Surviving, thriving and letting go: How to be an ex-SU officer

Nick Smith is a consultant specializing in governance

Back in September we first met a group of ex SU officers starting new university roles – and we caught up with them a few months later.

Our cohort of past SU officers have now had over 9 months in their current roles as university staff members.

So we’re catching up with them again as they consider some of the more exciting parts of the academic year.

We can all have preconceptions of what a job might involve but we asked them to reflect on what they didn’t expect. Ellie Short from University Arts London SU starts us off:

I’ve been surprised by how much I have developed as a Disability Advisor and the level of knowledge I have acquired surrounding my role. I struggled with imposter syndrome a lot going into the role and was worried about how long it would take to feel comfortable and like I knew what I was doing. Sometimes I find myself now reflecting on the work I do and how far I have progressed in the role and I feel a great sense of achievement on how far I have come. While mistakes are sometimes inevitable as we are all just human, I have been surprised by how little I have made and how confident I feel at this point in my career.

For Oscar Minto, a former officer from Reading SU, it’s about working with others:

The importance of team contracts. The ability to communicate effectively, and particularly, our expectations around communicating, are often taken for granted… Expectations and tips around teamwork are always scattered throughout training. Staff imply and hint at how teams have worked in the past, but these often do not always correlate to a clear answer on ‘what should I do next?’ or ‘how should I go about it?’. Condensing all that information and establishing owners for various projects would have given my team a lot more clarity and perhaps, a lot more energy from the get-go.

Up in York, former University of York SU Deb Dey has been pleased at how useful his sabbatical officer role has been:

The most surprising and enriching aspect has been the seamless integration of my experiences from both roles to contribute meaningfully to the academic community. As an Academic Officer within the Students’ Union, I was deeply involved in student advocacy, directly impacting their academic journey and experience. I anticipated a significant shift in my daily interactions and influence within the university. Surprisingly, the transition has not only allowed me to maintain but also to deepen my connections within the university community.

Another unexpected yet rewarding aspect of my journey has been the opportunity to serve in two pivotal volunteering roles: as an Alumni Recruitment Ambassador and as a board member for our first Alumni Advisory Board. These roles have enabled me to leverage my insights and experiences to support alumni and students, ensuring their voices are heard and acted upon.

Trying new things

Many who have taken a students’ union sabbatical end up in civil society roles like being a trustee or volunteering. Like Deb, Oscar has used that experience to try something new:

I spent too many hours of my officer year in academic and disciplinary panels with students. It was interesting work and it felt weird just dropping it when I moved employers. Therefore, I have pursued and have recently been appointed as a Family Court Magistrate. For me, this role combined many of the skills needed for those panels with my interest in seeing young people get the best opportunity in life!

A seminal point for student officers are the elections and campuses across the UK have been alive with them. We wondered how it felt not being involved as a candidate? Ellie:

It’s been strange! It feels like a lot of time has passed since I was a candidate in the elections and it reminded me to reflect on how much I have developed since that time. I am so grateful for my experience as a sabbatical officer and it’s great to see others putting themselves out there and passionate about making change.

Deb found himself in reminiscence mode:

Watching the campus come alive with elections from a different perspective has been a unique experience for me. Even though I’m not on the frontline as a candidate anymore, my bond with the Students’ Union remains strong. Recently, we had a gathering with former Sabbatical Officers where we reminisced and discussed the Union’s growth and its future. Hearing a past year’s Sabbatical Officer share his experiences brought back a flood of memories and made me feel connected to the process in a new way.

It’s a bittersweet feeling; on one hand, I miss the hustle and excitement of running for election, the camaraderie, and the direct impact we had; the memories of campaigning, the strategy sessions, and the joy of achieving our goals together are irreplaceable. On the other hand, stepping back has given me a new perspective. I now see the importance of supporting from behind the scenes, encouraging the new generation of leaders, and contributing to positive changes in the Union in different ways. It’s exciting to watch the Union evolve, to see new ideas come to life.

I used to be the future

After elections, officers may be feeling a little lost now their successors are lined up. As people having been in that position we asked the group for their advice starting with Ellie.

It’s definitely a strange time knowing that your time at the Student Union is nearly over. I think a big piece of advice I would give is to not let it affect your progress on projects you are involved in. Now is the time for the last push and making sure you have tied up loose ends before you are finished in the role!

Another piece of advice I would give is to get excited for the future! Being a sabbatical officer is such an amazing experience that provides so much opportunity for personal and professional development. The CEO of arts su, Yemi, was a major support for me when applying for my next roles and really helped me develop my applications and identify my strengths and experience.

Deb agrees on thinking of the future:

To the outgoing officers feeling a tad lost, I encourage you to view this transition as a gateway to new beginnings. Your experiences have equipped you with a unique set of skills and insights that are incredibly valuable, both within and beyond the university setting. Engage with the Union and the university in advisory capacities, mentor the incoming officers, and share the wisdom you’ve accumulated. Your legacy doesn’t end with your term; it continues through the support and guidance you offer to your successors.

Oscar also has some sage advice about handover and successors:

Firstly, avoid comparison. My take is that as Officer roles are often the first full-time job or leadership roles that students have. It is very counter-productive discussing whether they were the ‘right’ candidate and just accepting that each officer, before and after you, brings their own unique value to a role. You have been valuable in the position you have held Your successors will benefit from your tips around handling work and who your key contacts were.

You should let them know what has worked for you and who has been helpful. However, your successor will have different relationships with different staff member and different methods of working. Encourage them to find what works for them and try to avoid ‘warning them’ about certain staff members. I have had colleagues who have really enjoyed and benefited from working with staff members that have been called ‘cold’ or ‘difficult’. Let them make their own value judgements.

As an aside: don’t let University staff get away with ignoring you. You are still the relevant officer until the end of your contract. If they ignore your emails and try to wait you out, just politely turn up at their desk.

We’ll catch up with the cohort one final time before the end of the year.

You can find Nick Smith’s guidance on what’s next for officers finishing up elsewhere on the site.

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