Category Archives: Students

A quick note on NUS conference and self-care

selfcare

If you’re at NUS conference over the next few days, or know anyone who is there, please remember this: conference is really intense: it drains you emotionally and physically, you’re bombarded by campaign supporters, political parties, factions, fringe meetings from the moment you arrive. Conference floor is exhausting, as well as exhilarating. Debates, whilst largely stimulating and insightful, can often descend into petty name-calling and be (sometimes intentionally) racist, homo/bi/transphobic, classist, sexist and ableist. People underestimate the impact those kind of things have on others, and whilst folks are always eager to hop up to the megaphone and call others out on their bullshit, the damage has been done – to both conference hacks and conference newbies.

I’m only saying this to make a point: when you’re at conference, practise self-care.

My experiences at NUS conferences were some of the best moments of my time as a student officer, but they wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t practiced self care, which is a difficult thing to do. If you need to take ten minutes off conference floor, if you say that you need to go home rather than attending an election party then DO IT and do not feel guilty! It is far more important for you to look after your own health and mental well-being for a few minutes, rather than sacrificing them for the whole of conference. Respect everyone’s access needs, support each other, stay hydrated, eat, SLEEP (I’m looking at you Vicki Baars and Colum McGuire!), take time out if you need. Your impact on conference will be all the better for it.

Finally, it’s often really easy to direct your anger at the people at the podium, or on the stage, or behind the scenes at NUS, or at each other. Just remember that there is a difference between holding someone to account and holding someone hostage for something that they did or didn’t do. I have disagreed with a lot of people at conference – but treating them like crap isn’t a productive way to unite a movement and I really hope folks at conference remember that every delegate – whether an NUS officer, sabb or student – is human. If you criticise someone, be productive about it. Ask yourself, “How can we move forward from this? How can I challenge this appropriately in a way that will make a difference? How can I support this movement?”. I’ve been guilty in the past of getting sucked into rhetoric about factions (I think everyone remotely involved in NUS has!) but it’s more valuable, in some cases, to build bridges where there is common ground to be shared. No one agrees on everything, but sometimes you will agree on something, and that’s valuable. Don’t forget that.

Although I’m no longer in the student movement (I’m still a student, but a full-time teacher!) I am invested in the power that conference has, because I’ve seen how activists change and shape each other over the course of a few days. That’s pretty powerful. Take care of each other and that power will be used to shape the future of education.

(cross-posted on my facebook account)

And now the end is here…Reflections on my time as a student officer

I can’t remember when I started caring about students – that is to say, students as students. In my first year at Warwick, most of my time was spent with Warwick Lacrosse and RAG, and enjoying my degree. In the blink of an eye, it was second year and I found myself on the other side of the world in California for my year abroad. Upon my return to Warwick I was elected to the Warwick Pride exec, went to my first NUS LGBT conference and threw myself into my work at the Arts Centre and my degree. I had a great three years, and my time abroad, during the Prop 8 saga, definitely politicised me in terms of LGBT issues. But still, that was my activist base, not a Student Union.

I guess things changed when I remained at Warwick to do my MA. I was a freshers’ supervisor, which understandably involved spending a fair amount of time with SU staff, and promoting the SU. I think this was when things started to shift towards my Union involvement. I was also on Union council this year, as LGBTUA+ officer in the Union. And then of course, the tuition fee rise was proposed and the HE world exploded with anger. If I had to pinpoint one thing that got me into student politics and representation, that was probably it, but it’s not as simple as that.

It’s my last day in office today. A couple of weeks ago I was looking through photos of freshers, remembering the exhaustion and sheer joy of the sabb team greeting the new intake of students last October. A very small part of me wishes I could go back and do it again. Do it better, do it differently (some of it). A much larger part of me wouldn’t change a thing. And the rest of me is tired, and can’t wait to get to the pub (well, sports ball for tonight!)

I’ve said it before, many times, and I’ll say it again: this job is the best job in the world. I know there’s no concrete way of truly knowing that. I’m starting my teacher training on Monday, the job I’ve wanted to do since I was 9 years old and that I hope to spend the rest of my life doing. But I still say this: being a sabbatical officer is the best job in the world. Watching students develop themselves, contribute to education and their community and society – and knowing that you’ve been a part of that, is absolutely mindblowing. The pace at which students are moving and shaking is phenomenal – sometimes I sit back and wonder how the hell do they do it? It’s a pleasure to support students like that and see them leave at the end of three, four or five years a totally different human than when they first arrived on campus.

