Durham Students’ Union Officer Interviews: Community Officer

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The list of candidates running to be Durham Students’ Union’s inaugural Community Officer have been officially announced, and campaigning has begun. Voting will start on Wednesday, 7th February 2024, so in order for candidates to get their messages out there, Palatinate has sat down with all four of the candidates vying to be elected to give them a chance to sell their vision for the year-long, full-time role. 

The position is paid, and sits atop the SU student officer hierarchy, alongside the President and Education Officer, whom Palatinate has also sat down with, in the run up to the election. A Job Description published by SU says the winning candidate will be expected to act as an advocate for students, surrounding student support and enrichment to the University, to listen to students’ concerns and work alongside SU staff and officers, including contributing to the campaigns on the cost of living and student housing campaigns. Palatinate gave each candidate the same opportunity to answer the same set of questions in interviews lasting around half an hour each.

Moitreyo Ganguli

The first candidate Palatinate sat down with was Moitreyo Ganguli, and we started by asking him what had been his motivation behind applying for the role. He explained how becoming International Welfare Officer at St Aidan’s College helped him, “I was suffering from depression a bit in my first year, it gave me an opportunity to help people with something I was suffering with, which gave me a lot of confidence in terms of putting myself out there.” He also discussed how being part of Rock Society helped him meet like minded people and foster community within the University–he pointed to his black shirt and red tie, saying “google Gerard Way black tie, he’s had one of the biggest influences on me.” The communities that helped him, he wants to, in turn, support back. 

Palatinate then asked Mr Ganguli about some of his main ideas for the job. He told us his main priority would be helping improve mental health resources, “in Bangalore, India, where I come from, mental health is not seen as something that is essential,” one of his main ideas would be to “de-stigmatise loneliness”, by reaching out to other student organisations. One of his major policies is to support the ForThe100 suggestions, which would entail a commitment from the University surrounding a duty of care to students. 

 His main priority would be helping improve mental health resources

Other areas of focus for him would be to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as negotiating student bus tickets for Go North East, rather than just Arriva, to make sure that students who rely on buses to access campus aren’t affected if they go on strike again. He links this to issues with housing saying “students are living further away, I have friends living in Newcastle who come into Durham and were affected by the bus strikes.” Those living outside of campus would benefit with microwaves around campus, longer opening times for buildings and greater flexibility for part time workers. 

On housing and cost of living, he admits that it is a tricky problem, but he would work on the current housing proposals put forward by the SU, “it won’t solve the housing crisis tomorrow, but it is one of the only options that we have”. This links in with one of his other long-termist views on opening dialogues and learning from other students’ unions.

When Palatinate asked Mr Ganguli about how he thought he would deal with the committee-based, administrative elements of the role, he explained that he has had a lot of involvement with the SU, “I’ve spoken to officers who are currently in the SU,” and he says that with any gaps “I am confident I can learn what I need to”. Familiar with the SU, Mr Ganguli has previously worked behind the SU’s bar and reception. 

Moving onto what he would do to make Durham more welcoming to students, Mr Ganguli spoke about his own experience with freshers week. He wants to “make sure that students know that there is support available at different levels,” saying “my college was lovely, they’re very supportive”. He envisions a culture that is more proactive “where students look out for each other”, which could be done through workshops, “helping with students living alone for the first time”, including socialising without drinking.

 He envisions a culture that is more proactive “where students look out for each other”

Palatinate then asked Mr Ganguli about how he would help students feel safe on campus, especially students who may be personally affected by conflict around the world. He says “I do have a keen interest in politics, I’m a member of Durham Labour Club”. He encouraged students to join together, and speak to fellow students who may be undergoing similar issues, whilst “respecting each other’s differences”.

Lastly, Palatinate touched on what can be done to promote student engagement with the SU. Mr Ganguli recalled a recent quote by a Cambridge SU officer who suggested that, “universities with a collegiate structure, more generally, are at a disadvantage”, but he sees the potential relationship with JCRs as a benefit, and the SU’s support of a large array of student societies, being one of the biggest in the UK. He pointed to his poster, which praises the work that JCRs and student groups already do in helping those from marginalised backgrounds, but interacting with individual students would help him figure out what else the SU can do that isn’t being done by other organisations

Owen Mitchell

We then sat down with Owen Mitchell, and gave xem an opportunity to discuss xir experience and motivation behind applying for the role. Xe said “part of it comes from here in Durham, and part of it is my entire life, to be honest”. Coming from Croydon, in South London, xe says it’s seen “as really not a nice place,” a place xe says has “high crime rates, stabbings or even worse, shootings”. “I went to Stormzy’s school,” xe says, “he didn’t have a childhood, really”. 

