After a year working at the Durham Students’ Union as Undergraduate Academic Officer, Palatinate spoke to Sam Johnson-Audini about their experiences this year, as their term comes to an end.
Since March, the DSU building has been locked and Johnson-Audini’s work has had to be conducted remotely. “It’s been really weird, especially because I went on a holiday to New York at the start of March… I’ve mostly missed the ability to just grab a coffee with someone and have a chat, as well as having lunch together as a team.
“It’s also just been very all-hands-on-deck, because suddenly so much changed, and new, urgent issues would arise every day. I am really proud of all the SU has done during lockdown and all we’ve managed to deliver for students in such a short period of time.”
Despite obvious challenges, the majority of Johnson-Audini’s work can continue. Day-to-day, they tell us, “I have a lot of meetings and committees, so I read a lot of papers for them, propose amendments on top of just attending! I also speak a lot to our faculty reps and course reps to keep an eye out for any emerging issues that need to be raised.
“Often, there are projects I am working on either independently or collaboratively, so I go through action plans, do tasks like speak to people or develop resources, chase up emails, scrutinise what’s happening, things like that.”
Upon beginning their role, Johnson-Audini’s main ambition was “to create the groundwork for a campaign to decolonise Durham – and I think I have achieved that!”
Secondly, they sought to “reform how we do assessment and mitigating circumstances at Durham, moving to processes that centre students’ wellbeing. Those conversations changed pretty quickly due to COVID, but it was refreshing to see the university prioritise accessible learning and assessment, despite it taking a pandemic to get there.”
Johnson-Audini hopes that the changes implemented in part by the pandemic inform the University’s future approach to exams: “you shouldn’t be forced to pay £50 to prove you’ve had health difficulties, or detail trauma to anonymous panels just to achieve the mitigation you deserve.
“We need to believe students when they’re in difficulty, rather than designing a system around the perception that students will try to scam it, and I think all that has happened the past few months shows that those systems are possible.
These changes have been achieved in spite of personal challenges associated with the role. When asked what the most difficult part of the job was, Johnson-Audini said: “By far, the worst has been seeing people mock my work on public platforms, reacting and engaging in facebook posts belittling my decolonise work and trans peoples’ pronouns.
“Obviously, I knew not everyone would agree with my priorities or my work and that’s a normal, and healthy, part of being an officer! But I don’t think I was expecting it to feel so personal, especially when people I knew would engage with those posts.
“As someone who’s non-binary and from a mixed-race background, my experiences naturally shaped what I care about, and what I do, but it felt like I came under extra scrutiny than some of my counterparts which was hard to navigate.
“I also wish that people had asked me about these things at assembly or just emailed me, I’m happy to have that conversation, but nobody did. At times, I even felt guilty for talking about racism and decolonisation because of the backlash it seemed to elicit, and how many students of colour will see that and feel alienated, because I know I did.”
However, the year has also been laced with positives: “From having the joy of personally explaining to my friend in mid-April that because of the no-detriment policy they definitely would get into their dream masters course, to being told of the students who, because of our interventions, were actually able to access the technology they needed to finish their degrees. As well as that, being able to see things I’ve said shape University conversations throughout the year has been so rewarding.
“At the start of my year, I was frequently met with claims that ‘decolonisation is just another diversity issue’ but I have seen how the conversation has evolved to decolonisation being taken seriously in its own right as a priority.”
However, Johnson-Audini also highlighted that there was much work that still needed doing: “I would like to see students of colour actually be celebrated and respected, which is a bare minimum but after this past year it is clear it needs saying. I hope Durham becomes more self-critical.”
In addition, they say, “I also still hold out hope for more fundamental assessment and teaching reform. If anything, Covid-19 has exposed the lie that the best method of assessment is sticking someone in a quiet hall for three hours and testing their memory.
“People’s minds work in different ways, and that should be celebrated and accounted for, rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning, which too often shuts out students from marginalised backgrounds.”
Finally, Johnson-Audini highlighted the continuing need for better support for disabled students. As part of their work this year, they have argued that the University should fund diagnostic testing for those with learning difficulties.
When asked what advice they might give to themselves this time last year, and for the incoming SU Officer team, they said: “I’d give the incoming team the same advice I needed which is that there’s no one correct way of being an officer! Find your rhythm, you know what you’re doing and there’s no shame in asking for help when you don’t.”
“Generally,” they concluded, “just being able to go into work doing something that I love and care about, with incredible people around me has, on a personal level, been amazing.”
Image: Durham Students’ Union