Why did I re-stand as SU President?

Jimena Alamo is SU President at The SU, University of Bath

When I was sat at our fortnightly officers and senior staff catch-up meeting recently discussing the summer, it hit me – I don’t have to write a handover document for anyone!

A brief wave of relief washed over me. But then it hit me again – I don’t get to write a handover document for anyone.

Handovers aren’t only helpful for those in receipt.

I wanted to reflect on my first year in office to tell someone what I’ve learned, and the struggle of the first few months in office.

So, I wrote it anyway – a handover to myself.

Here are all the things I wished someone would’ve told me bluntly when I entered the SU officer world with wide eyes and the conviction to change the world.

Dear Jimena,

Well done on being elected!

I am so happy with your success and more than sure that you’ll do a fantastic job as President. I’ve been looking forward to our handover. I hope you find the next few lines useful, and that they’ll serve to guide you as you adjust to the role in the next few months.

When in doubt, remember you have a whole staff, an officer team, and me, whenever you need me, to ask questions or just cry to! Don’t doubt for a second how much you deserve where you are, and best of luck.

Let’s dive right into it.

On the role and handover

Firstly, know that you’ll be bombarded with information about the SU, the university, the region, and the overall higher education sector in a matter of days.

If you’re lucky enough, it might all be in the same 8-hour workshop. My first massive realisation was that being the head of a multi-million-pound charity felt different than how it was described the first time I read the role brief prior to my election.

This is when you’ll know what imposter’s syndrome really is. Head of a charity. Chair of a board. It doesn’t feel like anything. You’re just suddenly wearing a hat that feels too big and heavy on your head, and you feel like you look a bit ridiculous wearing it. Surely someone else should have it on their heads.

Then, you’ll go to a million and one sessions on time-management, effective communication, public speaking, and all those lovely sounding buzzwords that will look great on your next LinkedIn post. This you probably won’t mind too much, but a few months in you’ll wonder what time you’ve taken to breathe and actually put these new skills into practice.

There’s an awful lot of just getting through the job, you’ll soon realise. Sometimes you blink and a few months have gone by. Whether you’ve spent more time at the office than at home you won’t be too sure.

The myth of work-life balance

The initial summer months are a breeze. You wonder what it is your predecessor (me) complained about so much. The sun is out, the officer team gets along, and every day at 5 you’re ready to go have a few drinks with your friends.

“It wasn’t hard to find a balance – you tell yourself – I’ll do better than my predecessor did.”

Freshers’ Week (or Welcome Week, as the trends have now baptized it) comes along and you think it’s just one very hectic week, things will go back to normal. But they never quite do.

TOIL is a mere codeword for time you’ll never get back (Time Off Is a Lie, I like to call it).

You’ll begin to wonder if society events you used to enjoy as a student have now become a work event, since people always seem to want something from you.

In Bath’s case, you’ll never escape the job, as you live on campus. And the truth of living where you work is that your life becomes the role.

Escaping campus seems like the only way of avoiding the prying eyes of the staff, the endless questions from freshers, and the noticing of some things that must certainly be mentioned at this or that meeting next week.

Leaving the office at 5 will feel so wrong that you’ll check your calendar a couple of times before walking out, just to make sure you’ve got it right. There’s always one more paper to read, or one more lay member to get a coffee with. You can’t do it all and will have to turn things down.

Sending apologies… for being a trustee

Up to this point you’ve probably gotten a million dictionary and charity commission definitions on what it is to be a trustee and the responsibilities and reputational stake of it in relation to the SU. I will avoid diving into that.

What no one has told you about being a trustee is a lot more superficial.

You’ll struggle with how to dress for the part. To this day, come board meetings I ask myself how the chair of a board is supposed to dress, and what the balance is between being a student representative and the professional member of a board.

My voice will also break a few times during the meeting, when I must kindly ask this CEO or that ex COO to move on or be more concise.

You’ll spend more time that you’d like reading reports and trying to understand finance jargon, all so that you sound more professional and well-versed on the off occasion that you must speak to trustees, or perhaps even staff members about the governance of your organisation. The imposter’s syndrome never really goes away.

You’re the chair of the board, and there will be an all-consuming need to prove yourself.

