they’ve tied me down with some difficult expectations, insisting that I divide my job search efforts in two: between my graduate job search, and looking for local part time work. This seems reasonable on the surface but it has divided my time and effort in two, and has left me struggling to do either. They tried signing me up to the Work Choice programme in the hope of helping to provide some kind of structure but Work Choice was unable to support my graduate job-hunt (other than with petrol money) and I feel like they’ve done more harm than good.
Despite this I’ve made some progress, particularly being invited to an assessment for Reaction Engines’ graduate scheme, but this was more exception than rule. I feel like I’m being held back by the jobcentre, by Work Choice, and by my remoteness from the rest of the space community. I feel that while my classmates have gone on to get graduate jobs I’ve been forced to give up on those aspirations in favour of a much lesser job and I don’t understand why. What’s worst about this is the effect it’s having on me: I feel like I’m much less of a person than I was before, that I’m having to shrink myself down to what other people are willing to accept because there’s no room for me to be anything else. Others have noticed this too, so it isn’t just my imagination. I therefore want to get away from those people and connect with people who I can actually work with; I’ve since left Work Choice but I also need to get the Jobcentre off my back.
I’m therefore reaching out to my friends for help. I’m very aware of how the people around me can influence me, so I want to connect with people who can do so positively; I feel that being around space people brings out the best in me, and the space industry has the ability to put that to the best possible use. Being at the UKSEDS conference last month, and at the Reaction Engines assessment, was inspiring and stimulating; my family does their best but there’s a limit to how far they can go.
I’m looking for a project to help with, a course to build my skills or something else that will get me moving. I want to build up some practical experience to wave at potential employers. My finances are currently very tight though, severely restricting what I can do, so I also need to make some money: something entrepreneurial perhaps? But what I really want is to get back among uplifting people who can inspire and motivate me. This is really about reaching out to break my isolation and I’m keen to hear any ideas and suggestions.
Two weeks ago, on Monday 18th July, I had my graduation ceremony formally confirming my qualification as a Master of Engineering and bringing to an end six years of hard work. After all these years it was good to finally get there, despite my misgivings about what I’ve had to set aside in order to do so.
Graduation is one of the high points of the academic year for staff, as they watch the students they’ve educated for several years gain their qualifications; my academic tutor, who has been supporting me through my degree for several years, deliberately put off full retirement so he could see me through to graduation. For us students it marks the culmination of years of hard work and therefore, while not all students attend graduation, most do and for them it is a proud moment. For me, after all the effort I put in to earning my degree, I was particularly keen to attend and I worked hard during my final year to make sure that nothing happened to prevent it.
The graduation ceremony itself is a formal affair, with graduates wearing suits or appropriate dresses with academic robes, a separate hood with a strap that tucks under the tie. For Southampton’s undergraduates the robes are black with blue and gold trim, with a mortarboard; postgrads wear burgundy robes with a bonnet; faculty wear robes of their alma mater with a bonnet, while professors wear yet another type of hat that I haven’t been able to identify. It’s possible to buy robes but they are very expensive, so students usually rent them for the day; faculty, who need theirs more often, get them paid for by the university.
My ceremony was to take place at 12 o’clock, but I was to be there two hours in advance to get robed up and ready. The day itself was hot and sunny, with temperatures reaching 28°C; hardly ideal weather to be wearing black! I headed down on the train the day before, taking up an offer to stay at a friend’s house, so that I could be freshly showered, shaved and suited up in time for the ceremony; My dad, along with my Nan, drove down in the morning. I felt very anxious during the morning but settled down once I got up to campus just before Ten. I said hello to a few friends and coursemates, checked in with Dad (who was about an hour away at that point), then went to get robed up and to pick up seating tickets and other paperwork. This included my degree certificate; the ceremony itself would be a purely ‘ceremonial’ event. At this point my Dad and Nan arrived, and with the start of the ceremony nearing we made our way to the Turner Sims, the university’s concert hall where the ceremony would take place. Family were directed to one part of the hall, while graduands were to wait at another; fortunately, we were waiting in the shade.
