Spotlight on: Being a Sabbatical Officer

It’s been really nice to see a Student’s Union President with the right set of ideas! I have played particular attention to David’s work as he stands for fair access in Higher Education. That means he tries to help students access every part of University of Southampton life regardless of their financial background. He recognises the struggle some students have in an increasingly competitive University atmosphere. I had particular difficulty with money as a student, not coming from a rich family and being rubbish at budgeting meant that I ended up having to work the whole of my summer of second year otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford my rent. David wants any and all students to be able to be active alongside their degree to enhance their chances of being a well rounded and generally employed individual after graduation. I wanted him to share some pearls of wisdom as he came to the end of his role with this in mind I asked him a few questions about his degree, background and his experience as a “sabb” The orange text is David and black text is me

A man of the people…and cats


Background and road to becoming a Sabbatical Officer

I have a BA Philosophy and Maths from University of Southampton, graduated in 2012. Since then I’ve been working as a Sabbatical Officer (Vice President Communications and most recently President) at SUSU for the last two years. Philosophy and Maths are very logical subjects, so they really taught me how to think analytically and therefore be critical of new information, rather than just taking it as read. This allows me to debate with people who have different perspectives from myself, which is vital in a Sabbatical role, as you need to convince people to change their practices to improve the student experience. It also helped me realise that I don’t want to become a banker – mathematics is hard. I can relate. I heard about the Sabbatical role during my first year, as I was covering the elections as part of student media. I saw the elections process as a festival of colours and confident students campaigning together.  It’s a pretty unique “recruitment” process. You have to run a campaign so that as many students as possible will vote for you. From writing a manifesto, bringing together a campaign team, and getting out the message, the ‘Gilani Army’ managed to get over 2700 students to vote for us.

What about a more formal means of recruiting Sabbs? Like interviews?

Hehe well I can see the appeal – cutting back on those elections which can easily seem annoying.  Ultimately, a more formal recruitment process wouldn’t work, because it wouldn’t be able to test candidates for what their job entails. Sabbatical officers in their jobs have to be able to run campaigns, lobby people, build community – that’s exactly what happens during the elections, and you wouldn’t be able to see that through an interview. Also, who would be on the panel? 

How has the “unique” nature of campaigning for a job helped David? 

Firstly, it gives you an immense amount of public speaking skills, and confidence. Even candidates who lose will still likely get hundreds if not thousands of votes… it’s pretty impressive to think that anyone at our age is inspiring enough to convince that many people of anything. It also makes you work harder. When you’re campaigning, you see the passion of your opponents, and you realise that whoever wins better put every ounce of life into that job, otherwise you’re doing a disservice to the other students who could have it instead.   

Day in the life of a “Sabb”

This doesn’t really match what I thought I would be doing after my degree. When I started my degree, I was a nervous, nerdy loner who wanted to be an accountant… now I’m a nervous, nerdy loner, who cares about fair access to education! Probably one of the best things about being a Sabbatical Officer is that there isn’t much of a typical working day. There will be a mixture of SUSU meetings, where you help to bring a student voice to the running of this £7 million organisation; you then might get some time to work on some of the main campaigns / projects that you’re working on; maybe pop over the road to lobby the University on an issue that’s come up; and no day is complete with students talking to you about an issue that they’ve had, which you can help them with.

What has been the most challenging student issue David has been faced with?

My work on getting the University to promise investment into student facilities was very difficult because of the timescales involved, but the most challenging topic has had to be postgraduate funding. Every year, we see fewer UK students being able to afford continuing to postgraduate study because there is no national loan system. <This is the very reason I haven’t gone on to do my PGCE. This issue was so challenging because even with passion from university executives, we knew that this wasn’t an issue that we could fully solve at a local level.   But the most enjoyable part of my role is supporting students who aren’t being given a fair share. Over the last year, I’ve mainly focused on ensuring that finances aren’t a barrier to education. It’s an issue where people who don’t even benefit from your work will still passionately support you on it – because they also agree that it’s important.

Apart from removing barriers to participation, what is key to enhancing Student Experience at uni?

Passionate lecturers and support staff. People are always going to have a great time socialising with other students, joining societies, etc. The biggest difference I often found between being satisfied with a module or not, was how inspiring the lecturers were. That’s why it’s so important that students recognise their part to play in the feedback loop. Great lecturers need to be celebrated, and others need to constructively realise why they’re not being celebrated and how they can get there.   ^ PREACH!  One of the trickiest things I find in my role working with students is the “balancing act” between making them happy and being realistic with what is achievable. If students see themselves as being able to actively change things for the better then I think there would be a greater sense of satisfaction on their part. It’s about listening to students generally not just when it suits us. I suppose the hardest part of my role is letting people down . Unfortunately, there will be occasions where you can’t find a “win-win” scenario. In these situations, you know what the right thing to do is, but are aware that there will be ‘casualties’ with it. Using the phrase “the greater good” just makes you sound like a Hot Fuzz character now, so it’s never easy. The most valuable lesson I have learned so far is that that people respect integrity. When you say what you do, and do what you say… so many more people will support you. There’s no point taking on loads of work if you’re not going to be able to do it, so be honest with people from the beginning.

Role models and advice for students and upcoming grads

I probably take my role models from fictional TV shows like The Newsroom, The West Wing… and one some worrying occasions… House of Cards.


The best piece of advice I have been given is probably something simple like… “Try your best”. People can tell when your heart isn’t in it. With regards to students and upcoming graduates I would say look for something that you actually care about, and you’ll be able to better sell yourself. When in the interview, although it’s obviously important to tell the panel how you can help them, I do think that you should also talk about how they can help you. Employers do want to see that you’re passionate because then they’ll know that they’ll get your 100%. So show that passion.

Hopes for the future (is there life after being a sabb?…OK there is, I over dramatise)

I’ve loved the opportunity that I’ve had this year to try and remove financial barriers to education, so I could imagine dedicating a large portion of my life towards achieving that… but in what form… who know I think extra-curricular projects definitely helped me gain my latest role! In a sea of 2:1s, it’s what sets you apart. It shows that you can work with other people, balance workload, and lead . Alongside my current commitments  I sit on something called the Southampton Fairness Commission, which is a body set up by the city council to look at equity across the city. It’s been a great chance to think about how we can ensure that Southampton is an equitable place to live. You can see David’s farewell to SUSU blog on the Southampton Student’s Union Website he has now gone on to secure himself a role with the University Communications team focusing on engagement, I look forward to hearing more about his work.

Next week’s post will be on being a Recruitment Consultant 


Author: eemaa27

Blogging and reflecting to keep my writing skills in tune

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