Of course, it’s not all like that. I’ve cried my eyes out, I’ve been sent spiteful and anonymous emails telling me that I’m not fit to do my job, witnessed my fellow officers in other unions be bombarded by smear campaigns and sexism. As a team, we’ve dealt with the horror of Bacardigate, students generally complaining/moaning about what we do, and we’ve spent quite a lot of time simply sitting together asking what the hell is going to happen to the Higher Education sector, which we all care about so much. We’ve put up with people saying that our jobs aren’t “proper jobs”. To all those people I say: come and spend a week in the office doing what we do. I doubt you’d last a day with that attitude. What we do is vitally important, and very difficult, and putting up with people’s idiocy and spitefulness is totally worth it, so you can bite me.

I’m so lucky. I’ve had a job that I love, wholeheartedly and irrationally. It may have been for less than a year, but how many people can say that they look forward to coming into work every single morning? How many people get to work with some of the most passionate students, the most dedicated activists and officers, the most patient and capable staff, and see their combined efforts improving the lives of people day by day? How many people get to be part of a movement? I’m one of the lucky ones. This job has made me determined that I will always work for improvement and change, that I will always do what I love and trust my gut instinct, that I will stand up for what I believe in. It has given me so much more than I ever thought it would.

I’m not going to talk about what I’m proudest of, or what I wished I’d done better. The long and short of it is, I’m damn proud of everything I’ve done this year – and of course I could always be better. But people come and go, things change –that’s the nature of the student movement. If I helped one student this year, that’s enough – and I know I’ve helped many more. At grad ball last night, I was able to look around the room and think to myself, the SU has made an impact on your University life. Whether you know it or not, it has. That’s enough. Knowing we’ve helped is enough.

I don’t have time to thank everyone I need to. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll probably send cards and emails to the people I need to. I like to think I’ve thanked everyone as the year has gone by, that I’ve let them know how much they have done. But just in case I’m going to list a few people here – this list is not exhaustive!

Firstly, Warwick Pride. My favourite society on campus who have gone from strength to strength over the last few years, who remain my safe haven to which I can always return and feel loved and accepted. I am incredibly proud of you and owe you more than I can put into words. Who would have thought that when I arrived at Uni, barely out in 2007, that I would end up a passionate and proud LGBT activist? Couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you. (ps. looking forward to Bows tomorrow night!)

Secondly, the Union staff. The Senior Management team have supported me so much this year and been very patient with me, and work so hard for students, it has been a real pleasure to work alongside you. And to the Advice Centre Staff – Meena, Sue, Ken, for doing exceptional work for students that is rarely easy – you are all diamonds. David, I would not have got through this year without you and I am going to miss you and our daily chats so very much. The SU owes you a huge debt. And to JC, our wonderful CEO – I honestly don’t know how you do what you do but we owe you big time. Thanks for being a brilliant mentor this year and for putting up with all my moaning! And EVERYONE else who works for the Union in any way – you’re all wonderful, thank you for everything you do.

Thirdly, the Student Support Team at the University who do an incredibly difficult job under huge amounts of pressure and have been a great support to me this year. I could thank lots of people at the University individually but this team deserves special mention.

Fourthly, everyone I’ve met during my time in the National Student Movement – that’s a LOT of people! Regardless of whether or not we agree politically, the movement is strong because of the passion and dedication of the people involved. NUS is vitally important despite its flaws and the team for next year has a real opportunity to set the agenda for the future of HE and FE. Don’t let us down!

Particular thanks to the NUS LGBT campaign, my political stomping ground, especially to the committee of 2011-12, working with you gave me some of my best times in the student movement, and marching with you is a privilege. You’re the best part of NUS and don’t you forget it! J And to my #tresamaze and #phenom welfare counterparts at other Unions around the country – thanks for all the support and advice and welfare bants. You’re all excellent. I won’t miss jiscmail even a tiny little bit.

