Remembering back to my final year at Abertay, dissertation looming and study going well, I decided to bite the bullet, ignore my anxiety, and run for the Vice President of Abertay Student Association.
I had always been involved in some way with the Student Association either as a class representative, society president or executive officer. I met some great people who helped with my anxieties over public speaking and brought me out of my shell. I found a community where I felt I belonged, was supported and which I could turn to for advice. There were, of course, other opportunities too, which led me to find a voluntary role at the Circle in Dundee. This opened a wealth of extra training and skills to help with my future employability, along with a fantastic amount of local networking. All of this led me to stand.
I won the election and was thrilled I would be a Sabbatical Officer and had plans for what I was going to do. Boom! Covid19 strikes the UK, one of the worst pandemics seen in my lifetime hits, and we go into lockdown. The University goes online right in the middle of my dissertation.
Luckily, I got through it with support. However, I was now worried about how the pandemic would affect my manifesto plans and work. I started in 2020 and had my handover via zoom meetings; the Students' Association (SA) was in a bit of internal turmoil and adjusting. Everyone was pivoting to a digital model and online presence. I will say the SA can move slowly at times because decisions, unless operational, need approval and passing by students - as they should. We set about adjusting, attempting to set up a digital Freshers Week with events and hoping societies and students would be happy.
Freshers Week went well. We had some great events, from a comedy evening via the Laughter Lounge, a quiz and disco events. Our President even did a live cook-along show. All were well attended. The Societies Fayre was a bit of a let-down, as I could not get engagement for creating a digital event, no matter how many emails were sent. It was summer, and societies were not replying. We decided to wait until we could get engagement, then return to the drawing board to plan an event further into the semester when Covid restrictions relaxed.
The first semester began, and we found our calendars were suddenly full of online meetings. Introduction to University Court and Committees, our elections for the new community reps and division reps seemed to be the priority, calling for society Annual General Meeting's and answering queries around how to help societies hold virtual versions. The Chief Executive Officer and I had also examined the possibility of a partnership with an external company to enable society sponsorship opportunities and social events. We were at the point of drawing up agreements and signing when guidance changed again, venues closed, and it was all put on hold. This has been a repeating pattern of every time it looked to be improving, the rules restricted again. The Student President, Daniela, and I had been lucky enough to be offered a place on a Graduate Careers and Professional Development Programme course at Dundee University, a course offered to Dundee sabbaticals. This seemed a great opportunity that uses the work we do as evidence for this Continuous Professional Development type course, so we would not be taken away from our primary role as sabbaticals.
I will be honest; it was all new and exciting. However, it also felt strange and not real as the team were engaged but separated. There was no real feeling of belonging to the team that I had expected. The office banter, the camaraderie, and chats around the water cooler (to use that term) were all missing. Throughout this, Dani and I had a stack of things that needed attention; constitutional changes needed finalising and approved via court and trustees to be submitted as per charity law. There were papers on democratic reform to be written and a student partnership agreement, which had been neglected in recent years. We were told we are in an ELIR (Enhancement-led Institutional Review) year and had commitments around this, along with the various other committees and groups we were on, representing students, and the Race and Equality charter mark. Most of these were committees that the Vice President was not essential for or in which another voice would be more beneficial. They now have student reps on as this was a manifesto pledge to put the best people in positions rather than automatically a sabbatical officer. Nowhere did this work better than the Cyber Security meeting I was invited to on course development. However, I know zippo about this, so I asked the Ethical Hacking Society chair to attend, which proved massively beneficial.
We also attended SPARQS (Student Partnership in Quality Scotland) events with other student associations regarding covid measures and responding to ensure students were at the heart of University decisions. NUS Scotland (National Union of Students) had similar events; officers came together early on and helped the Scotland President lobby the government for more resources. There have been some fantastic wins regarding extra funding from the Scottish government directly related to Student campaigns and NUS Scotland lobbying. However, I must point out that Abertay has a shockingly bad habit of never acknowledging student lobbying for this extra funding, which I find seriously undermines student partnership's ethos. When students lobby and campaign for additional resources and support, the Institution brushes this effort aside and ignores it.
