SU Welfare Officer, Sarah Pickup: “I know that sounds really clichéd but you do have an amazing opportunity so don’t waste it.”

Impact News sat down with Sarah Pickup, SU Welfare Officer, to find out how she feels about her year in office.

How have you found your year in office?

Amazing, I have loved every minute. Starting the job, I think I was very naïve. It’s just been a really fun year, you get to hang out with the students every day and work with amazing groups like Nightline and all the welfare reps in halls that want to do stuff and impact students every day with the support they give and I get to be a part of that which is really cool, so I love it.

What do you think has been most successful about your year?

In terms of the manifesto points I put forward, we got lighting on the downs. It is now fully lit after many years of pushing. We got the International Rep passed by the Procedures Committee which means that next September there will be an International rep in all of the Halls Committees. Which is amazing.

“It’s been an amazing project to be a part of and even though it’s come so far there’s still loads to do.”

The big project that I’ve really loved working on is the Welfare in Sport one. It was amazing to see the success of different pledges that the clubs were implementing in their members and how they wanted to do more and get more involved. To the point where we now have a committee to manage all of our publicity and recruitment and training. It’s been an amazing project to be a part of and even though it’s come so far there’s still loads to do.

What problems have you faced in implementing your manifesto points?

I think some of it was my naivety coming in, I wasn’t aware of all of the democratic structures and procedures so it’s just taken longer to bring ideas forward. With the international rep I worked over the summer to gather information and work out what it would look like and how we would track it for the first year to see if it was successful enough. How we would integrate it with the international office. Just before Welcome Week I was told that it required a constitutional change and that I had to pass it in democratic procedures committee something that I had not known existed.

So that was really frustrating in hindsight, that is something that would have really benefitted us in our training and I am reviewing the training for the new officers so that they are aware of this from day one.

One of the key terms in all of last years’ manifestos was transparency, how do you believe that you have made your role clearer to students in the last year?

It’s actually really hard. I’d say it’s easy telling students what you’re doing if they’re already engaged in what you’re doing like sports societies. To reach 34 thousand students and telling them what we do is actually so hard to follow through.

What I have done mainly is I have updated my networks personally. So I have my welfare reps, all of the welfare groups and the part time officers and I have WhatsApp threads, Facebook groups and emails with them weekly telling them what I’m doing and what is coming up that they can get involved with. I hope by telling those natural connections I have that word will spread but it is difficult to do. Even things like the website, Union Council or Scrutiny Panel and that’s not necessarily accessible to students.

We’re currently working through that procedure and looking at the democratic structures and how we can engage students in what is going on because it is a really important part of allowing students to make change and to dictate how we work as a union.

Do you think there is still a misunderstanding about what the SU does?

Yes, definitely. Even things like the services we provide. We did a survey last year and I think over 60% of students think that the Student Advice Centre is University when it’s Students Union so just like clarity over that. We want every student to feel like they have a say and a part of that. Our slogan for this year was ‘You are the SU’ just to try and get the message out. I think a lot of people see the SU as being this entity, like the officers or Portland but the SU is everything.

Our investigation into sexual consent highlighted that only about 50% of students thought people knew what the term sexual consent means and 60% believe that there is a lack of understanding about what sexual consent means. How do you think the university can improve sexual consent education and do you think that this is a major issue?

Yeah I think that it is an issue that has got a lot of coverage this year and it is not an issue that is going to go away. There’s always more stuff that we can do.

I think it’s finding the balance between how students receive messages and how they learn. You’ve got some students who will engage and respond to compulsory consent classes and you’ve got other students who will see that as a massive barrier and will not engage with that, and will appreciate something like a video or an awareness campaign or something more voluntary so trying to balance that is quite difficult. We’ve got to balance those expectations from students while also working with the university. Going out with a consistent message/campaign, whatever we go forward with.

“We’re trying to get all the right things in place so that we get it right and reach as many students as we can with it but yeah definitely more that we can be doing.”

I think also because of the nature of it. It is so important but also very sensitive and we want to make sure that the way we go about it people’s welfare won’t be compromised. The right structures need to be in place in case things come out as a result of what we put in place, like a guidance document if someone goes to a class and something comes out. We want to make sure we’re clear on what would happen. I think it will be a long term project to make sure that we get it right.

