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Simon Blake OBE (BA 1995) – my message to the Class of 2018

29 August 2018

In mid-July, former chief executive of the National Union of Students Simon Blake OBE (BA 1995) spoke to graduates of the Schools of History, Archeology and Religion, and Physics and Astronomy. Since then he has agreed to take on a new role with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, and during his graduation address he touched upon his career journey, plans gone awry, and taking joy in the unexpected.

23 years ago I was sat where you are feeling giddy with excitement and slightly surprised to see my house mate walk into the ceremony just as it was about to start. She had convinced someone on the door that she was my sister and that my parents who were already inside had her ticket. I am sure security is tighter today!

I hope you have those same giddy feelings that we had. Congratulations on your achievements. You deserve to be proud. And as a Cardiff alum I am proud of you all.

To be honest, I was stunned to be graduating at all. I was the first in my family to go to University and it went too quick to really take it in at the time. It was a bit of a dream. Graduation day was exciting. Both an ending and a new beginning. After three years of study, I had a pretty good plan. While my housemates were staying in Glynrhondda Street until our contact ran out, I was travelling to America, in search of love.

Yup; I sensibly used the remainder of my overdraft and some begged money from my parents to pursue one of those high drama, on and off love affairs which can happen at Uni. Some of you will know the ones. So this was my plan:

A couple of months in America then I would come back, move in with a friend, get a job for a year, pay off some debts, save some money and then start training to be an educational psychologist.

As often with the best made plans things didn’t quite work out.

My friend fell in love and moved in with their partner. I came back to Cardiff without love, with nowhere to live and no one to live with. I got a job in a pub. I couldn’t pay off a single penny of debt. I didn’t save any money and I didn’t train to be an educational psychologist. I am still not an educational psychologist!

My plan didn’t pan out, but my time at University in this wonderful city, my errant trip to America and the 23 years since has taught me this: Life is an adventure if you make it so. Treat it as one, and you will be happy. I never imagined my career would take the twists and turns it has leading me to my current role as Chief Executive of National Union of Students. Embrace uncertainty. It is the unexpected which brings pleasure.

It was my time here at Cardiff University that set me up to grow, learn and face into the challenges and opportunities that come my way and to have the confidence to embark on my adventure as it unravels. So what have I learnt about life adventures; You fully live them if you are your true self – for me that was learning to love and be loved as a gay man. Kindness and care are absolutely essential: Three years ago my brother died unexpectedly. It was the kindness of others that got me through unimaginable grief – the touch of a hand, the text, the hug, the card or the question – what can I do?

Whatever you go on to do, and whatever else you remember or forget about this speech – please remember this: none of us are ever too important to be kind to others.

Adventures require mistakes. Go make lots of them. Learn from them. Take responsibility if you hurt people along the way, but a life without mistakes is not a life worth living. The highs will be magnificent and the lows will test you and demand inner strength. Take opportunities that comes your way. Seek them out. Take risks. Ask for help. Find people you look up to and ask for advice. Volunteer. Pay forward. Pay back. Elevate others. And never lose the love of learning that I hope you will have found at Cardiff.

Life comes at you fast; but adventures are not just for twenty somethings! At 30 I still hadn’t fulfilled my dream of travelling in Australia so I took two months off work and went. Not quite a gap year but AMAZING. And just 6 weeks ago – aged 44 -I fulfilled a life-long passion, I did my first ever British Eventing one day event. A childhood dream done at last. Both felt so damn good.

When I graduated my parents were only about 5 years older than I am now. And I thought they were really freaking old to be honest. I accept some of you will be looking at me and thinking that I too am really old. Thank you! I don’t feel it. But then we don’t know when we should feel old. Andrew, my brother was 45 when he died. I often wonder how he would have lived his life – if he would have choreographed it differently – if he had known he was going to die so young.

So my best advice that I try to live by is this; Live each day as if it is your last. Not with proper careless abandon – that isn’t sensible or sustainable – but with excitement, care and love for yourselves, your family and your friends.

In just a few minutes you start your post-graduation adventure. Go well and please leave ‘sticky Cardiff University fingerprints’ on everything you touch. Use your privilege and keep making the world just that bit better than you found it. I wish for you all a life of intense curiosity, love and friendship. An adventure that brings you thrills and happiness. Go live it.