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Insights on how to excel as a Student Union President

Silvia Petkova

Silvia Petkova

We had the pleasure of interviewing Chuchu Nwagu from Roehampton University. He shared some of his personal experience and views on student representation. We discussed the current methods of collecting feedback and getting universities to listen.

Introducing our Interviewees

Chuchu Nwagu is a former Students’ Union President and Vice President of Community and Welfare. He has a passion for making a lasting change in students’ lives. This has later led him to become a Student Voice Coordinator for the University of West London.

Why did you decide to become a Student’s Union president?

Chuchu: I was a Vice President already. I was passionate about mental health and creating safe spaces for BAME students. I wanted to change policy and make sure both were ingrained in the fabric of the university. To get that done I decided to go for president.

 

But it started as a journey for me. When I was a student, going to the Students’ Union did not feel like there was a place for me. After speaking to many different students, I realized that the Students’ Union didn’t always cater to everyone. It means that something needs to break the cycle. You need to be the person who creates that change.

 

I would like to think I gave students hope and a real message that things will change. I always believed in making a lasting impact that would affect students 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line. I realized that I needed to be run by people because it is the only way I can secure a better future for my students.

 

What was your experience as a SU president?

Chuchu: You never understand what it is to be a student union president (until you become one). When you’re in the role yourself, there is such an added pressure. You are responsible for all students and having to advocate for everybody.

 

I had to adapt the way I was as an individual. The Student Union at that time was going through a lot of changes. I was the only black officer in that year as well. There was a lot of pressure on me from the organization but also from students. I think students had never, at least in their time, seen a black Student Union president. There was this ‘Obama feeling’ but for them it was amazing! But the expectations that came with that were a bit overwhelming to me. There were always people coming to me to seek my advice around black issues. It did become a full-time job.

 

It was challenging, but I would never take that experience back. I still believe it’s one of the best things I will ever do in life. And I learned so much from that period – so much about myself, the way I work, the kind of leader I am. I learned how to understand and work with people but also so much in the sense of how business works. It helped me understand everything that I am doing now in my life. So it was stressful but it was worthwhile.

 

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Chuchu: Managing people’s expectations. I always knew when I got elected that students liked me. But what I didn’t understand is the level of how much people regard me (when it comes to making a decision). If I upset a student or I have a disagreement, it carries so much weight with being the President. And people feel so upset by the Students’ Union president, not Chuchu. That was the hardest thing – I am not somebody that likes to upset people. It’s not in my nature. I know that as leaders we must empower and uplift people. Make them feel that they can be successful and realize their potential. Leaders do not destroy people’s confidence and make them feel belittled. Also, I learned what to expect of other people as well. I am a big advocate for representation and creating spaces for all students – whether it’s LGBT, Muslim, BAME. I needed to make sure that these voices that nobody listened to before, are now heard. And I fought for that. So for me, it was managing what other people wanted.

 

Sometimes it can be quite lonely as you do a lot by yourself. You don’t always have the support of the university, staff members, or the Students’ Union. But then I came to realize that if it impacts one student, he or she leaves feeling empowered. And then they go on to be a fantastic leader or get a successful career, then actually, I’ve done a good job. They can go and share those skills with other students and make them feel empowered. The reason why we do those things is to create a societal change, not only in the university but in the world. We can empower students to be champions of diversity representation and good living in general. They can go and help support other people, so we now have something impactful in the long run as well.

So it remained a challenge but I learned to overcome it. Sometimes it’s better not to think about impacting or changing the whole world. Let’s start with a small group of people and empower them to help change the world as well. So little by little.

 

How did you deal with managing student expectations?

Chuchu: I was very real and open with them from the start. When I ran for president, my motto was around WE. So it’s like – your union, your Roehampton, and your voice. And I always said: ‘This is YOU’. You have control here, you will let me work with you. You guide my work and if you don’t tell me what you want me to do, then I’m not doing what you expect me to do. This needs to be a two-way partnership.

I need to make sure that I’m working for students – they need to be at the heart of everything I do. From the very start, I wrote my manifesto in support of students. I went out to them and asked them what they wanted.

But on a personal level, there was a case putting boundaries in place. I had to show students that as much as I am there for them, I’m also a staff member, and I’m also a person. They have me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. It sometimes felt like they are at your disposal, or you are at theirs. As much as you are meant to empower, and please people, you also need to be firm. So if you put those boundaries here, people know not to expect anything outside of the boundary. It is having an understanding that I will support you up to this point. It was hard for a couple of months. You learn as you go along – you try one thing, if it doesn’t work, you try another.

How did you get universities to listen?

