Aiden Tsen (any pronouns) was diagnosed with autism at 13 and started volunteering with the disability charity KEEN London three years later based on the result of a coin flip. After having dropped out of Oxford University due to developing long-COVID, this volunteering experience is ultimately the cornerstone for how they’ve been able to figure out what they want to do next.
I’m Aiden Tsen, I’m a 20-year-old Autistic, multiply LGBTQ+ Oxford dropout due to long-COVID. I’ve managed to pivot and since May I’ve worked as a freelance public speaker, writer and artist. I keep my own website and I’ve even spoken at a national conference and contributed to BBC Radio!
It’s true that I’m no longer a student – I’ve just begun the formal process to extricate myself from the University of Oxford. Despite having left before the end of 2020, I stayed enrolled because I was seriously considering returning. Then when I decided I didn’t want to, I decided to take advantage of as many student-specific opportunities as possible while I could, such as my internship with KEEN UK (one of Studenteer’s partner organisations!) and The Oxford Strategy Challenge.
However, the only reason why I believe I was able to recover from my Oxford ordeal or have anything to recover at all, is because of volunteering with a separate disability charity back home called KEEN London.
I received my autism diagnosis when I was 13 in 2014.
It was a relief: it meant I could access services and I knew there were others out there like me. It wasn’t a surprise to me either, since I was the one who pitched the idea to my parents a year before.
It also shackled me: I knew I would never understand most people and vice versa. I grew up knowing all the long-term outcome stats. One of many examples – we’re nearly 2.5 times less likely to be in any form of paid employment than the general population (32% vs 75.2%).
Time and again, people told me I couldn’t empathise with anyone else. Despite my supposed lack of social sensitivity, it eventually became true. I was a cold-hearted person who didn’t care about other people. Most of all though, I didn’t care about myself.
If I was going to die young anyway, I might as well act on my immediate feelings. I didn’t study as hard as I could have – luckily, everything worked out. If I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I didn’t write up a list of pros and cons. Instead, I’d flip a coin.
That’s exactly why I decided to start volunteering over getting a part-time job at 16.
One day at a session in 2017, I realised that I was actually quite good at volunteering with fellow disabled people. Better, even, than many typically developing adults with decades of professional and life experience on 16-year-old me, who’d never worked a day in his life.
Eventually, I realised this was due to my own lived experience of disability. I could empathise with the people the charity serves. It turned out that I could empathise with someone else.
That realisation changed me: I started to defrost and take more of an interest in others, including typically developing people. I’d even say that it saved me back then. If not for KEEN, I don’t know when or if I would have started to think about my future beyond the next day.
Four years later, as I was dealing with the fallout from having suspended my studies at Oxford, KEEN saved me once more.
Though I was deeply hurt and my mindset was frozen, I’d made a commitment to continue helping out at the sessions. And there was a vacant position as a Session Coordinator that hadn’t yet opened for applications. I didn’t think I could return to Oxford, and in the past, one of the Session Coordinators had told me she thought I’d be fantastic in the role.
I started to reach out to present and past employees asking for advice. Following said advice, I started learning new things for the first time in nearly six months, starting with the FutureLearn course Exploring Play. I began to thaw out again and consider my future properly this time.
Though it still stung, I got back in touch with the Oxford Careers Service. They gave me really thoughtful, helpful advice (including that I don’t have to come back) and pointed me in the direction of their charities page.
That’s how I first heard about Year Here.
Despite it being classed as a postgraduate programme in social enterprise, you don’t actually need a degree to apply. Even though I thought it was a long shot, I also thought it sounded cool, so I chose to send off an application.
I got through the initial video application phase. Then I got through the initial interview and first consulting exercise. And then I got through the final phase consisting of a group task, business case study, and final interview.
I really wasn’t expecting to get through to the first interview, let alone get an offer. The average offer holder is 29, with eight years of professional experience and a strong degree from a good university. I’m a far cry from all of those things. Before applying, I didn’t even know what a business case study was.
I’ve accepted my offer, which means that I’ll be doing a Master’s course without having an undergraduate degree. I’m not even past standard undergrad age: I turn 21 in January 2022, and if I’d stuck out my full Oxford degree, I’d have graduated in 2024! Absolutely wild.
It’s a bizarre path for sure. It’s perfect for someone like me.
In the end, I never did apply for that job with KEEN London – I got my Year Here offer before applications opened. However, that prospective opening is what led me to start recovering and moving again, and therefore what started the momentum I’ve currently got even before the programme starts as a public speaker and writer.
KEEN has saved me in so many ways, both as an Autistic person and then as someone with long-COVID. I don’t know what kind of person I’d be if that coin had landed on heads instead of tails. I suspect that person wouldn’t be here anymore.
However, I’m here and I plan to stay. I want to do more than simply exist: I want to create a world where no one else ever feels unwanted by the world in the same way that I did. To that end, I will do (almost) anything.
For the first time, I truly feel excited about my future, far more so than the day I received my Oxford offer. I will do everything I can to change our collective future as young people. Turns out I’m surprisingly greedy!
I really hope I’ve convinced you that volunteering really can change your life for the better, even (almost especially) if you don’t think it’s for someone like you. If you’ve enjoyed this piece and are interested in what I get up to, please do check out my other work on my website and consider subscribing at the bottom of the webpage! I want to reach and help as many people as possible, and I can’t do that without the support of amazing people such as yourself.
Regardless, thank you for reading, and big love 💖💜💙 [bisexual colour hearts]
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