For the last year, Amelia McLoughlan has served as Welfare and Liberation Officer at Durham Students’ Union. As her successor, Ewan Swift, begins his term, Palatinate asked McLoughlan about the past year, with all its challenges, curiosities and triumphs.
McLoughlan’s work at Durham SU has, since March, been conducted online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “For me personally as a disabled person, lockdown conditions are very familiar”, she tells us. “However, it has been an adjustment to work from home and only seeing our colleagues on a screen rather than spending collective time with them in the office. I very much miss the Kingsgate coffee!
“In terms of my work it became extremely fast-paced, needing to deal with issues from a lot of different sides and our priorities having to change overnight.”
When asked about what her role involved, McLoughlan said: “Broadly, it’s centred around university policy, representing student interest in meetings and responding to students who contact me regarding health, non-academic facilities, housing and liberation issues. A lot of the job is communicating student issues to individuals who can instigate change, writing up policy to support that, and the often longer process of holding those individuals accountable so it actually happens.”
With a particular focus on students’ welfare, McLoughlan’s role has gained a new importance since the pandemic: “For my role in particular, the health, wellbeing and safety of students whether on campus or away from campus was the issue that everything else centred around.”
Looking back, there is much for McLoughlan to be proud of. Her main aims this time last year were to make progress in tackling sexual violence on campus, as well as improving housing issues, equity of support services, and postgraduate welfare.
On top of this, McLoughlan has also spearheaded a Liberation Strategy, which will be continued with liberation representatives. “One of my favourite days,” she recalled, “was being in Parliament speaking on mental health, being able to highlight the importance of cultural competency, and how we need to recognise that mental health issues disproportionately affect students of colour, students from the LGBT+ community and disabled students.”
However, despite positive change, McLoughlan noted that there was still much work to be done. Among other things, she hoped that the University takes seriously the Respect Commission, and “be a lot braver in its tackling of racism, disablism and discrimination.
“From my personal experience, Durham is not the inclusive environment it could be, and I would like to see Durham stop using traditions as a defence against change and becoming a truly transformative place.”
McLoughlan also reflects soberly on some of the challenges the role can create: “The worst parts are normally deeply personal in how you are treated or how people perceive you as an officer.
“That has been really difficult for me coming from a community activist background and suddenly finding distance between myself and the student community, and where there is so little understanding of not only what you do, but who you are.”
When asked what advice she would give to herself this time last year, she said: “To trust yourself more and believe in yourself when that is being questioned. I would advise myself to never underestimate the unexpected, and to budget more for coffee and chocolate!”
And to the new officers who are taking over: “stay true to yourselves, believe in each other, and to understand that not everything you do will be seen or appreciated but that everything in the student interest makes a difference to student’s lives – even if they don’t know it.”
McLoughlan tells us about her time as a student in Durham, before being elected as the Welfare and Liberation Officer: “I began on a foundation course at Queens Campus in Stephenson College. My undergraduate degree was in Anthropology, transferring to Collingwood. Most recently, I studied Paleopathology at a postgraduate level and am a member of Josephine Butler!”
Looking to the future, McLoughlan plans to continue fighting for the same causes to which she has dedicated her work this year: “I have found in my job this year my love of social policy, and will be applying to do a Masters in that field. In the meantime, I will be taking some time out and working with Disabled Students UK to grow a national network of disabled students, who envision a world where disabled students have the same access to education as non-disabled students.
“I am passionate about continuing my work in this area, following on from my time leading the Students with Disabilities Association, and following the work that I have done, and the Students Union will continue to do, on disablism.”
Image: Amelia McLoughlan