Chuchu: The Student voice is the most important voice around the table. Without the students, the university couldn’t run. It’s understanding the power dynamic. When you’re invited to a meeting, as a Student Union officer, you are one of the most important people. Universities would like to be seen to some extent incorporating the students’ feedback. So they will invite you around the table but they may not listen to you. The trick is, how do you get them to listen? For me, it was always understanding who the key players are. Where do we start? How do we get the support? And it had to start with the students in support of us.

The more data you can take to the university, the better. It adds that extra weight because it is having 100 students say they want this, with their voices attached to it. And every single voice is different. It helped shape my argument better. So now when I went to the University, I had a better chance of success. It is a whole co-partnership with students’ feedback and giving them ownership of it. We’re working with them to create that change and close the feedback loop.

We also had a Student Senate. It was a meeting held by the Vice-Chancellor with all his senior team and a large group of students. It was one of the only meetings in the university where the students are the majority. So we go into this meeting united and saying that this is how we wanted to go. We also researched who in the university is passionate about the particular subject. Who from the staff can say something around the table, so people will listen and agree with it. We wanted their support because it carried that weight.

What else did you learn from that process?

Chuchu: Sometimes it is about using power dynamics. It’s like a game of chess. Know the key players on that board and understand who you can work with to get the best outcome for the students. Every staff member wants to be seen to be doing something fantastic for students. So how do you make sure that you support their work? You’re saying: ‘We will support you to make sure that your work is fantastic.’ At the end of the day, other people might get all the glory, even though you’ve done the majority of work.

When I was Vice President I didn’t know how to play the room and sometimes had to make sure that I was most dominant. Some days I would go and ask you for students’ feedback. And I would write on a massive document. University listened to students more than they listened to the student union president. But you need to go in with data and ways that will be beneficial to the university. You have to present them with why. It’s using language that universities want to hear. Universities do a lot of work around widening participation. So how can we make sure that to the university, it seems like they can apply it to everyone? You’re more likely to get the universities to agree with an idea if they believe in it. So always try and find a way to link what you want to what the University needs. Understand how you can align your work with strategic objectives from the university.

It’s all about understanding how to play the game.

Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

Chuchu: I was thinking about this recently. If I can go back, I would have been more vocal around issues like sexual assault and harassment. I fought for it during my time as an officer but I sometimes found it quite hard. Particularly, when you had women inside the room. I wanted to give women this space to speak up and own their narrative. And it was about finding that balance. How can you be a good ally to women, without trying to be a voice for women, as women have a voice? As a man, I’m there to empower that voice. What I shouldn’t take away is their opportunities to speak. For so long men had had the dominant voice in that narrative.

It is powerful when women speak with passion, from their own experience because they believe in it, and it affects them daily. Give women that space, and allow them to make change for themselves and see it throughout history. When you give women a voice, it can enact such great change.

But other than that, I’m pretty content with my part in it.

What is your advice to current Students’ Union Presidents?

Chuchu: Understand your importance, relevance, and influence. You have the power to open new doors. You are the representative of all the students at your university. You may be the most important voice around the table. Make sure that you own that space. 

 

That comes through preparation. I was always quite clear that there shouldn’t be anything that they asked me in a meeting, that I didn’t know. Even if that meant I had to go study every document the night before, read the agenda, make sure I’ve done my research. The moment you are on – you deliver. There’s that whole thing of taking them by surprise and raising the level of respect. They now start seeing you as an equal. 

 

Know who your allies are and understand who the people in the room are. Like a game of chess, you can sort of work and maneuver to get the best out of the best interests of the students. Sometimes we forget how important networking is. Build relationships with everybody, at least allow them to know more than your name. Because there could be a point where you need to rely on an alternative person in a meeting or before meetings for support. When you have forged a relationship, it is a lot easier when you go to ask someone for a favor. If you get their support, it makes the whole meeting sound a lot different.

 

The tip from me is to understand the bigger picture. I’m always a big picture kind of guy. What you realize is that you may not see the impact of your work until you go. And it may not impact the students in your time. But it may impact the students that come 3, 4, 5 years later. Leave a lasting legacy after you are done.


Your work as an officer means impacting lives forever.

Here are a few key takeaways for future Students’ Union officers:

  • Understand your importance, relevance, and influence. You have the power to create a lasting change.
  • Go into meetings with the data and support of students. Preparation is key.
  • Understand the power dynamics in the room and use them to your advantage.
  • Don’t forget to network.

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About the author

Silvia Petkova

Silvia Petkova

Silvia, Unitu's marketing officer, is responsible for managing social media presence and marketing strategies. She is passionate about collaborating on creative projects and staying on top of current trends and innovations.
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