Jess Dunning: “This year has been a whirlwind”

By Toby Donegan-Cross, and

In the last academic year, Jess Dunning has worked as the Opportunities Officer at Durham Students’ Union. As her formal responsibilities ended last week, Palatinate spoke to her about the challenges and changes she has faced.

Much like the rest of the world, since March the Covid-19 pandemic has taken Dunning’s work from the DSU to home. “It’s been rather strange working from home,” she reflects. “Usually I am running all over Durham to meetings or working in the office and listening to the busyness of the SU building. It’s been a lot quieter at home. 

“Things also changed due to lockdown in terms of priorities and meetings and we had to do a 360 on what we were working on. But it has been a great learning curve for me.”

I have learnt and grown as a person

Dunning tells us that the role of Opportunities Officer potentially carries the broadest range of responsibilities, which can be shaped by the priorities of the incumbent: “As Opportunities Officer you are primarily responsible for student groups and the commercial arm of the SU. However, you are also the link between the wider Durham community, Experience Durham, and you are responsible for sustainability too.”

Unlike the four other Durham SU officers, Dunning has served as Opportunities Officer in between her third and fourth year as a combined honours student at Van Mildert College, rather than as a graduate. Next year she will resume her studies.

Two major projects Dunning has undertaken this academic year were campaigns for the Real Living Wage and the United Nations Sustainable Developments Goals Accord, the latter of which was successfully tabled in February at the SU assembly, and has recently been signed by the University.

However, seeing the University become an accredited Real Living Wage employer remains unfinished business. “I plan to continue to lobby for this next year”, Dunning said.

Dunning also emphasises how important it is that the findings and recommendations of the Respect Commission Report be taken seriously, and the conversation about disrespect continued. “I would love to see positive actions moving forward for staff, students and the wider Durham community to be more respectful towards one another. It would also help with relationships within the wider Durham community to grow and become stronger.”

It’s been rather strange working from home

Other than this, Dunning has been involved in numerous campaigns and projects all year: an accessibility half-hour for Fresher’s Fair; 17 days of sustainable Christmas, ECO-FEST; Opening Kingsgate Bar and Cafe; live acoustic nights in Kingsgate Bar and gigs in the ballroom; Durham’s Got Talent, a student talent competition; new furniture in the SU, including study spaces; cultivating relationships with local businesses, and more.

As a new set of officers take over next week, including Dunning’s successor Anna Marshall, we asked Dunning what advice she would give to the new team. “Don’t burn yourself out! Make sure you take your breaks and holidays! It’s easy to get caught up in doing everything and then before you know it, you’ve gone six months without a break.”

“It’s a very demanding job and your calendar is usually full all the time, so it’s sometimes hard for people to understand exactly what it is you do,” she tells us. However, despite all the challenges, she concludes: “It is fun though, and you get to experience and learn a lot from it.”

“This year has been a whirlwind and so much has happened that I’m not even sure I can name the best and worst parts. I will say that even the worst parts have turned positive because I have learnt and grown as a person and become a lot stronger because of all the experiences this year – good and bad.”

More information about Dunning’s year can be found on her final SU blog post.

Image: Durham Students’ Union

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