I think it goes beyond universities, we need to start looking at what we can do within the local community. At how students interact with locals on the street when they go out to go out to clubs, working with the police, the council, things like that and then going beyond the student population and at schools. The kind of education children and adolescents are getting before they even get to university. So it’s a biggie but we’re trying to get all the right things in place so that we get it right and reach as many students as we can with it but yeah definitely more that we can be doing.

In your manifesto you said you wanted to put on low key events in halls as an alternative to the bigger evening events. In light of the Week One overhaul to what extent do you believe that this point was successful?

So I was a week one rep and it was one of the big things that I found as a rep and then talking to other students as well as far as campaigning that if you don’t go out, if you don’t necessarily know the people in your block. There may be more introverted students, it would be great to have things going on in halls at that time.

As I came into the role and started working we learnt more about the Welcome and were able to input into it. So from the events programme that they were putting together they and split it into daytime and early evening which was based in halls and then the night time whether it was going out or something like bowling it was that kind of thing. So I was like great this is covered early evening but then there was still the difficulty of what early evening is. It worked to an extent so we had different events going on in halls during that time, but I think it is something to be worked on and I think there is still more that we can be doing to get halls committees engaged in that process.

Again with ease of handover with welcome reps leaving and JCRs coming in so we’re working closely with the halls committees and trying to emphasise how their role continues all the way through to October. I get that it’s hard but making sure that they are aware that their responsibilities are the still the same and there is stuff that they can be doing within that process. We got there but it’s not quite perfected so we can do more with that.

In your manifesto you mentioned you would like to have an emergency button around campus to send signals to campus security for students in danger. What happened to this initiative?

“My objective became improving safety around campus.”

When you come into a role you get a better understanding of what’s possible and what’s not possible. So your manifesto becomes your objectives, it’s what we get scrutinised on. My objective became improving safety around campus. I did some researching over summer about safety buttons, their usage and so forth, starting looking at the student data we had got from our insight team that does student surveys during the year around different issues so in terms of student data there was nothing that said that this was the kind of thing that they wanted.

Safety came up loads but students said that they knew how to reach the security offices if they needed it. In general, they didn’t have a problem with security vans coming out to meet them if they needed. So I had initial conversations with the security and the estate teams and they basically implied that they wouldn’t be able to do it at this stage, but if we got enough evidence base that students wanted it or would need it we could explore it. I’m not completely off the idea but there has been no big student mandate like there was with the lighting and the taxis so I felt it was better to pursue those ideas.

Is there anything else you’d like to highlight about your year in office?

I think one of the best things is that I get to work every day with some of my closest friends, it’s such a great working environment and it’s great to get to implement change. Like I said, I came in very naïve to the role, didn’t really know what I was getting myself into every day is different. It’s just really exciting. And then all of the personal development opportunities that you get. So the Vice Chancellor when it comes to graduations can’t always go to all of them so he sometimes asks an officer to give a graduation speech instead. I suck at public speaking; it was one of my biggest worries when I came into office.

So then when the Vice Chancellor asked us to do them, they were all like Sarah you should do one. I don’t actually remember giving the speech because I was so unbelievably nervous. But then afterwards I was getting hugged by all of the academics and they were like it was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard and I was like really? But yeah so it has been amazing for me to develop personal skills and stuff like that so I’m now much more confident speaking in front of people.

Do you have any advice for future candidates/whoever takes over your role?

“And if you believe that what you’re saying is right then go for it because you have a chance to change it.”

Don’t be afraid to pursue something if you think it is right. It was something I really struggled with at the beginning because I hate confrontation and you get thrown in to some staff members that have been here for years and are very good at their jobs. And we come in to make sure that what they’re doing is representative for students. I didn’t want to disagree with some of these people, but sometimes they’ve got it wrong. They’re going to come in with fresh ideas and they’re going to have different experiences to what I’ve had.

So don’t be afraid to stick up for that and be like no. The officer team, different member of staff, the students you’re working with you have an amazing opportunity to represent thousands of students. And if you believe that what you’re saying is right then go for it because you have a chance to change it. I know that sounds really clichéd but you do have an amazing opportunity so don’t waste it because you’re too scared to fight for it.

Hannah Eves

Image: Impact Images Team

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