Grad Talk with Julia: life beyond the bubble

In this week’s instalment of Grad Talk, we turn to recent Jesus graduate Julia Cabanas for some blue-skies thinking on careers and ambition. Taking a pause from her busy schedule of sketching and model-making, here she gives us the blueprint on life at an architecture firm, what she misses about Cambridge and what her hopes are for the future.

Interview by Kitty Grady

So, what do you do now?

I’m an architectural assistant at a young architects’ office in Highbury and Islington.

Describe a typical day.

I get to work at 10am. Usually there are team meetings in the office or via Skype with the Mumbai, Singapore and Amsterdam offices. Normally I work on a particular project for a couple of weeks. This has ranged from a small renovation on a local Victorian house to an entire campus masterplan on the other side of the world. Day-to-day tasks include hand-sketching, Photoshop collages, 3D modelling, model-making, detail drawing and compiling reports on InDesign. After a lunch break spent discussing the latest political blunders with my colleagues, it’s a solid few hours of design work. At 7.30pm, I leave the office – avoiding the London’s rush hour – and have a cosy night in.

What do you like about it?

Working in a small office means I get hands-on experience. I’m always up-to-date with the latest projects because the work often involves all hands on deck. As the office is international and multicultural I get to work with consultants from different design backgrounds, which enriches my overall understanding of the profession. Also, the directors are part time tutors at leading architectural schools, so meetings often have an academic or theoretical spin on them, which is always refreshing.

What do you dislike about it?

The hours are sometimes erratic, and I’ve had to reschedule or cancel my evening plans a few too many times. My office constantly enters architectural competitions, so the late nights and tight deadlines are accepted as the norm. It seems the undergrad practice of pulling all-nighters in the studio hasn’t quite finished.

Julia: “The architecture faculty felt like home, and Arcsoc was like a big family of open-minded people who all wanted to do something creative”

What do you miss about Cambridge?

Undergraduate life was busy and hectic but incredibly enjoyable. Everyone was doing something interesting and there was that great feeling that comes with being part of a student environment. I loved the comfort of belonging to a college and being surrounded by inspired and inspiring individuals. I can’t fault my education at Cambridge: I met important role models and learned far more than I would ever have suspected. The architecture faculty felt like home, and Arcsoc was like a big family of open-minded people who all wanted to do something creative. In general, I miss having friends nearby and living in a beautiful setting.

…and what do you not miss?

I don’t miss being ‘in the bubble’. The things that made Cambridge unique: extravagant May balls, the gowns and the glasses of champagne during supervisions (!) – were undeniably enjoyable, but are also the things that made it feel out of touch. I sometimes felt pressured to enjoy particular social events, accept outdated traditions and fit into a Cambridge mould. It’s difficult to explain, so let me just say that I felt uneasy with silver service and being called ‘ma’am’ by servers probably my age at formal dinners. I wouldn’t say it tarnished my undergraduate experience, but once the novelty wore off, I did start to feel cynical.

Did you know what you were going to do before you graduated?

Yes, in the sense that I knew that I wanted to work in architecture. But no, in the sense that I didn’t know what firm or how I would find a job. I wanted to see if architecture was really for me, but tried not to let that become my only option.

Julia (centre left): “Talk to tutors and ask them for advice and guidance about life beyond academia, and don’t be shy to ask for contacts and recommendations!”

What are your personal aims for 2017?

Besides my annual goals to paint more, write more and read more, I’d like figure out what to do for my masters. I’d also like to apply for a different job after summer so I can get a wider experience of architectural practice before diving back into academia. Beyond that, I’m going to keep entering architectural competitions with my university friends and keep collaborating with creative people and see where that takes me. Finally, I’m going to cram in as many holidays into this year as I possibly can.

What’s your pipe dream? Be bold.

I’d like to be one of the women that make up 21% of the qualified architects in the UK. That number is too low at the moment, and I’d like to do my part in changing that. On top of that, I’d like to start my own architecture firm, edit an arts magazine on the side, become a studio tutor, dabble in some research, publish several books, become a semi-famous artist and exhibit some artwork, travel frequently, build an impressive book collection, and design my own house to grow old and wise in. All of that, on top of having a happy familial and social life of course. You said be bold!

Name three women you look up to.

There’s a spoken word poet called Sarah Kay whose work has inspired me since secondary school. She makes everyday things sound extraordinary and never forgets to appreciate the small things. Then two Filipina fashion bloggers: Cassie Masangkay and Ricci Pamintuan, solely for their unapologetic wardrobes and attitudes. The women I find inspiring don’t necessarily have to be doing something ground-breaking. It’s encouraging enough to see relatable young women trailblazing and doing their own thing.

This is technically number four, but I have to mention my mum, for her resilience, warmth and ability to find a silver lining in every situation.

Any words of wisdom for undergrads apprehensive about job prospects?

Landing your dream job is a rare occurrence for twenty-somethings who have just left university. There will be pressure to find a job that ticks all the boxes on your list and there is a tendency to let that stop you from making decisions. My advice therefore, is to prepare yourself as best you can and unlock as many doors as possible while you’re still at university. Talk to tutors and ask them for advice and guidance about life beyond academia, and don’t be shy to ask for contacts and recommendations! Ask for help from those closest to you and exchange your plans with them, they will be invaluable when things get a bit daunting. Try not to worry too much about finding the correct route straight away: take a risk, jump head first into the deep end, and stay humble and open minded. You will do just fine!

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