How to be a students’ union officer from a working class background

Darcie Jones is Vice President Education at University of Plymouth Students'​ Union

Being an SU sabbatical officer is hard, that’s no secret.

Some of us are taking a break from our studies to complete the role, or have just recently graduated. It often feels like you’re thrown in at the deep end of the world of charity law, governance, and activism. It’s overwhelming for most.

Add in coming from a working-class background, with little experience of seeing people like you in these spaces, times that overwhelm by ten…or maybe a hundred?

Here’s great driver

Nothing fills many people with dread quite like being stuck in a confined space with someone you know nothing about and have nothing in common with.

I had that exact feeling when I found out that I had been booked to share a taxi home with a governor after a very tiring board away day. I didn’t know much about her, but what I did know was a little intimidating.

Like most governors, she was what I would deem as quite posh, impressively extroverted, and very rich. All the things I was not. Luckily, I’d actually spent a decent chunk of my day trying to get to know her and foster those connections I’m keen to do as an SU representative.

However nice she was, it didn’t stop the sweaty palms I got at the thought of her knowing (and possibly judging) where I live.

My first Board of Governors meeting was a shock to the system and a reminder that the space I was inhabiting was not one full of people like me.

I was raised by a single mum on a council estate that I doubted few in that room had ever stepped foot on – or heard of. I spent most of that first meeting fixing a smile on my face to ensure I looked affable and put on my best posh accent, hiding the fact my accent gives away that I am, unlike most people in the room, from the area our institution is based. I did the polite nodding at the stories of recent ski holidays and second homes.

Anyway, as I sat in the back of a Toyota Yaris with a governor at 10pm, I silently hatched a plan. After an eternity of small talk we arrive at a newly renovated estate a few minutes away from my home. Rows and rows of perfectly polished new build houses line the streets. It fitted in perfectly with the middle-class image I wanted people in my professional life to presume I had.

“Just here please,” I chirped to the taxi driver, getting out to stand in front a lovely home that is definitely not my own. I waited until the taxi was firmly out of the street, before I turned around, walking another few minutes to the old-build council house I still live in with my mum.

It’s not my proudest moment. I felt a deep guilt in the pit of tummy that I just couldn’t shake – I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of where I come from, and in some ways, I’m not. But, operating in such a foreign predominantly middle-class professional world, I felt that there were parts of me that were “wrong” and to be successful I must shake them off. Even if it meant a cold walk home.

I guess I’ll figure it out alone

We talk a lot about widening access in SUs and universities, but rarely do we discuss unlocking the secret codes to navigating the middle-class world for our own staff. While many institutions and unions are making great strides in assessing where we can improve the experience for these students, student officers often fall between the cracks.

A report released from the Council for the Defence of British Universities showed that many younger governors, or those from marginalised identities feel on the backfoot and less able to actively participate in the governance process. One interviewee summed up many of my own feelings perfectly:

I always felt like I had to make allies because I was young, because I was a woman, because I was the only student governor.

But add in the fact that I didn’t know how one was supposed to go about making these allies, beyond polite smiles and not rocking the boat, and working class officers can often be left feeling totally disempowered.

More than shyness

It is presumed if you have been confident enough to put your name forward to run in the popularity election contests on campus, then you will be fine operating at high-level meetings, networking events and dinners. And some might be.

But there’s something very different about speaking to students who sound, look, and relate to me, than spending time in spaces where my experiences is not that of the majority.

Many working-class sabbs did not grow up used to networking events or evenings spent with people you barely know. Everyone knew everybody in many of our communities, and if you didn’t speak to someone there was probably a good reason why. And we certainly don’t do small talk, everyone already knows each other’s business.

So, telling a working-class sabb to network is like telling a fish to walk. It’s lost on us. Navigating the world of passive aggression, networking, and formal dinners alone, often too scared to ask anyone what any of it actually means and how we should act. We need to support officers in navigating this hidden curriculum of the professional world.

Let’s talk classism

There’s no doubt that SUs are an amazing place to work, promoting inclusivity, flexibility and generally a workplace that soon becomes a family, and I feel lucky to work somewhere like that.

But let’s not pretend they are not also dominated by the middle-classes. Classist microaggressions are not entirely unheard of even within an SU.

Officers can find themselves the butt of a joke about what area we are from/live in, their accent or the reputation of the school we attended. Imitating the “funny” way someone pronounces something may be intended as a joke amongst colleagues, but can feel like a dig at a culture that is misunderstood, an accent that represents my upbringing, and the barriers I have overcome to achieve the role I hold today.

