This was the moment I had been waiting for, for so long. After being elected in March, I managed to whizz through semester two, and now I am finally standing as SUSU’s 21/22 VP of Education and Democracy.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew I wanted to get on with my manifesto as soon as possible. Unfortunately, SUSU had other ideas (for good reason). I was led on a two-week induction which has to be the most tiring period of my life, arguably more than the Digital Induction’s the BCoT Digital team and I led back during my time at BCoT. I was pretty much asleep by 3 pm and as soon as the workday finished at 5, I was trying to stay awake long enough to take my meds and wake up at a reasonable time the next day.
I met the rest of the Sabb team who I will admit I was cautious about. They’ve all graduated (except one) so my worry was I’d be the only one facing the consequences of this year. A rather pessimistic view but I am known to worry very much about the future, especially when it’ll impact me and the thousands of students I hope to protect this year and provide better opportunities for the following years. Luckily for me, this pessimistic view ended up being for nothing as listening to the Sabbs talk, I knew we all had the same goal: prioritising (buzzword, I know) the students and making sure their relationship with SUSU was better than how we found it. It made me happy hearing other Sabbs say, “well, what about the students?” and “we should get the student opinion” because it was refreshing to hear it from someone else after saying it for the past year. It was particularly reassuring to hear it from the other four as I knew I’d have a team this year, and it wouldn’t just be me against the world (or the uni, but the world sounds cooler).
I wasn’t able to get in any work on my manifesto for the first two weeks. We discussed it, talked about what would be a priority (obviously I said all of mine were a priority), and began to learn and understand the way of which SUSU worked, how it ran and our place as Sabbatical Officers.
The last two weeks have been much more fulfilling and made me feel like I was actually doing the role, rather than sitting in a historical students’ union lecture. I was able to get started on mapping out my manifesto, taking over the various social media accounts, and I even had my first student issue I had to support with! This also led to me dealing with feeling like I had to let down/disappoint students when things didn’t go to (my) plan, taking LinkedIn Learning courses to build my resilience and a lot of emotional rollercoasters where I wondered if I were suitable for the role.
However, with negativity, comes positivity. My manifesto has grown into a beautiful bucket plan, thanks to Microsoft Planner, and I feel more and more engaged with students as I use social media to understand their current needs and concerns. Although it upsets me that students are worried and stressed, I know I have to use this to fuel me to try to make things as easy for them as I can. Their feedback regarding next year is useful and allows me to include their opinions on plans for next year, and even just allowing them the space to discuss without me responding or getting involved makes me feel good – one person comments, another person gets an idea from it, and I write it all down and see how I can fix it, or even, make it a little easier to deal with.
There have been exciting moments. These moments I can’t talk about due to confidentiality. Being restricted is one of my biggest issues at the moment, and I’m constantly asking what I can and can’t share with students – basically, the exciting stuff I can’t share and anything I can share is just a vague statement with no personality or hope. It’s frustrating and all I want is to be transparent about things that are going on, but at the same time, I understand what could be the consequences of releasing information early, something going wrong and the students facing the negative effect of me being SUSU’s very own Tom Holland. So, to counter this, I’m just trying to be as open as I can be about my manifesto, I’m answering students as soon as they email me to reassure them that I’m on their side, and I’m making them a priority by updating them as soon as I can.
I am struggling though, as soon as a topic is brought up, I have to close down, and all students want is a reassurance that things are okay – something a vague, empty statement can’t give them.
So, I have to tell students to just trust me. But why should they? Last year I was a first-year Education student with no experience of an actual university life, who got fed up with her friends (rightly!) complaining about uni halls being a rip-off and got lucky with a petition. I attended Halls Forums at the request of students and complained to a point pretty much everyone at SUSU already knows me. But, again, pessimism at its finest. I was elected. Yeah, okay, only 11% of the student population voted… but that’s still 11% who trusted me enough to lead as their VP Education and Democracy. RON (reopen nominations) could have won. But RON didn’t win, I did. So I have to believe that that 11% of students do trust me, and I can’t let them stop trusting me, otherwise what’s the point of having representation?