You’ll either compulsively stay on top of timings just for the sake of getting a pat on the back from board members for “running a tight ship”, or you’ll realise you don’t really handle the discussion nearly as much as you wish you did.

Sometimes you just stare at the clock in a frenzy, hoping things will end on time. Either way, you’ll be left with the feeling that you could’ve done better, run things more naturally.

You’ll feel alienated from the rest of the officer team. They just assume you have a handle on things. And secretly, you feel like you’re the only one that really cares about the board meeting.

Whether or not that is because you must care, you’ll never really know. But university meetings are a whole other ball game.

Sitting at every existing (and yet to be created) university committee ever

You’ll spend a lot of time in university meetings. Somewhere else there’ll be a nice little map, or tree, or drawing of sorts showing where everything sits and where you stand in relation to it.

What is left out is how useless some of these meetings feel. Some of them are undeniably tick-boxing exercises of claiming students have been represented.

It doesn’t take many months on the job for you to realise which of the meetings are like that. If you’re anything like me, you’ll resent them for asking you to invest your time in something that does not let you represent students in the way you promised during your campaign days.

Maybe it’s just me, but there is also a question about wardrobe for these.

You’ll sit in a room with a range of people. From junior lecturers to CEOs of major companies who are university council lay members, you will always feel as if eyes are on you.

And part of you wants it to be obvious that you’re a student, that you speak and dress like them and this is why you can best represent them. But a part of you will be tempted to dress up real nice, use the complicated finance jargon you’d memorised the day before, and pretend to be one of them.

And the same will happen with local and national politicians when you meet with them.

Shaking hands, posing for pictures, and kissing babies

If the sheer amount of campaigning, leafleting, and hustings didn’t make this obvious, you are now a politician.

You have to figure out the balance between representing your voters and posing for pictures at opening events.

You have to be forceful with what students want, but you also have to be able to talk about weekend trips and sport results with the university senior team while sipping tea at the nice board room which cost more than the yearly budget allocated to any single student group.

You’ll be sat at dinners with wealthy donors who laugh about backpackers who took their first-class seats on a train, pretending to laugh without admitting that you’re coming back from a low-budget, backpacking trip yourself.

And the scariest thing, if you ask me, is that you’ll become surprisingly good at balancing these things. Some days, you’ll go through the motions of all these events, receptions, and backroom politics without so much of a blink.

But when you go home and look at yourself in the mirror, you’ll ask yourself if you represented students how you’d promised you would. You’ll ask if you’re really good at your job or really good at playing a role.

The method behind the madness

“So why did you re-run?”, I hear you ask.

If I’m completely honest, I don’t know.

Ask anyone working in the SU world. It just has a way of luring you in, and not letting you go.

It’s addictive.

You love it twice as much as you hate it.

The sheer diversity of the role makes it a lot of fun. No one day is the same. No student complaint or case is the same. And figuring out how to navigate this maze is thrilling.

You know you’re unlikely to find a job that is so challenging yet so forgiving at the same time. And you do love it, no matter how much you complain and how much more gratitude you wish you got from students when you do help them.

What I do know is that on that question of whether to dress, speak or be more like others to gain credibility and influence – or to dress, speak or be more like students to be authentic – the right answer is neither.

Influence is as much about doing enough to convince others that you have a right to be there, and it is about causing others to think about things in a different way, or to consider things they would not have otherwise thought of.

What I also know is that last summer, a lot of people helped to induct me into the world of boards and universities – the language, the papers, the norms and the dress codes.

This year I’ll be working with my team as much as possible to flip that – so that boards and universities are inducted, by us, into the world of students.

Because when those bodies understand our world – our challenges, struggles, language, communication styles, and our fears and anxieties – they will be more likely to address our issues and agree to our proposals.

So, I did rerun. I did survive the first year in office. I am partly excited, partly terrified, for another 12 months as President.

What my next handover document will look like, only my successor will know. In the meantime, I wish you and myself the best of luck with the new term in office, and hope that when you balance it out in the end, it is the positive things that predominate over the negative.

2 responses to “Why did I re-stand as SU President?

  1. My best regards to the new SU President. We all were backpackers once and didn’t realize first class travelers laughed at us. Perhaps didn’t even care about it. Great Job!!

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