Grad Talk: Football focus with Ceylon Hickman

Ceylon Hickman graduated from King’s College this summer, where she did an undergrad in Human, Social and Political Sciences. Less than a year out of Cambridge, her day-to-day has taken a bit of a turn, working in increasing women and girls’ participation in football. Here she talks about finding her feet in the professional world, the feminist sports podcast you need to listen to, and the joys of conversation at Cambridge.

Interview by Xanthe Fuller

So, what do you do now?

I’m currently the National Football Development Coordinator for Women and Girls’ football across Further Education. It’s a brand new position that’s a direct result of the increased FA investment into the women’s game, and part of their strategy to double participation, grow the workforce, and increase diversity by 2020.

I work for an organisation called AoC Sport, who are the FA’s sole Further Education partner. Our aim is to increase participation in football across colleges in the UK, whilst using football as a tool to allow young people to reach their potential and realise how beneficial football can be in all aspects of their life.

How did you get there?

I actually applied for the job with no belief that I’d even get shortlisted. I thought it was pitched for someone with way more experience in the industry than me: the fresh-faced graduate who was frightened by the prospect of the real word.

I was applying for lots of roles at the time and had actually woken up to three rejection emails on the morning of the Cambridge Open Days, where I then had to present to hundreds of parents and tell them how employable Cambridge students were. Fortunately, I was invited to interview at Wembley Stadium (I have horrible flashbacks of my car breaking down on the North Circular whilst I was en route), and knew I was in the right place when I faced an all female interview panel. I remember feeling so at ease throughout, and thankfully, received a call a few days later from my now line manager to offer me the job.

In terms of my experience prior, I’ve played football since I could walk and have held various positions in the different clubs I’ve been with. I grew up playing for Luton Town, and then the University Blues at Cambridge. Apart from that, I had little other experience when it came to the football industry. My role as President of King’s College Student Union equipped me with a wealth of transferrable skills, as well as the skills gained from working with young people through various Cambridge Access programmes.

A goal at Women's Football Varsity
Ceylon’s goal celebration at Women’s Football Varsity

Describe a typical day.

To be honest, since starting in September there really haven’t been many days that have been the same. There’s rarely a week when I’m in the office everyday as the job takes me all over the country. Just last week I was only in the office once. It was Girls’ Football Week, a national campaign to get more girls playing across Further and Higher Education. I went to Sunderland on Monday for a mega football festival at Sunderland College to launch the campaign, and then was at Wembley Stadium for a two-day team meeting with an overnight stay, and Thursday I was in the Midlands for meetings.

Most weeks consist of meetings with partners, such as The FA, Women In Sport, the Youth Sport Trust, as well getting out to college events and some admin downtime in the office. At the moment, I’m currently organising a two-day residential at St. George’s Park, the National Football Centre, for 25 Women’s and Girls’ Football Apprentices. That’s my big project this year, so putting everything in place ahead of their National Training is hectic at the moment.

What do you like about it?

Firstly, I love the team I work with. I think it’s really unique to work with a team of young professionals who are so passionate about what they do and are constantly motivated to improve the game and the people who participate in it. My line manager is extremely supportive and is as much about my development as an individual as she is concerned about achieving our team goals.

I’m also extremely happy that I get to work with young people. Throughout my time at Cambridge, I did a lot with young people as an Access Officer and Cambassador, and I knew that whatever I did after university had to involve working with young people.

How did your Cambridge experience prepare you for it?

As I said, I didn’t do much in terms of the practicalities of the job whilst at Cambridge. But what I’ve noticed in the role is that Cambridge equipped me with the skills to think critically. My colleagues have picked up on my different perspective and have told me it’s something to hang onto, and I think this comes from being surrounded by individuals who challenged each other daily for the past three years. I was at King’s, and for all of the hyperbolic left-wing narratives about the place, one of my favourite things about the college is that everyone’s always arguing. Whether you’re at dinner or in a supervision, you’ll have conversations that challenge what you initially held to be ferociously true, and leave those conversations questioning the opinions you thought you were most certain on. That’s probably the thing I’m most grateful for from my time at Cambridge, and what I’m noticing is what gives me a different perspective in the industry that I’m working in.

23660456_1749754168392768_420045565_oIt’s obviously early days, but do you miss Cambridge? If so, why?

I miss Cambridge for precisely that: the conversations. And with that, I miss my degree. I studied Human, Social and Political Sciences and maintain that the degree was the best thing about Cambridge. Recently I’ve been following the Decolonising the Curriculum movement from afar and have missed being in the middle of those sorts of movements where you’re encouraged to interrogate and dismantle the institution you’re operating in. It’s a unique environment and difficult to come across outside of an educational context.

What are your hopes for the next year?

Over the next year, I hope to have learnt a lot. It’s really refreshing to be in an environment where you’re own learning and development is so valued, as it’s so obvious that’s one of the areas Cambridge falls down in so heavily. I don’t think I was ever made to truly reflect on my own skills and attributes during my three years at Cambridge, so being encouraged to evaluate where I am, where I want to be and what I need to do to get there was initially quite daunting but now so valuable.

By the end of the month, I’ll have a network of young people working in their colleges to grow the women’s game. Over the next year, I’ll be working with this group of people to facilitate provision for women and girls’ to play football, whilst also developing the young people as leaders. I hope that by the end of the year we’ll have made a real difference not only to the numbers of girls and women playing nationally, but to the lives of the young people involved in the apprenticeship programme. Hopefully they’ll be equipped and empowered to take the next steps in their careers, wherever they want to go.

What’s your pipe dream? Be bold.

I’d love to run a charity that uses football to empower young people across the world. I really believe in the power of football as a vehicle to drive social change, whether that’s in terms of social mobility for talented young people, or as a device to empower girls and women. Someone once said to me ‘you can take anything away from a kid, but you can never take football’, and that’s always resonated with me. I’d love to build something around that.

Name a woman you look up to and why.

Shireen Ahmed is my favourite sports journalist. She’s an incredible Canadian woman who co-hosts a podcast called Burn It All Down, the feminist sports podcast you need. Discovering the podcast was a game-changer for me. As a woman growing up in a man’s game, where everything from the professional game to the media that covers it is so heavily gendered, finding Shireen Ahmed and Burn It All Down was a breath of fresh air. I’ve employed a new rule of limiting the amount of football-related content I consume that’s generated by white, straight, cis-gendered men and it’s been a great form of self-care! Shireen also writes about Islamic politics and always offers an intersectional approach to sport, the media and football more specifically. It’s important for me to constantly engage with this as a white-woman working in football, keep learning and interrogating and deconstructing the norms that have been established in football. Shireen Ahmed and the other Burn It All Down hosts are what I would have loved to listen to growing up, so the fact that girls and women can access that sort of discussion really pleases me. We just need more of it – there’s still a long way to go.

Ceylon and 'England’s greatest ever female footballer, Kelly Smith'
Ceylon and ‘England’s greatest ever female footballer, Kelly Smith’

Even though you only graduated last year, do you have any words of wisdom for students or recent graduates about to enter into the working world?

Chill out. Really don’t worry about what’s next. Enjoy your final year at university because it goes so quickly. I promised myself I wouldn’t start thinking about jobs until I’d graduated (partly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, partly because I was so busy with everything going on in final year.) There’s a lot of time in the summer after graduating to think about what’s next, so don’t waste time doing it when there’s so much to get out of being in Cambridge. Also, don’t work too hard. You won’t remember that time you stayed in the library till midnight.

If you’re interested to hear more about what it’s like to be a woman in the world of sport, head to our event on 24th November with Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh.

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