How encouraging Student Engagement is key to the University experience

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We sat down with Dylan Wilson, former VP Education at Art’s Student Union, to get his take on how to build engagement and awareness with students during the COVID pandemic.

What was your experience like as an education officer?

I campaigned in February of 2020, just before lockdown. Suddenly, everyone’s priorities changed. My campaign had focused on improving the courses, sustainability, diversity, and decolonising the curriculum, but in reality, it was a very reactive year.

Every other week there would be a new COVID restriction, so we’d consider how this affected students, and how the university needed to respond. I was able to get to some of my campaign goals later in my year but it was difficult, especially being online.

We did have to take a lot of initiative, but you’re given the power to do that in a Student Union.

What would you say was the biggest challenge?

For me, it was most challenging to ask for big things from the Union. Initially, I was scared to change things. I assumed that the way organisations work is that you have a deficit and a surplus and financial goals. I didn’t understand until later that the university has an organisational purpose, which is to respect the needs of students. There is a lot more leeway to focus on that. Understanding that made the process quite a bit easier.

What helped you to overcome this challenge?

I was encouraged by my fellow Student Union staff, definitely. They told me “you’ve got to make the university fair” and “you’ve got to be that badass activist.”

I approached it less from the activist side and more like a Union debating policy area. One of the best things you can do as a sab (sabbatical officer) is to connect areas of the University that previously weren’t connected. Often, they’re doing a lot of work already but don’t know what each other’s doing, or how to work together. 

The bureaucracy was also hugely challenging. It’s so slow and demotivating, because of how long everything takes. You only have a year, potentially two, to do everything you want to. Everyone says it’s not enough time, and it’s not.

What would you advise current sabbatical officers in a situation where things go too slowly to not get frustrated?

Understand what you can’t do and manage expectations. You can’t achieve everything in the short time that you have. You’ll be continuing projects from other sabbatical officers (sabs). That’s why I advise not just the sabs, but also the Union to have a really smooth handover process and to encourage communication between previous and current sabs. It lets us keep going.

Go to all the training the Union gives you. I studied animation at an arts university. I had no idea about finance, balance sheets, or the administration work that you have in a lot of office spaces. That’s really useful for later. 

Definitely listen to the people around you. They’re people who’ve been there for a while and have interesting ideas. They might expect you to want to be self-directed but sometimes they’ve got it sorted and all you need to do is represent that.

I was told early on that if a student asks you to meet one on one, you should always say yes, even if you’re swamped. Always make time because you’ll get to know what it’s really like for them, and you can build a real picture of what’s going on.

Understanding students’ experiences really are key if you want to represent them. How else did you go about understanding what they were dealing with?

Lots of ways. Surveys are helpful, but you’ll only hear from people who are already engaged. The benefit of surveys is that you can back up your opinions with research. We did a Housing and Community Survey, which the university keeps using. The University uses a lot of work that the Union does, because they’re starting to realise that it is good work.

I’ve also been in a lot of meetings with student activist groups. While we’re online, it’s difficult, but just take up any offer. There’s often a feeling that the University is out of touch and doesn’t know what students want, but students aren’t engaged enough to tell them. We can step in and do that.

You talked about wanting to improve student engagement. How did you work on that?

We used the Pyramid of Engagement. The idea is that you have lots of things at the bottom that will engage students and you can then bring them up. We have a bar and a few cafes, physical places where students can learn about the Union just by being there. 

If they engage there, this brings them up to the next level. They might join a society or sports club. Then they talk to teams in the Union and that can sometimes connect them to us.

As people move up the pyramid, they’re more connected. We make sure that there are as many connection points as possible, to make it easy for students to move up. 

Being online, we don’t have those spaces. We just had email and social media. So that normal kind of structure has had to be relearned this year. And it is clunky. It isn’t perfect, but we’re trying.

A lot of that is about building relationships with students. Do you have any advice for how to go about that?

Initially, I tried to address everyone’s concerns and be representative across the board. I found that, when you do that, you seem less genuine and less focused

Better advice was to always meet students if they ask. If they have an issue you can personally take it up. Sometimes it’s not quite within your remit, but take the initiative to be the person who’s pushing it forward. 

Building a good relationship with students is tricky, but you’ll do it. Not always to the extent that you might want to, but you can make time and address individual concerns.

And how about building awareness among students?

Take action and be vocal about what you’re doing. It may seem like tooting your own horn, but that’s what you’re supposed to do in this job. 

Making change that affects students directly is one of the best things you can do with this job. If you’re just giving opinions on committees and so on, it does affect the student experience but you don’t feel you’re making real change. That can be quite demotivating.

Finally, what advice would you give to the newly elected sabbatical officers?

Listen to your predecessors. They know a lot about your role and the current environment because they’ve spent the last couple of years learning about it. Also, rely on support from your Union, because they’re there to do a lot of the work. 

Remember your training, but learning doesn’t end with induction. You’ll continue learning throughout the year and give yourself time and space to build on that.

Be persistent. If you have a project that you want to work on and you haven’t heard anything back, email them again. I made the mistake of assuming that nothing was going to happen on a project. Later in the year, I found out that I could have been doing a lot. That’s something I regret.

One really important thing I remember being told is that my main job is to have an opinion and to represent students. So if I spent too much of my time on projects, I wouldn’t have time to focus on my core job.

Key takeaways

  • Don’t assume that you can’t change things. You have more power than you realise.
  • Try to have a really thorough handover.
  • Make time to meet any student who wants to meet one-on-one.
  • Focus on your core job, which is having an opinion and representing students.

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