The challenges, obstacles and rewards of being an SU President

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As part of our efforts to provide new Student Union officers with valuable insights and observations, we have been lucky enough to sit down with Megan Ball, 2 term SU President at Winchester. 

When we spoke to her, Megan was in her final month in this role. Having led the SU response to Covid-19 and faced these unprecedented challenges, we were excited to see what advice Megan would have for existing and incoming officers.

What do you think were some of your greatest achievements during your time as SU President?

A huge amount of my time in office has been during COVID. One of the biggest things we did was to secure student buy-in and carry out lobbying related to the pandemic.

We secured rent rebates for students, no detriment policies, and larger funding from the government. By no means was this just me. The government funding was the result of a national student movement. But in terms of my most successful projects, it was about finding areas where you’re hearing from students every day that they need it and you’re able to really fight for that change and secure it for them.

What obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome them?

I’ve been very lucky with the relationship that I’ve had with my institution, but it’s still not been easy to action things. It can be a really difficult balance with institutions because we are their partner, but we are also their critical friend. And sometimes we have to be critical more than we have to be their friend. But then in that same week, we may turn around and ask them for financial support, because we’re their partner. It’s a really difficult dynamic.

Sometimes you need hard data to get people around to the same idea as you. But just keep going. Don’t give up until you’re one step closer to getting what students need and deserve.

What did you learn from this experience?

It’s definitely been a learning curve. I feel like so much of it has to do with getting people on the same page as you and just explaining where you’re coming from. With universities, It’s very easy to forget why we’re here. We often get caught up in the bureaucracy and the financial impact and looking at budgets and looking at marketing and looking at recruitment, and we forget that the whole reason we’re here is to educate people.

What was it like being SU president? What obstacles did you face?

I think you need a thick skin as a student union president but we need to make sure that we’re really protecting sabbatical officers, because they’re so open to abuse. It’s about having a thick skin, but also knowing when something isn’t okay and what you can do about that.

That said, I’m sitting here with a big grin on my face. I wouldn’t change a minute of it for the world. It’s taught me some of my biggest life lessons.

How long did it take you to feel like you knew what you were doing in the role?

Honestly, about six months. I think it varies between Student Union to Student Union on how much training you have when you step into the role. And I think it took me a good six months to feel confident. Ironically, that’s exactly the time when you’re thinking about whether or not you want to rerun.

What was your experience like during Covid-19? I guess a lot of students turned to you for support?

Yeah, absolutely. As an officer team, we pride ourselves on an open-door policy, so it was a big shift in communication tactics. We had to change and adapt. We did daily briefings on social media and open meetings where people could come and ask questions.

There was just so much angst, uncertainty and worry, and a lot of confusion. It was a really hard year. But that is where we saw student unions come together. Universities have so often been left out of government guidance. It’s been really empowering to see students come together and find their voice.

What strategies are you using to amplify the student voice and get feedback?

Firstly, we have our student staff liaison committees which are chaired by students. We’re creating a big end-of-year student voice report, which sums up highlights from the SSLC’s over the course of the year. I think it’s really important that we see the key themes throughout the year to understand what’s gone well and what’s not gone well.

I feel like feedback is so often done at the end of modules or programmes. If you look at the National Student Survey, we do it in the third year with students when they’re leaving. I think it’s important to also get incremental feedback. And feedback doesn’t have to be a big formal survey. Feedback can just be a lecturer at the end of a class asking “How did you find that?”

Closing the feedback loop is super important. Not just asking students for feedback, but showing students how you have implemented it.

What advice do you have for current SU Presidents?

A lot. Always remember that you are only one person and there are only so many hours in your day. There is only so much energy that you should give to this role. You are a human being with a life outside of this job. It’s very easy to forget that because it’s a very intense job. 

I’d also say never underestimate the power of networking. And remember the real reason that you’re here and the students that elected you. The friends I’ve got now who are also sabbatical officers are some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Never underestimate the power of asking for help. It’s okay to ask for help. You don’t have to be this fountain of knowledge. From day one, you’re starting a new job.

On the other side, just enjoy it. It’s hard, and it’s stressful but you have been elected by students because they trust you. So have a little bit of belief in yourself, because there are hundreds of students that believe in you. It’s the best job in the world.

And what about advice for universities?

Don’t stop listening to students. Properly listening. Listen to students, listen to student unions, listen to your academics. And it’s ok to get things wrong. Just be committed to continuous improvement.

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