“The government doesn’t do anything, so it’s the community’s job to turn down knife crime,” inspired by the response of the community xe says that Durham “has a lot of problems that could also be solved by community. [The problems] are here because there’s not the right kind of community.” Xe refers to an article that xe has pinned on xir wall, from a recent issue of Indigo, which describes a “diversity deficit” in Durham, which, for xem, sums up the issue. “It’s that we’re not visible enough, we don’t have a community here that we feel at home and that we can walk into, and that is a community that has to be created.” It is, for xem, the main job that the SU needs to tackle.

Palatinate then asked Mx Mitchell about what policies xe would implement and the changes that the SU should make. “It’s not a thing that can be solved through policies, it’s bringing people together. Whoever becomes Community Officer, will have to be able to go out, to lots of different people, with different interests and bring all of that together into one University community.”

[Durham] has a lot of problems that could also be solved by community. [The problems] are here because there’s not the right kind of community

Owen Mitchell

Reflecting on other Universities, xe sees the SU as being able to host more events space, beyond what is just done by JCRs. “the SU has issues with engagement because there is not much room for engagement in other stuff apart from policy,” xe mentions xir membership of the advisory board for the access and participation plan, “which is as boring as it sounds for most people–maybe not as much for me”. Xe stresses the building and the resources that the SU has to facilitate the community, “music nights and clubs”, xe suggests. Palatinate asked specifically about how xe would promote further engagement, Mx Mitchell pointed to the “SU being directly above societies and JCRs, in terms of structure”, with a role in “bringing that community together into one”.

Moving on to how xe would manage the committee-based, administrative side of the role, Mx Mitchell points to xis role as Treasurer of Gospel Choir, “it’s all admin really,” xe jokes. With all of the other society roles xe has taken on, xe says “I’m able to deal with many things at once…but you have to make it fun, and I do”. Palatinate then asked about how xe would make Durham welcoming, especially for freshers. “Moving back to Croydon, I never felt like I didn’t belong there, and I never felt like anyone else didn’t belong there, with people from all over the world”. Furthermore, “some people say fix diversity and you fix the culture, that’s the wrong way around. Diversity appears where there is a culture of acceptance.” 

Some people say fix diversity and you fix the culture, that’s the wrong way around. Diversity appears where there is a culture of acceptance

Owen Mitchell

On the topic of cost of living and housing, Mx Mitchell said “the feeling that we are going to work together to improve our situations is part of community, and that is currently missing”. Xe stressed that other people are more experienced on cost of living and housing policy, and xe would seek to learn more from them about it, and make sure that they are heard by “going to their meetings, signing their petitions”. 

Finally, Palatinate asked xir attitude to help feel safe on campus, especially students who may be personally affected by events occurring across the world. Xe points to one of the campaigns xe ran for DPOCA, “for that affect students of colour directly and indirectly”, which told of some Sudanese students “whose families homes had been destroyed in the war”. The campaign was important to xem as it “showed what information was out there, you know if you meet someone who is Sundanese, that it’s probably on their mind. If I take on that role of providing that information, those people don’t have to teach people and experience that isolates themselves.”

Manveer Singh Bhalla 

We then spoke to Manveer Singh Bhalla, firstly about his motivation behind applying for the role. He told Palatinate “moving from India, where the student-teacher relationship is very important, to Durham, the experience is much more solitary”. Based on this experience, he wants to improve students’ inductions, which was one of the major reasons why he ran to be course representative for Philosophy and Psychology, “it was the first position of leadership where I felt I could do something about this”. 

During this, he found that many students regretted this lack of relationship between student and department, “I’ve spoken to some second and third years and they regretted not interacting in earlier years”. This, for him, is especially the case for international students, “we’re paying more than double the fees, so it’s important that I know what I want to do when I finish my degree”. 

Palatinate then asked Mr Bhalla how Durham could be made more welcoming for those coming from home and abroad, he replied “a lot of issues from people settling in comes from [people not] reaching out, not because people are not welcoming”. He thinks a lot can be done before we arrive at Durham, “before I came to Durham, I was not clear about the fees structure of college, and how I should choose it”, he agreed that the SU could be part of the process with educating people about Durham before they arrive.

We are always told to care about mental health…but it is very hard with the academic commitments we face to make time for our mental health

Manveer Singh Bhalla

Regarding what changes he would like to make, Mr Bhalla said in terms of accessing student welfare, “we are always told to care about mental health–being a student of psychology, we get taught that it is increasingly important–but it is very hard with the academic commitments we face to make time for our mental health”. The best way to encourage people to access mental health services is through “forming better relationships with colleges–people do feel closer to their college community than [the SU]”. Palatinate asked Mr Bhalla what can be done to promote student engagement with the SU, he said he was “astonished” with the turnout of students last year. Palatinate’s reporting on last year’s student officer election revealed a turnout of 6.9%, with 1470 people voting in total. 