While we waited we were briefed on the ceremony by the Presiding Officer; this mainly centred on the ‘secret’ handshake with which the Pro Chancellor would confirm our graduation, and some details of the ceremony. We were then shown to our seats. This involved quite a lengthy wait while everyone arrived; we relaxed with some light conversation.
As the ceremony started we were bidden to stand as the faculty procession entered: lecturers, professors, and the Pro Chancellor entered, wearing a variety of robes, and took their seats at the front of the hall. The Pro Chancellor opened the ceremony and Professor John Shrimpton, head of Aeronautics and Astronautics, presented us each by name, starting with the Bachelors of Engineering (BEng), then Masters of Engineering (MEng), Masters of Science (MSc), Doctors of Engineering (EngD) and finally the Doctors of Philosophy (PhD). We were led down in small groups in advance of this, each standing to the side of the stage until our name was read out, then walking to the Pro Chancellor for the handshake and a brief few words of congratulations, before being guided out by chaperons. We were re-seated inside the hall, but in a different seat.
Once the last of the students had completed the ceremony the Pro Chancellor gave a speech, which she necessarily cut short due to the heat, before the faculty procession left the hall. With this the ceremony was complete and we made our way outside to congratulate each other and take pictures, then went to a buffet reception for lunch and refreshments.
Later we gathered with the faculty outside the physics building for a cohort photo. With this, the planned activities of the day were complete and it was time to say goodbye for one more time. Some of my coursemates have already found jobs; Jess is off to the European Space Agency; Marian is continuing on at Southampton to do a PhD; others are off to places like Qinetiq and Airbus. I found it a sad moment as I’ve been working with these people for the past four years, and I’m keen to maintain a connection with them in some way if I can.
Before I left I found the photographers and got some professional photographs of myself with my family, then turned in my robes. I knew that Connor, one of my friends from the skydiving club, would have been preparing for his ceremony about then and I was able to catch him for a brief goodbye before I left; then it was off to Dad’s car for the drive home.
Despite all the problems I’ve faced in my time at Southampton and how I feel about how it has gone, it was a proud moment and one I’m going to remember for a long time.
I have often felt like I am stuck inside a glass cage, looking out at the world and wanting join in but unable to do so. I want many of the same things as anyone else, but my condition creates an invisible barrier that tries to stop me before I can even leave the front door. I have striven hard to overcome this barrier with some success, particularly during the last two years of my degree at Southampton but, now that I have finished my degree and moved back to Somerset, that glass barrier has reasserted itself and is holding me back again.
It doesn’t help that I’m struggling to find things to do here in Somerset. In Southampton everything is closely connected: I lived only a few minutes from campus, a supermarket and a busy high street was only a few minutes more away and the city centre was a short drive or bus ride away. Now I’m back home in Somerset everything is at least 15 minutes away by car, and that’s assuming that I have somewhere to go (and something to do when I get there).
This barrier effect has cursed my life. There are so many things I had wanted to do that I have not been able to do, in particular at university where there were so many clubs and societies I wanted to join in with, but while I was provided with support in getting my degree I found that there was little room in this support for my extracurricular ambitions. Perhaps I need to acknowledge that I was facing far bigger personal challenges than most other students: I often forget just how hard it was to cope in the first year of university. Nevertheless, I was able to achieve some success in my final two years through the surfing and skydiving clubs, and that’s something I hope to continue, but I also want to broaden out, to try out more things like the things that I wanted to try at university but couldn’t. I’ve started to wonder what I might have tried out if I were still at Southampton, and whether there is any opportunity to try that here.
This transition I’m going through is proving to be hard work: emotionally draining, confusing, scary, and with an uncertain outcome. I’ve spent the past three days cooped up indoors with nowhere to go and it’s messing with my head. Tomorrow I’ve promised myself that I’ll at least try to get out to a café in town and I’m going to make sure that I don’t let myself get cooped up like that again, but I need something more to work towards. I’m reaching out to my friends for help: to keep me grounded, to keep a sense of connection and to suggest ideas for ways forward. I can beat this, but I can’t do it on my own.