Instead let’s help officers and staff integrate into a culture that is comfortable for them. Alienating working-class sabbs and staff isn’t productive for anyone.

Let’s get to helping

Having a mentor during the process is key. They help us vent, professionally develop, and overall confirm that we aren’t going insane. Ideally a mentor should share some characteristics with the person they’re mentoring. Therefore, unions supporting officers by providing them with mentors with similar life experience is key. Unknowingly to my union, my mentor worked the same part-time job as me as a student and it’s really helped me feel as if my mentor understands my journey to becoming a sabb.

It sounds really patronising but it is true. We need to be better at our willingness to understand and teach rather than assume knowledge.

This also applies to ourselves. It can be difficult to ask questions, either about university acronyms or some aspect of the agenda that you didn’t understand and may need some clarity on. Encouraging our officers, both from the SU and institution side that this is acceptable is essential.

The most productive conversations I have had with staff on both sides have began with me asking what I would probably have called a “stupid question” a few months ago. Often I’ve had messages from other meeting attendees thanking me for seeking clarity as they were also too embarrassed to ask. Or they have begun insightful discussions about topics that have allowed us to create solutions I would never have considered beforehand.

Empowering is key

Much of our messages as SUs is encouraging students to challenge the status quo. Yet there feels pressure as sabbatical officers to behave, fit in and keep the university happy. Particularly as money becomes tighter for many institutions.

This doesn’t help any of us – let alone the university, who have us in the room to give honest and realistic student feedback. Who better to do that than someone who sounds like a chunk of their local student population?

Let’s empower student officers to use personal experience to highlight the demographic of students in 2024, admit when we don’t know how to network, and ask for staff support in learning how to navigate a new landscape!

And finally

For the working-class sabbatical officer reading this, you aren’t alone. I spent a lot of time feeling alone, and often still do but conversations with ex-sabbs and endless X (formerly Twitter) scrolling led me to see that there are more of me out there.

Spending hours doing an embarrassing job at networking, wondering what fork out of ten I use to not look stupid at university dinners, and trying to lose my accent to eventually admit defeat is a universal experience amongst us.

Realising there is power in my experiences and remembering I have nothing to be ashamed of, even I don’t know which fork to hold at an evening dinner, is nothing to be ashamed of. I was voted for by students like me for a reason, and changing myself or my accent is not going to help me authentically represent them.

A small plea from one working-class sabb to another – don’t do what I did. Embrace everything that makes you you and your ability to work effectively will follow. And remember to always get the taxi to drop you off outside your own house.

8 responses to “How to be a students’ union officer from a working class background

  1. Brilliant piece. One thing I’d add is that those within the sector who normalise these kind of casual snobberies are often the same ones who normalise more substantive class hierarchies and power dynamics (because their internalised understanding of the university tends to be rooted in elitism). The sector needs thoughtful outsiders like you to help everyone see higher education differently.

  2. Thank you so much for this brilliant article, I hope it’s widely read and shared – we absolutely need more working class people in HE. Your comment about networking really struck a chord with me – it was something I was expected to just be able to do in my first professional role and I hadn’t the first clue where to start.

  3. Thank you so much for this article I can completely relate. I was a working class Sabb as well as Care experienced and Estranged. I would often go into rooms and feel uncomfortable and not know what to say. I went to a dinner once and bought up where I came from and how it affected me getting into university but I was just ignored and people quickly moved onto the next point. I wish there was more consideration anout the background of sabbs and more mentoring and guidance on how to overcome imposter syndrome.

  4. Fantastic article, been a sabb 2 years now and it genuinely hasn’t got any easier. Feel very out of place when in the room full of those who are well experienced and clearly not from the same upbringing (mostly).

    They do tend to be very welcoming but it is extremely hard to shake that imposter syndrome, even after so many meetings. A recent Council away day, we had a meal afterwards and all I kept thinking was “I do no belong here, when is it acceptable to go back to my room”.

    Again, fantastic article. I really appreciate that others also feel this way.

  5. So much of this resonates with me working in a professional environment (related to HE). What a brave and insightful article, thank you!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story Darcie. I relate to you in many ways. I have still never got my proud Northern accent back from my time as a student and I now work in the sector! Wishing you all the best, we need more like you…

  7. I’ve reread the article for International Women’s Day. I relate so much to the content. Thank you for sharing.

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