During this time, the team started daily meetings and weekly planning sessions to adapt as quickly as we could, should the guidelines allow. Daniela was going to CMT (University Covid Management Team), meetings and we had daily sessions to assess what it meant for us. We pushed for access to campus to be available once we went down to tier 3 and eventually got access briefly. We planned for Abertasty returning, and I battled for societies to hold events on campus. Sadly, this was unsuccessful as every time I approached senior management; they would agree this was important; however, the mid-level meetings' feeling was very different. The President and I attended meetings and faced opposition and attitudes that societies and the SA itself was not essential. Elley, Daniela and I were in the office, and it seemed great to be out of the house and around students and staff, even if restricted numbers. We had loads of free food and merchandise like masks and hand gel bottles with refill hand gel to give students and staff. Students were popping in and out, and we had tea, coffee and hot chocolate to offer with a chat. It was also great to have the ability to pop in and chat with the senior staff.
Then covid struck the student halls, and Dundee went into a bit of panic. It seemed the return to campus had brought issues of covid spreading throughout student halls. Abertay had its fair share. We had to again pivot to supporting these students and being at meetings daily to ensure they were supported properly. We were also trying to ensure the fair assessment policy stood again if needed and gained University clarity early on that this would stand. We arranged for food drop-offs, and we even had beer and pizza and other items delivered where needed. Dundee has been supportive and generous during covid. We even had councillors and local businesses reaching out to support and ensure students knew they had support where needed. We decided to employ a communications staff member as the web page and social media required more care during this period. We also hired students as social media ambassadors to enable content creation. This was needed as we had been trailing a new digital platform called Umii, a social media app to link students via interests, courses, and social activity. A sort of introductory app so people could meet others with similar interests and such was not as successful as it would be now we have the digital coordinator. However, we collated some great feedback and approached the University to see if this will be a project they will help fund to help create a digital community for next year's freshers.
As the covid situation went on, I had decided, as per recommendation from my doctor, to isolate myself as I have a few disabilities and underlying health conditions that worried me a little. However, working from home was ok and as all meetings where Zoom or Teams, it wasn't an issue. This year, class rep engagement was great, yet we struggled to get engagement to fill the community and division rep roles. We are still working on the representation side and post covid. I hope that more shout outs and physical campaigning highlight the roles and benefits to help fill them.
This first semester didn't all go to plan all of the time. There were a few occasions where I had to step back and say I messed up here. Luckily the CEO is and has been so supportive at these times to remind me that we are all human and make mistakes and that dealing with emails constantly without talking and seeing people leads to errors in communication. The context in which we see things can become distorted, so email etiquette is one thing I have had to work on, along with managing my mental health and my disabilities. Paranoia and anxiety are always factors in my world, and this is unseen by others at the best of times, but with digital working, it is another hurdle.
One of the most significant needs in this role is thick skin, and I would advise folk, don't bottle it up as I would have previously. The staff team have been great at supporting Daniela, me, and each other. Yes, there's banter and laughs, but a real support structure, which I feel has got me through a few occasions I have felt down and alone. Along with the failures came the wins, and we, although restricted via covid, have had some great events. Christmas saw us have Quizmas and disco along with a giveaway of nearly £700 to students in prizes and support. We had students stuck in Dundee we enabled some support for and ensured a wee token to make them aware we cared and was available for them over the festivities if needed.
Along with this, the Student Partnership Agreement is done and several other essential bits of work nearing completion with announcements coming semester 2. however, the biggest thing for me is the small wins for individuals. I cannot say here who and what; yet, dozens of students have come with issues where approaching the University has gained results. When individuals get the right decision and feel they have been helped, it feels that you're achieving what you're meant to be.
We are now in January 2021. While we had great Christmas events, the covid situation has again worsened, and we see another national lockdown, variant strains of the virus, and increased risk to younger people. Universities pivoted to a fully online model, and students are not to return to campus until April, at least for Abertay. I have worked from home for so long I genuinely have started to hate it and feel a real struggle at times with four kids, one severely disabled with learning difficulties, at home to deal with whilst in work, attending meetings and writing papers and inputs for everyday SA stuff. My partner is working as a key worker and here at times. However, I feel institutionalised in my room which is my office as well as my bedroom. Whilst I am in no way alone, staff and students are struggling along with loads in society, it sometimes feels like this is not going to end.
Along with others, I have up days and down days. It just recently started to feel more down than up. However, as a team, we push on. Dani and I are still attending daily meetings and working on digital events. We have refreshers and a Gameathon event due along with several student-led projects. The future can only get better, and elections are not far off; I may stand again as I feel I have only half accomplished the tasks I wanted.
Abertay Student Association.