Over halfway through my term as a VP and I am starting to reflect on what an insane opportunity it has been (mainly because elections are upon us and we are recruiting my replacement as we speak, terrifying). It has been an adventure to say the least; the words organised chaos or whirlwind could be more accurate but it’s been exciting none the less. I have been so honoured to be able to have this experience and the opportunities that have come with it are once in a lifetime, like the job itself really. I wanted to take some time to explain a little more about what I’ve been up to and why if you ever get the chance you should consider running to be a sabbatical officer.
Let’s start at a sensible place, the elections.
So your first challenge on the path to becoming an officer is to put yourself in front of all your fellow students and ask them to vote for you. Simple. Or if you are at all like me, then not so much. I am generally quite an anxious and nervous person and I’m the first to admit this, I still get nerves when talking in meetings and I often lack self confidence in formal or even informal settings. I had to push myself very much out of my comfort zone for this role but I have tried to do so for most of my life, with help from my mum of course, had to start somewhere.
The elections week is a time of very little sleep, constantly worrying someone else is doing more campaigning than you and running from place to place to talk to as many people as possible. Saying that, there is still a lot of support there for you, the Student Voice team in the SU realise how difficult it is on candidates and really do go the extra mile for everyone running.
I very much believe that the campaigning is much more stressful than the job but like any job it still has more challenging moments like talking to the Vice Chancellor, which can seem pretty daunting, or a campaign/event not going as you’d hoped.
Okay so we’re fast-forwarding ahead now, you’re in post and about to start. You more or less have an idea of the job but you still aren’t quite sure of the day to day work. Over summer you start off with a hand-over period from the sabb who was in the position you’ve now been elected into. There is lots of training about the SU and the uni and everyone’s favourite, team bonding! It’s a great few months of getting to grips with the job, the expectations on you, how you will work with the team, how you can get started on your campaigns, trips to other unions and what sort of meetings you will be expected to attend. I’d say make the most out of this time, it’s the most peaceful and least stressful time of all.
Summer is the perfect time to ask questions and to get a head-start on your manifesto, looking at how you can go about achieving it and who you will need to work with. Personally I tried to start as soon as possible with my manifesto point on getting breaks in lectures, but don’t worry about rushing it because you do have a whole year. I wrote a short research paper looking into other university policy’s on breaks, I read papers on why breaks are important and got quotes from students to really build the case. I had to take it to 4 different meetings for it finally to get approved so it was quite a long process but an amazing achievement that I ran around the office high-fiving everyone when the policy got accepted.
My other campaigns I started quite differently and not everything will require you to write up a full paper, some things can be solved from just a few conversations with the right people and that’s still a campaign. What I would say is important is checking back with students to see if the changes you want to make are still relevant and always look for feedback. I’ve tried to do that a little more this year through going out on the roof just talking to people, asking quick polls on social media and catching up with our course reps and school reps often.
If I am honest, I’d say at some points I felt like a bit of an imposter in my role because I wasn’t having a lot of face to face conversations with students and I quickly made steps to change that.
Where do I start with this one? Having the support of the team this year has been amazing. Clearly you don’t get to pick your team (which is actually what they get to do in Latvian and Lithuanian SUs, more on that later) but I would say there are benefits to not choosing. You get to learn what it could be like in a real working environment and you get a bunch of new friends, that includes staff too because we definitely can’t forget their support and encouragement.
One of the best things I have been able to do is set up the Climate Advisory Group with the SU President, Tilda Fraser. This is not something I would have felt was possible without the support from the team because you just don’t really realise how much influence you can have when you first start and it’s nice having people saying ‘yes we can do that’ most of the time.
Having 2 officers with previous experience was super helpful as often things don’t make sense especially at first. For someone to be there to answer any questions you might have just makes things seem less daunting even though no one expects you to know everything at the start anyway. Again, I can’t emphasise enough about the help you get from staff J
Overall, the people you work with are incredible, they are like your little support system always there to cheer you on and all they want is for you to succeed and it’s great. Everyone is always passionate to make a change for the better and to put students first and that’s inspiring in itself.
I’m one of those weird people who generally likes meetings, I like to be organised and I like when things are planned out in detail because that’s just how my brain works. Although, the long list of meetings I did have to attend was a little overwhelming, even for me. I spent a lot of my time trying to work out what was more important for me to attend and where I could have the greatest input because I seemed to be running from one place to the next, leaving little time to campaign or even talk to students about the issues I was supposed to be representing them on.
From January this year, I decided I would be more proactive in talking to students and getting them involved in things that were happening. I have started to ask quick questions on our course rep pages and have organised a networking session for reps, one per faculty, to actually hear about and discuss the common issues to look at what we can do together about it. I want to avoid getting isolated in my own little bubble and I want our reps to feel empowered because there is no way I could represent 15,000 plus students by myself. I am the first to admit that I don’t and couldn’t possibly know everything going on, even though I always think I should and sometimes I am expected to.
There are always more ways I could get students involved and I have previously gone up on the SU roof and spoken about sustainability which is something I am really passionate about. Having those face to face conversations are super useful and social media could never replace that, my plan now is to go up on the roof for as many campus markets because it is very easy to get stuck in the office or in meetings. My advice then, try and set aside times as often as possible for conversations, no matter what the topic is.
The Extra Bits
Funnily enough it’s not just meetings and campaigns. There is so much more and sometimes the extra bits are even better.
I can’t write this post without mentioning the once in a lifetime trip I got to go on to the Baltics and Finland. This job allowed me to take a trip that I never even imagined taking, not many people get this chance in their jobs and I could not be more grateful. If you want to read more about it I did a blog post about that too. The trip has led to several very interesting discussions about how we run things in UK SUs has made us think about our current representation systems. We have been asking ourselves how we could do better and that’s a really exciting conversation to be a part of.
Being a trustee and a governor
Another experience I would not get for another 10 years maybe is that chance to be on the SU’s Board of Trustees and the universities Board or Governors. Since both organisations are charities, both require a governing body that includes external individuals to help guide both the SU and the uni and ensure they are sustainable and meeting the needs of students.
I never truly appreciated the influence I could have here and the importance of the roles because it was never something I had even thought about but you get to know very top-level information. I got a better understanding of finances, strategies, recruitment processes, the influence of government policy and even Brexit on the uni and the SU. It did take me a little while to find my voice on these boards but I got there, still with my nerves, and I have been able to question a number of decisions being made.
Honestly, I could go on for days talking about all of the interesting things I’ve been able to do, like graduation speeches, CEO interview panels, declaring a climate emergency as a Union but I will try to keep it short.
To wrap it all up
How do I sum up the last 6 months of my life?
To be honest I have been known to scream or shout in the office, because sometimes you just need to. Like I said it’s been a whirlwind and there are so many highs but there will also be a few lows and that’s fine. I had to find ways to manage my stress and deal with the lows (the gym membership helps, specifically yoga classes). Something I am working on now is creating a calm space in the SU because sometimes you just need to get away from everything, as students and staff.
Right now I am trying to get as much done as I can before I leave, running my last few campaigns and trying to make sure things I have changed remain in place once I leave.
Now, all I can hope for now is an incredibly passionate and driven incoming officer team.