If I could turn back time – reflections from former SU officers

Eve Alcock is an analyst at the Clean Air Fund and a former President of the Students' Union at Bath University

“Calling all ex-SU officers: If you possessed the skills and experience you have now when you were in post, what – if anything – would you do differently?”

That was the relatively niche question I asked my twitter followers on a Tuesday morning in May. I suspected I might get some interesting reflections from a handful of ex-officers who are close friends, but nearly 45,000 impressions and 3000 engagements later, I have been completely fascinated and impressed by the responses from far flung ex-sabbs across the country.

So as students all over the country begin their terms as SU officers this summer, I thought it would be timely to summarise the advice from ex-sabbs to this year’s new recruits.

Amongst wise words of caution like “don’t spent 50 per cent of your salary on meal deals from the campus shop” and evergreen advice to “include a box of vitamins in the welcome packet for Freshers”, five clear and prevalent themes emerged to take note of.

“Do less with more energy” – be focussed and strategic

Ex-sabbs wished they hadn’t got so bogged down in operational problems and spread themselves too thinly across a vast range of issues. Their overwhelming advice to new sabbs was to have a handful of clear priorities for the time in office, approach them strategically, and don’t let other day to day issues distract or take up too much time. As one response put it: “focus on the most fundamental, rather than the noisiest issues”.

“No one is too busy or important to work reasonable hours” – instill good work/life balance

Another overwhelming theme was work/life balance, with the vast majority reflecting that they wished they had put in better boundaries to protect their mental health and energy to avoid burnout. Similar to the first theme, lots said if they had their time again they would say no more. No to the pointless university meetings, no to responding to emails at stupid o’clock, no to the impossible requests. Finding time for joy, for rest, for a social life are all crucial to effective functioning as a sabb. You can’t pour from an empty cup. In a nutshell: “I wouldn’t let anyone guilt me for going to karaoke every Friday”.

“Get out of the bubble” – don’t forget where you came from

Time and time again, ex-sabbs wish that they had spent more time with students. Whether it be communicating about their work with more transparency, getting in amongst student environments to remain connected to student issues, or bringing students into the fold to mobilise around key issues, responses emphasised how crucial proximity and closeness to the student body is. Ironically, it is one of the things that can easily slip down the agenda when you have 20,000 other things to occupy your time, but staying grounded amongst those who elected you should be foundational to your year. In a nutshell: “Campaign with students, not for them”.

“Be more willing to ask for help” – lean on others

It is no surprise that in hindsight, ex-sabbs identify asking for wellbeing and employability support as something they wish they’d done more of. With so much pressure on officers’ shoulders, and so many eyes looking at you, it can feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness. One key source of support that officers valued were other sabbs. One response said “Since leaving office I have discovered so many amazing ex-union individuals that I wish I had been in touch with before”. On a similar theme, ex-sabbs also wished they’d been supported more to think about how to articulate their rich and unique experiences as officers into skills ready for life after the SU: “You only realise once it’s all over how much you’ve done and truly how difficult it is to communicate actually what you did”.

“It’s not that deep” – chill out and enjoy the ride

This last theme really warmed my heart. Loads and loads of responses said that they wished they’d stopped worrying so much. Acknowledging that sabbs are incredibly passionate people who care about student experience, and some level of worrying is natural, the advice was overwhelmingly about maintaining perspective and not stressing at the expense of feeling joy. Ex-sabbs wished they’d been more confident in their own voice, trusted their gut, and celebrated every success no matter how small. As one response put it: “Chill out a bit, it’ll probably be the most stressful job of your life, but also probably the most exciting.”

So there we have it, five pieces of advice from over 80 ex-Sabbs across the UK for new sabbs starting this summer. Focus your objectives, put in good boundaries, spend time with students, ask for help, and enjoy the whirlwind ride!

Leave a Reply