As we’ve mentioned various times in our articles, it’s been an incredibly difficult year to be a sabbatical officer. This is one of the main drivers behind why we feel it is crucial to showcase the amazing and exceptional work of sabbatical officers across the country. That is as there is fantastic work worth smiling about going on in the higher education sector, and more often than not, officers are driving it.
This week for our “Sabbs in the Spotlight” feature we caught up with the brilliant Molly Purcell who is currently President at Essex Students’ Union.
Hi Molly! It’s been a really busy year in office for you so far, how have you found it?
Absolutely crazy if I’m completely honest! It’s not only been a real professional challenge, but also personally. I’m dealing with things I never in a million years thought I’d be capable of. Luckily, I have incredible people around me who make it all possible.
So, you’ve been Womens’ Officer, VP Services and Engagement, and now you are President of Essex Students’ Union. How have you found your journey as a student leader?
When you put it like that… it’s been a real adventure. I started out at Essex in 2016, and the Students’ Union is one of the main things that drew me into this place. As I highlighted above, my journey has really shown me exactly how I can start to fulfil my potential. I’ve been incredibly passionate about politics ever since my teens, and the SU has given me the leverage to drive this passion – particularly when it comes to women’s issues.
I did a fair few other things whilst I was a student too, such as being President of the Show Choir Society, and working as a supervisor in one of our retail outlets. Leadership is something that feels natural to me – not that it’s been easy the whole time, but it’s really allowed me to grow as a person.
What does a typical week look like for you?
Well, at the moment, I’m in and out of the office on a rota basis with the rest of my Officer team. So, I’m still getting to go into campus three to four times a week, which is great, because I can still see some of my colleagues! In terms of my work schedule, if I’m completely honest, every week is very different.
As President I sit on various University committees which often take up a lot of my time, and meeting with other SU staff on how we can engage with students whilst coordinating my Officer team and their projects. It’s such a shame I can’t physically go out there and speak to students anymore, because I think that’s one of my favourite things about this job.
This is your second year as a Sabbatical Officer, how hard have you found this academic year in comparison to last year?
Oh…so hard! Pandemic aside, my role last year was very much SU-focused, surrounding our commercial services, so I had very little university involvement with my role. This year it’s university-heavy, and with the added load of line management and dealing with that little thing we call coronavirus, the change in pressure was almost a shock to the system to start with. I wouldn’t say I’m used to it, but it certainly becomes more manageable.
There’s lots of issues to campaign on in higher education at the moment, but what do you think is the most important right now?
Intersectional representation & rights, and mental health, for sure. Different communities need to be supported and represented far more than what they are and what they have been – and it will continue to be an ongoing issue for as long as we work on it. The same goes for mental health.
At Essex, you work on a cross-Officer team manifesto called the “Big Plan” rather than having individual goals. How would you describe the Big Plan to other Students’ Unions, and what priorities are you working on now?
Our Big Plan manifesto is quite unique and we’re pretty proud of it.
Each year, before the officer elections, our fabulous Engagement team do a massive data collection on what students’ priorities are for the upcoming academic year, and this is whittled down to 5/6 priorities.
Then, the candidates during the election period tailor their campaign to this data and how we can truly represent students’ interests as opposed to making campaign promises before in office. The team work on the different topics with 1-2 officers working on each.
Right now, we had to adjust our Big Plan in light of COVID-19, so this year’s Big Plan consists of: WIFI reliability; loans, bursaries and grants; COVID learning; and building connections and welfare.
If you could change one thing permanently for the higher education sector, what would it be?
Its accessibility to everybody. I fundamentally disagree with the marketisation of education. It should be available to everybody; there are so many barriers which prevent young minds from reaching their potential – which is a broader problem, but if I could, I would change how corporate it has become.
What would you consider your greatest achievement whilst being a Student Officer?
I’m quite proud of a lot of the work I’ve done but working with the officer team last year to change my previous role, VP Services, to VP Community is what I’d say. The role change was completely necessary and now our student communities have a platform they can reach more easily to create change and representation.
Are there any campaigns you are working on at the moment that you’d like to collaborate with other Students’ Unions on?
Recognising that COVID learning and the student experience is a challenge and how we can represent students nationwide through the pandemic. It may seem like an obvious one, but nobody has had to deal with what we’re dealing with at the moment, so I think sharing that amongst other unions is vital for this academic year.
And finally…. What’s your favourite thing about Essex Students’ Union?
The people. Always. Our tagline ‘Welcome to the Family’ couldn’t be more true.