We’re continuing our series of interviews with Sabbatical Officers, and we’re delighted to have been able to talk to Karthik Kumar Bonkur, SU President at Hertfordshire Students’ Union.
Karthik arrived in the UK in 2019, and began his role in July of 2020. Having served his year as President during such difficult times, we’re fascinated to learn more about how he coped and what advice he has to share.
Tell us your experience as Students’ Union president
In a nutshell, it was really interesting and challenging. Having said that, there were so many things to learn. For instance, we had to learn how the university works, and what the university thinks about and how they approach student wellbeing and the overall student experience.
Ultimately, during my time as president, we tried to focus on how to enrich the student experience, both for home students and international students.
But, when we went into lockdown in January, it was a very challenging experience. Unsurprisingly, students became very frustrated, feeling like they weren’t getting value for money and they were missing out on the experiences they’d be promised.
Thankfully, the University was very helpful with their support and encouragement and helped us be successful sabbatical officers during this very difficult time.
What was the most challenging part of leading the Students’ Union?
The most challenging part was communication with students. We are here to represent student voices, but we used to get very few responses from them.
We sent surveys to students but we might get 1800 responses, from 24,000 students. We were only really hearing from one group of students, rather than across the university.
How did you overcome this challenge?
We made great use of the school community organisers. We have eight schools, with four school community organisers in each, plus a student representative in every programme.
Every week we’d check in with our school community organisers. This really helped us connect with students more, because they were doing the assignment group work and living in halls and so on.
We also made official Instagram pages and hosted Instagram Lives to chat with students. All officers went online and were talking about our Friday campaigns, what we are doing this year, and the changes we are trying to make.
One other idea we trialled was ‘speed meets’, where we’d go into individual schools and engage directly with students. A great opportunity to hear their thoughts, frustrations and questions directly.
In January the number of questions ramped up, which was only natural given the state of what was going on across the world. Students started voicing their concerns and everything was quite chaotic. So I requested the Vice Chancellor come to our Student Council. He was very kind and empathetic, and spoke to students patiently, listening to their concerns.
How did you ensure that student voices were heard?
Before meeting with the stakeholders and the Vice Chancellor, we would post on social media that we had a meeting and ask whether anyone had any questions. Students used to send us lots of questions and we’d try to ask them all but we’d really focus on the ones that were asked by the largest segment of students.
That way, it meant we could prioritise questions and ensure we were answering the most pressing ones. And, to make sure everyone knew the answers and that we were being as transparent as possible, we’d share these on social media for the biggest reach.
How did you build awareness about the SU and keep students engaged?
In all honesty, we really struggled with that. Firstly, students don’t know that they are automatically members of the Student Union. So it’s all about starting with raising awareness.
We even held a quiz to make sure they realised that the SU was free and that we provide impartial advice and support. We took this a step further and produced booklets and handed these out during Freshers, so students would be aware of the Student Union and its role.
One big step we made this year was to make all societies completely free for students, as we know just how important the variety of activities and groups are to the university experience. To add to that, we really wanted to involve students as much as possible, especially in the decision-making at the university and running their own events.
What advice would you give to the current sabbatical officers?
Remember that you’re a President to 24,000 students, not just one or two. When representing the student voice, you’re doing so equally for both international and home students.
It’s also incredibly important to work as a team and in doing so, be honest and transparent with your communication.
There’s no denying that the first two months are really confusing and full-on because you’ll be bombarded with a lot of new information. It’s worth prioritising getting to know the previous officers and discussing what changes you really want to make.
Plus, it’s important to think about your well being as well. Your time management is important. Work from 9am to 5pm and take time out for yourself.
- Communication is incredibly important. Try lots of different approaches to see what works for you.
- Your job is to represent all students, so work hard to get a wide range of student voices.
- Look after your wellbeing, and work as a team. Take time off when you need it.