If I knew then what I know now

We asked a whole raft of former sabbs for things they wished they’d known at the start, rather than the end of their term of office.

Here’s a selection from the hundreds we received…

Laura Douds (Anglia Riskin)

Working without a real line manager is really tough – you need to set your own targets, your own deadlines and you’re going to need to learn to take pride in your work without external validation or sometimes even a ‘well done’.

You need to learn how to prioritize and say no – it took me far too long to realise that just because someone wanted to meet with me, it didn’t mean I was obligated to meet with them. If you’re doubtful about why they want your input you’re well within your rights to not go.

There are going to be a lot of people who try and say ‘I’m an expert in student opinion because x’, but 99% of the time they aren’t there to deal with student feedback. You’re the expert – act like it and use your evidence. Don’t be afraid to disagree and disagree often.

I think my last point is to take every opportunity that you can. Yeah, you’re there for students – but take advantage of opportunities that help you out too. Don’t be scared of taking that invite to a fancy board dinner or going to an event. You never know who you’ll meet.

Cath Brown (Open University)

How to say no. I still haven’t worked this out, mind, but I know it’s meant to be a thing. You may well know more about how various things in the university work than a number of the staff do. A university is a very varied place. There will be pockets of excellent practice and some who just don’t get it. Try to make the former talk to the latter and do some of your work for you!

Gary Hughes (Birmingham Guild)

Your job is IN NO WAY to send lots of emails. Conversations are SO much better than email: easier to do, faster, helpful for learning and refining your points before show-down at Committee. Take people for coffee. Use your phone as a phone. Don’t apologise for mingling.

Andy Hartley (Man Met)

Nobody knows what they’re doing on the first day. Lean on your staff. Run ideas past them even if they’re a bit crazy (the ideas, not the staff).

Matty Robinson (Lancaster)

Keep a wins list which can be anything from a manifesto pledge being ticked off, to overcoming a disagreement in the team. You don’t and won’t know everything even by the end, and asking clarifying questions aren’t stupid especially if they help you to understand in future.

George Walker (Durham)

The most powerful tool you have as a student representative is your experiences. They are more powerful than any policy, data or survey. Always talk about them and learn to articulate them. Also an honourable mention to something often said by @gary_hughes. If it’s right to call something out, do it from day one. It won’t always be easy to have the confidence to do it, especially early in the year, but it is always the right thing to do.

Megan Dunn (Aberdeen and NUS)

Always remember that you are the only person in the room whose only job it is to represent students and be concerned with student interest. You’re not an expert on other peoples areas, but they are not an expert in yours. Also remember what side you are on. It’s easy to feel safe in a university committee, but they are not the people you represent and they will often try and placate you to get their own way.

Gwyneth Sweatman (Trinity St Davids and NUS Wales)

That you have MUCH more influence and power than you realise, and you need to think carefully about what you aim for, because you just might get it (*unless you think you’re all powerful, in which case, you also have much LESS power than you realise)

Erica Lewis (Lancaster)

It’s not about doing it all yourself. Asking for help doesn’t mean you can’t manage the load. Done well asking for help & supporting those you ask is movement building & giving others an opportunity to demonstrate & develop their skills.

Emma Hedges (Staffs)

Don’t be intimated by high level staff, often they’re winging it as much as you are.

Of all of your hats, the portfolio hat is the least important. Don’t be put off a project because it’s “out of your remit”. Focus your energy on widely and deeply felt issues, don’t kneejerk.

Benjamin Atkins (Man Met)

(If you’re lucky) Your staff team are probably fantastic, make life better/ easier for them if you can.

Tom Snape (Keele)

I recently read the book ‘getting to yes’, which provides a really useful framework for negotiation on basically any topic. Wish I’d read that sooner. Also, you’ve got a limited window of opportunity to make an impact, spend summer (as a team ideally) agreeing on one or two shared priorities & focus a much energy as possible on them. Read the papers before meetings. Find allies in the institution, you’ll be surprised how many there are.

Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson (FXU)

That just because you call a university VC team out on one thing in your first month doesn’t mean they will decimate your block grant later in the year. Also you are probably the *only* person in the room who was elected or can legitimately argue your viewpoint is representative. And just because you’ve suddenly found yourself chair of a trustee board doesn’t mean you have to pretend you know everything about being a trustee.