For three days, I worked on my manifesto. I postponed meetings and declined one to ones with Ben (President). I had the time to work on my manifesto and that’s all I wanted to bring me out of the repetitive circle of training and feeling like I wasn’t fit for this role (I am a very emotional person, OK?). I wrote everything down, realised how ambitious they probably were, and wrote checklists for all of them. I also added other things that February Lottie didn’t even think about: academic integrity, accessible online learning (sorry) and visibility of the role (there will be more, I just haven’t found them yet). In those three days, I:
- Researched what other university students’ unions were doing about mental health, I wrote a list of things we could do and contacted Enabling Services
- Contacted Marketing about more giveaways and freebies to boost the sense of belonging at uni for next year
- Looked into Mental Health First Aid certification and decided who I wanted to be trained (residential staff, PATs)
- Chased up about a counselling text service that I asked for last year
- Met with Zemzem and Christopher from the Graduate Ambassador Scheme and alumni will now be running my Life Skills workshops
- Scheduled a meeting with Sonia (Director of Student Voice) and Kate (Head of Representation) with ten various points about things I am going to do but have no idea about how to do them
- Created a form about the role of PATs for students to fill out so we can identify how useful and visible they are
- Looked into Buddy Schemes and Peer Mentoring Schemes with Savanna (VP Welfare & Community)
- Scheduled more meetings than I probably even have time for, but I will make time for them.
There’s more, but you probably don’t care enough to read through what’s already there. I’m hoping I, and students then can start seeing the impact of the things I’m doing in the backend. It’s funny because I always thought I wanted a backend job, but I don’t. I want to be with the students, I want to be actively supporting them and ensuring their experience is the best it can be. I don’t want to be sat in an office in a back room aggressively typing emails on a computer, I want to meet with uni and SUSU staff and bring a student with me and get them to share their experiences and be with them, be for them, and be visible enough so all students know I am with them, and for them.
I am a month in and I’m happy. Things don’t always go the way I want, I have to keep secrets from students and my friends, but that’s okay. I’m learning, I’m building resilience and I’m making a change. I was told this was a thankless job and I wouldn’t see an impact, but I’ve been thanked (“thank you for taking this seriously, no one else is”) and I’ve seen an impact (more students feeling like they have a space to communicate and share their worries) and right now, that’s enough for me.
This month, I’ve had few successes but I have had time to really understand the role and get into it. I was told it would be slow to start with and I guess I didn’t quite believe everyone, but it definitely is. I’m planting seeds. Over the next year, those seeds will grow. The final week of July, I have been able to meet with SUSU and University staff, and here’s what we have achieved/confirmed/or are working on so far:
- Peer Mentoring and Buddy Schemes – something both Savanna and I want on a Faculty level
- All students have access to an online Blackboard Digital Induction module
- I have requested that I provide student feedback and my own experiences on developing accessible training materials on accessing and using digital tools for students in collaboration with iSolutions and their upcoming plans to make accessing online resources easier
- Course Representatives will be trained on the necessary digital tools (Blackboard, accessing 365) in order to support students
- Collated a list of useful ‘Life Skills’ workshops that Alumni from the Graduate Ambassador Scheme can deliver to students (if you have any suggestions, please get in touch)
- Created a survey to identify the role of a PAT and student understanding of the role, focus groups are also being considered
- I am now part of the Academic Integrity Network (alongside Ben, President) so I can support all students (specifically International students) with harsh and unnecessary action taken from accidental plagiarism (where students misunderstood, weren’t sure of the regulations, etc) and promote support over punishment
- I am working with University Staff and SUSU Staff to develop more opportunities for networking between Mature Students
- Discussed creating more giveaways/ freebies to encourage existing and new students to engage with SUSU online via social media and email
- I will be working closely with the Blackboard team, including improvements to Blackboard, Accessibility Ally and working to make online learning (where applicable) more accessible
- I have agreed to work with CHEP and attend the Education Programme Board which occurs every 6 weeks, and join the Curriculum Project and the Enhancing Academic Support & Delivery Project, specifically the Education For All (including decolonising the curriculum), Inclusive Education, Personalised Learning, Peer to Peer Interactions, and the Transitions workstreams
- Met with University Staff to discuss the Race Equality Charter and how SUSU can support with representation, decolonising the curriculum, and providing more training for staff to ensure inclusive practice
I have also been actively, and I will continue to do so, communicating with students over social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) to gain their views and perspectives on university-led changes.
I am very excited and grateful for the opportunity to have been elected as SUSU’s VP of Education and Democracy, and I can’t wait to see what we can achieve during the next eleven months.