Finally, I want to thank the rest of the sabb team. It hasn’t been an easy year and we haven’t always got on, but the work we’ve done, the relationships we’ve built and the fun we’ve had outweigh the bad times by a heck of a lot. I genuinely think you are all amazing and I’m so glad I got to work with you this year – can’t even begin to explain how much I will miss our general banter (also known as our weekly meeting) or our pub times. I don’t think a lot of students appreciate exactly how much you do for them but you do it anyway, and that’s pretty inspiring. I’m sorry I won’t be around for handover (gutted that I’m going to miss the “scenario session” – next year’s team are in for a real treat!) but I know you’ll do an excellent job of preparing the incoming sabbs for the challenges ahead. Sports ball tonight is going to be cracking, and I’ll be on the piazza at midnight for the key ceremony on July 31st and then I’ll get emotional about you all individually. Bring popcorn and Kleenex.

On that note, I’m going to force myself to stop. I’ll say thank you again to every single person who has made this year the best first job that I could have ever hoped for, and leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Margaret Mead which has kept me going, and will keep me going as I enter the world of Teach First on Monday:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”

First posted on my work blog, at http://www.warwicksu.com/blogs/blog/izzyjohn/2012/06/22/And-now-the-end-is-hereMy-last-day-in-the-office/

A letter to my home MP, two days before the vote on higher tuition fees

Dear Philip Hammond,

I grew up in your constituency, I've lived in Weybridge since I was
born, if you look at my address you'll probably recognise it as a
pretty privileged area, and indeed I've been incredibly lucky in my
life - I attended private school from the age of two, including one of
the best (and most expensive) boarding schools in the country. I
finished my undergraduate degree in English & American literature last
year at Warwick University and am currently studying for a masters,
which my parents are funding.

It's funny, because when I talk about student debt, a lot of people
write me off, saying because I come from a privileged background I
shouldn't concern myself with such issues. Indeed, the amount of debt I
am in is equivalent to one year of my high school fees. Most people
imagine that I can pay off this debt in a blink of an eye, because my
parents earn a decent amount. 

That couldn't be further from the truth. I fully intend to pay off
every penny of my debt myself; and I intend to pay back my parents for
my tuition fees this year, which are £4700. I also work part-time in
order to support myself. But if I'm being honest, I'm terrified. I'm
paying these loans back myself out of pride and because I don't want to
take any more from my parents who have already been so supportive, even
though I know I could probably ask for leniency from them. And I don't
want to move back home after I graduate, back to the comfort of
upper-middle class suburbia. That's not why I went to university, I
want to get a job and be independent. But until I pay back these debts,
I will never be independent. 

The point I want to make is this: there are thousands of kids who
aren't as lucky as I am, who haven't had the best education money can
buy, because their parents can't afford it. When I was in school, I
volunteered with an outreach programme, working with young girls who
were seriously bright but disadvantaged. They all spoke with such hope
about how badly they wanted to go to university. One girl said that her
mum told her that the furthest she would ever get in life was working
as a cashier at Morrisons. This was five years ago, and we were able to
tell these girls that it was going to be ok, that they could go to
university because university was a place for people from all walks of
life, and it didn't matter if they were rich or posh, they just had to
be commmitted in passionate.

Those girls will be 15 and 16 now, and I'm so, so angry, because I feel
like everything we told them was a lie. Because £9000 isn't a remotely
fathomable number to these girls, whose families are on benefits and
living on a shoe string. It's enough to put them off, regardless of
what the government is saying about social mobility and oppurtunities
for all. If I had known that I was going to pay £9000 a year for my
education at university level, I probably still would have gone, but it
would still have been a difficult decision, despite my privilege. For
kids who have had fewer chances in life, higher education is no longer
an option. It will simply be too expensive.

I could go on, but the vote is on thursday and I really need to
convince you now to vote against the rise in fees. Two Conservative MPs
have already said that they will stand against the proposals and this
is admirable. Please, for the sake of your constituents who don't live
in the beautiful suburbs where I am lucky to have been raised, for the
kids who lived in flats and council housing and aspire to a life
outside of a supermarket, please please take a stand against the
proposal to raise tuition fees.

I would like to request a personal meeting with you on thursday in
Portcullis house and would appreciate your response on this matter as
soon as possible.