Julian Porch (York)

It’s absolutely ok to say no to people who want to collaborate with you, or want access to the channels you have. Even if it’s an amazing sounding project it’s ok to say “this sounds great, and I would really love to be able to work with you on this, but I’ve set my objectives for the year, and sadly this doesn’t contribute to them. But let’s keep communication open, and can I suggest you get in touch with this person”.Finally, imposter syndrome is very real, and that’s ok.

Rosie McKenna (Edge Hill)

Working in partnership is important, & being in the room & having the conversations should always be ur first point of call – often u find allies you wouldn’t expect! However, don’t be afraid to just do the campaign/action regardless. Sometimes you just have to go with ur gut. Also, making friends with student media & societies will make your time as an officer a lot easier. Being in touch with different communities across campus is very useful to gain insight into what different groups think (& mobilising for campaigns/council/elections is easier!)

Gabi Binnie (Sheffield)

You don’t always need to do things the *right* way. Yes following procedures and getting backing from colleagues is good. But you only have 1 year to make an impact & sometimes you make things happen however you can (officers can get away with more than others!)

Tom Foy (Bucks)

Don’t leave it until the last week to think about your next job. Think about it when you attend conferences, training, events & make sure you network. You might find your next job at a graduation lunch. Also don’t go out the night before any long university committees.

Lydia Richardson (Bangor)

There are many ways to successfully campaign. Learn from staff round you, pick peoples brains & enjoy your time. You don’t need to be behind a desk in the office to be successful so make sure you go out and about to get to know your members as they may not always come to you.

Anthony Butcher (Bangor)

There is life after the Union. Mistakes are normal. Popularity is great but impact is greater. Celebrate the victories. Do at least one completely non-Union activity. Don’t compare yourself to other sabbs. Take a break. Time taken to build relationships is not time wasted.

Leigh Spanner (Durham)

You could have a full time job attending uni committees- most of which are a lot of hot air where no important decisions are made. The biggest value you can have is talking to students and putting all your energy into making a difference to 1 or 2 things that matter to them.

Laura Jackson (York St John)

Learn to delegate. The students may have voted you but you can’t do it alone, that’s what the staff team are for. You’ll burn out otherwise. Other SU officers are the best support network you can ask for. Make friends at NUS events, they understand better than anyone.

Also be careful who you give your time to. Some people may be there while you’re a sabb for the wrong reasons then disappear after. Friendships are important, make sure people are there because of you. Not your position.

Sarah Musgrave (L’boro)

Time is precious – a year really isn’t very long at all so don’t waste it or spend most of it behind your desk. Whilst you’ve been elected to do your role & feel like you need to do an awesome job, remember that you are human and working 55hrs a week is going to make you burnout.

Rae Tooth (Cardiff, NUS Wales)

Think hard about how you are going to look after yourself. Make an actual plan. Share it with someone who will hold you accountable. Put it in your diary. Do it. Not looking after yourself means you cannot look after others.

Alice Bouquet (UWE)

Don’t get disheartened when your staff team say “tried it before. It didn’t work”. They will be useful for examples of overcoming resistance in future job interviews

Jess Excel (L’boro)

Don’t forget what you wrote in your manifesto when you were elected! It’s easy to get sidetracked by meetings and emails and forget what you planned to change and achieve in the year. Think big and put the ground work in.

Danny Walker (Keele)

Take every bit of advice or feedback you can get your hands on. Hearing perspectives that you profoundly disagree with can be good, because you can use it to shape your arguments and prepare really well for whatever it is that you’re doing. Also make sure you make friends across the movement. It’s only looking back now that I realise how valuable it was to be able to pick up the phone to friends I’d made from SU’s across the country for advice and support on a really diverse range of things.

Matt Kite (Cambridge)

That good relationships with university officials are built on an expectation that you challenge them, and aren’t threatened by that – if keeping someone sweet means biting your tongue then that relationship isn’t worth keeping.

Ashlea Prescott (L’boro)

The majority of people won’t know or understand what you do, that’s okay – you don’t have to justify or explain your role to people, they probably still won’t get it even if you do. Take breaks, plan your time – you will be able to do much better job if you’re well rested!