“Most of what the SU is trying to do is to get our opinions, most of the role is bureaucratic”. However, he said that when he has spoken to the staff and officers currently working in the SU, “they have been very honest and open about it–it’s more of a structural problem”. On engaging with other student bodies, he mentions JCRs and MCRs, but also the Careers and Enterprises Centre, a part of the University, “careers are a big thing that I want to focus on as Community Officer because it is one of the things that students worry about outside of academic life”. He hopes to bring the SU into some of the one-on-one career advice roles, with him envisioning a “symbiotic” relationship between them.

Palatinate then asked him about the committee-based, administrative elements of the role, “firstly, I am inclined to that, but I have a real interest and a passion in communicating. If I know that this is the right point of view about something, then I am assertive about it, and in a committee, it’s a very important skill to have, as well as being diplomatic.”

He hopes to bring the SU into some of the one-on-one career advice roles, with him envisioning a “symbiotic” relationship between them

When Palatinate asked Mr Bhalla what he would do to help students feel safe on campus, he was willing to praise the work the SU has done in this respect, “it has embraced diversity–take for example the work with international societies that creates multicultural interactions…we are engaging with them and bringing communities together.”

On students’ cost of living and housing concerns, Mr Bhalla said that students “are in dire need of [financial] education, as students are in charge of handling a lot of money and their student loans, and this is happening all of a sudden–it’s a question of marketing and reaching out to students”. Specifically on housing, “it is a deeply structural problem, with lots of outside factors”, however, he saw it as more of the president’s responsibility. He said he could help “by bringing in more part-time work opportunities in Durham”, however he stressed how it is important to be realistic, “we cannot be revolutionary in the span of one year, I want to be able to reach out and help students tangibly”.

ShengJun Wang 

Lastly, Palatinate sat down with ShengJun Wang, Palatinate started by asking her motivation behind applying for the role. She said, “I am an easy-going person and I have participated in team competitions, so I have learned how to participate with lots of different personalities and people”, in terms of communication, “I am very good at taking photos, so I will be able to bring more attention to the people who need my help. I can also create a poster introducing the programme for each volunteer activity, so those who are interested can join.” In terms of experience, Ms Wang said, “I worked for a year in my high school admissions department, helping teachers to make students more interested in going to our school.” As part of her campaign, Ms Wang says she has acted as a course representative for education studies.

When Palatinate asked about her ideas for the role, she said, “I will let students decide together by voting on the activities that they want to do”, she is keen to expand the number of activities on offer to different students. Palatinate asked whether there were any specific ideas she had for the role, “if I am lucky to be elected, I just want to do what students want me to do, including some small things that the SU is able to do”, she also suggested this could work towards improving the relationship between student and department. This was also touched on in her candidate profile, “I would like to say that I’ll do what the students agree and want me to do after I am elected, and I’ll try to improve the standard of college life as much as possible.” She also has also included ideas for “volunteering to do small things, like creating several events and distributing gifts during the holidays” in her candidate profile. 

I will let students decide together by voting on the activities that they want to do

ShengJun Wang

Moving on to what could be expected from the role, Palatinate asked about Ms Wang’s skills in the committee-based administrative sides of the role. She replied, “for writing, I definitely am, and for speaking to students and other officers, it is not particularly hard for me. I’m an easy-going person.” She re-emphasised her participation in team sports, “I know how to get along with team-members, and I know how to get on at a personal level with students and [academics].” She said she would provide honest feedback and regular updates so that students know what progress she is making with the committee and admin work, “if we know each other well, we can work well together.”

Palatinate asked Ms Wang her views on how Durham can be made more welcoming for new students, “I am an international student, and coming to a new country, they probably need a person who can help them with something small, such as going shopping. If we can help them do these things, or prepare this for them before they arrive, I think it will help them get used to their new country as fast as possible.” On the subject of what she would do to help ensure students feel safe on campus, she said it was important to make sure that people have a diverse number of groups to be a part of, “people from similar backgrounds will have the same topic which they can talk to each other about, and work together on.” Again, she stressed that “we should choose how to tackle issues by voting–if we have one goal that we can work together on.”

I know how to get along with team-members, and I know how to get on at a personal level with students and [academics].

ShengJun Wang

Moving on to the SU, Palatinate asked Ms Wang what she would do to promote student engagement with the SU, “I want to expand the diversity of the activities, and consider more students, like having things that people care about, and activities that they are interested in.” As more people take part and make friends, “this will draw attention to it”. Lastly, Palatinate asked about what she could do to help fix cost of living and housing concerns that students may hold, “this is a serious problem, the cost of living is very high, if some people have financial problems, maybe the SU can pay out [grants], or some part-time work, to help relieve students’ financial problems. We must help them, but also make sure they feel we respect them. The most important thing is that we respect each other.”

Voting opens at 10am on 7th February 2024, and closes at 5pm on 12th February 2024, with results being announced the following day. You may vote online at durhamsu.com/vote

Image: Daniel Hodgson

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