Megan Wilson (South Wales)

Treasure the time you have to make a difference. It goes by faster than you know it. Becoming a manager is tough. You become best friends with sabbs but also their manager and it’s hard to draw the line. Be firm but fair. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake!

Robiu Salisu (Bristol)

I wish I had known how to prioritise the many Quality Assurance related papers that I received in the first month in office. Apparently the University just expect sabbatical officers to be fully formed academics as soon as we’re elected.

Mark Gillespie (Teesside)

Remove unnecessary decision making stress from your day to day life. For e.g prepare your Mon-Fri wardrobe on the Sunday night before! Doing so means you can spend more time smashing it as an officer.

Amy Young

Keep a log/journal of all the things you do,all too soon the year will start to come to an end and you’ll have forgotten a lot of the amazing things you did/overcame. Keep a note of even the little things – not everyone will have the opp to meet regularly with a VC etc.

Paul Abernethy (John Moores)

Just because you’re the political leader, and it’s your campaign, it doesn’t mean you have to do everything. Lean on your staff, they are there to help you succeed.

Ryan Beasley (UCA)

Haha but I think I wish someone would have told me more about building relationships with the institution to get the right results. Officers are often given one or two staff members that they regularly work with, but networking…See More

Richard ‘Bubble’ Budden (Christ Church)

Don’t try and be someone you’re not – people voted for you for a reason not to try and act a certain way just because you’re told you have to change now you’re an officer

Megan Evans (UEA)

The institution isn’t evil but it’s not always your friend either. Operating in the space between is a good place to be.

James Bowers (Herts)

Personally, as a fresh engineering graduate who was used to structure and process, I found the abrupt switch to being autonomous to be really stressful, in fact I’d go as far as to say it made most of my first year as a sabb pretty unproductive.

Jo Walters (Sussex)

It’s good to listen to students but you don’t have to do everything they say all the time. Don’t

Cat Elif (Warwick)

Welfare officer doesn’t mean counsellor and actually there’s a lot of unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of you.

Meike Imberg (Greenwich)

Writing a handover – it’s sooo difficult having been an insider & then trying to write down all the info and experiences for an outsider… Without actually wanting to ‘tell them’ what to do, but wanting to empower them etc.

Lou Chiu (ARU)

Get a good mentor who’s outside of your institution and SU. You’ll get so many opinions, conflicting views and political play that having a sounding board and your own cheerleader will help maintain clarity when it feels super messy.

Jodie Vickery (West London)

Building relationships with other SU’s and the university is critical to the success. You want to create a open dialogue with you institution so you can become a Critical friend …

Toni Pearce (Cornwall College)

Try and keep a diary of what you’re doing, because you won’t realise how significant it is until you’ve left and by then you’ve forgotten most of it.

Michael Chessum (ULU)

Don’t lose your shit about things that don’t matter. Being railroaded on some bollocks strategic plan might feel the end of the world when you’re a few weeks in post. But it is much less important than changing the atmosphere in campus, running campaigns etc…

Katie Badman (Chester)

You don’t know anything about running an organisation, don’t ever forget that your job is to represent, but learn, learn, learn. You will grow so much more than you could imagine

Rima Amin (City)

How understanding and navigating universities governance structure can help you succeed in lobbying for students interests. Slightly snoozey but would be helpful to know early on – rather than taking the year to figure it out.

Darren Clarke (Staffs)

How much control and responsibility of the organisation you actually have, I some feel CEO’s and senior management try to tell you (some don’t!) but I think it’s something you work out as you go?

Kate Wicklow (ARU)

So I’m sure this is still true but ‘sabb flab’ was very real in my day. You really must look after your health – go to the doctor’s when you need to, stop eating curly fries from the SU bar – KFC/deliveroo is not the only food choices you could make when you are in the office for 16 hours. It may be tempting to eat more takeaways because you have more income and less time, but just don’t – or at least order some vegetables! Also just stop being in the office that long! And yes go out drinking with students – but there are sneaky ways you can seem like you’re ‘on it’ but actually your just drinking shots and then having a diet coke.

Hayley Clarke (Solent)

Don’t keep recycling your salary in the SU bar every night after a stressful day. It’s a noble dedication to the SU’s income…but it’ll be to the detriment of your health & wellbeing 😅

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