Welfare and Liberation Officer candidate interviews: Nicole Allen, Deborah Acheampong and Emma Rohe

By Ben Webb, and

As the Durham Students’ Union elections come to a close, Palatinate met the three candidates running for the role of Welfare and Liberation Officer: Nicole Allen, Deborah Acheampong and Emma Rohe.

Nicole Allen

Nicole Allen is a third year Law student and the current President of Hild Bede’s LGBTQ+ Society. They are one of the three candidates running for SU Welfare and Liberation Officer for the next academic year.

In an interview with Palatinate, Ms Allen was quick to outline the three main strands of their campaign, hoping to tackle the “housing and cost of living crisis”, implementing more “proactive student support”, and devising a “comprehensive equality and diversity strategy”, plans that they believe will make the Welfare and Liberation Officer “more approachable and accountable.”

The law finalist goes on to say that they will tackle the housing crisis by lobbying for “a rent freeze on private accommodation”, attempting to “take the fight” to both private landlords and the University. This can be most prominently seen with their determination to reverse the 10.3% increase in accommodation prices in college. 

When asked about the feasibility of such an idea when they are already in office as students pay these prices, Ms Allen suggested that “even if it comes in for half the year, it will achieve far more than other means”. 

“Even if [a rent freeze] comes in for half the year, it will achieve far more than other means”

Nicole Allen

These “other means” referred to grant provisions and foodbanks, put forward by rival candidate Deborah Acheampong as being effective ways to tackle the rent crisis. Nicole Allen suggests that students “shouldn’t have to rely on foodbanks and grants, it should never have got that far. 

“Instead we should be taking the fight to the University and to estate agents. I will work to ensure that the housing crisis is covered as directly as possible”. 

Moving forward to their policy on “proactive student support”, Palatinate questioned the candidate on their idea for “in-person night street support beyond freshers’ week”. They were quick to suggest that “what we have during freshers week in terms of pastoral support is really great” and a strategy to expand this across the academic year could “bring about large increases in support”.

When asked about the potential toll that this may have on student volunteers in charge of this frepping-style method of support, Ms Allen suggested that “access to resources and training” prior to freshers and then “continuing throughout the year” could be an effective way to tackle this. 

The current president of Hild Bede LGBTQ+ Society, Ms Allen says they are most proud of what they have achieved during their time in the role. Moving forward into a larger, SU position, they hope to channel their experience to make “welflib more proactive in college life”.

Ms Allen says that the quality of pastoral support and LGBTQ+ acceptance is down to “the luck of which college you are a part of”, saying that they are aware of many people who face far more difficulty in some colleges compared to others due to “a lack of consistency in resources, activity, and focus” in each individual college.

They believe that those at Hild Bede have received “focused support” from their society and JCR, however feel that there is an opportunity to make this consistent across the university. 

Ms Allen wants to implement a form of committee that will sit at the SU and allow “all JCR welfare officers and the presidents of societies to come together and share ideas”. 

They suggest that this will be a way to “bridge gaps between college liberation groups” and offer “formalised collaboration with student experts”.

When asked about the Culture Commission, brought in and acted on by the previous two welfare and liberation officers and something that they will be working with throughout the year, they suggested that, although “helpful and a useful way to point out flaws with Durham” it hasn’t done enough.

They go on to say: “I very much support decolonising Durham. And I echo the Culture Commission view on the desperate need for this. 

“However, the movement to diversify Durham should not start and end with the Culture Commission. I feel like far more can and should be done and the SU Welfare and Liberation Officer should strive for this.”

Ms Allen states that “it doesn’t mention trans or queer people anywhere near enough, only in passing” and it would be more beneficial to “proactively be there for people” by being approachable and as transparent as possible.

When asked to boil down their campaign into one statement, Ms Allen told Palatinate:

“The SU will empower student voices by developing a relationship built upon communication, transparency and trust in order to respond to issues that matter. I hope I am the person who can make this happen.”

“The movement to diversify Durham should not start and end with the Culture Commission”

Nicole Allen

Deborah Acheampong

Running for Welfare and Liberation Officer alongside Emma Rohe and Nicole Allen, Deborah Acheampong delves deeper into her policies as she tells Palatinate “I believe I am the best candidate for this role; I know what is achievable and what is not.” She continues, “looking at my manifesto, I am confident in it”.

Ms Acheampong is particularly familiar with the responsibilities of Welfare and Liberation Officer and the leadership skills that come with it as she is currently a student trustee for the SU, has been a panelist as part of the Culture Commission and led welfare training for SU associations.

In her manifesto, Ms Acheampong outlined her three main priorities if elected for Welfare and Liberation Officer. She is hoping to provide cost of living support, greater student wellbeing and cultural enrichment.  She says that she feels like “these are realistic aims”.

It is evident that Ms Acheampong recognises important issues that are occurring throughout the University, starting with the cost-of-living crisis, as she discusses how the funding of students, particularly working class, has only been highlighted by this crisis. She states how “the University is only planning further expansion, blaming it on inflation”.

Upon questioning how Ms Acheampong will approach this crisis, she states how she is planning to advocate for increases to the Durham grant – extended to both postgraduates and international students. She is further hoping to provide better mental health provisions for students struggling financially, introducing an academic safety net for students that have to work in order to afford to live in Durham.

She emphasises the fact that Durham is fundamentally inaccessible and exists behind a paywall: “I believe that students should not have to pay for the Durham experience – students are paying to afford rent, not to come to a formal”.

“I believe that students should not have to pay for the Durham experience”

Deborah Acheampong

Ms Acheampong also repeatedly advocates for cultural enrichment. She is hoping to cover all students, backgrounds and intersections. She proposes that this can be done by having the SU and JCR communicating more closely, stating that “there is no reason to have animosity between the two as they are both a student body”.

In particular, Ms Acheampong wants to spotlight voices within Team Durham as she sheds light upon the fact that Durham University is currently number one in the UK for team sports, yet Team Durham does not have internal wellbeing or welfare. She discusses how she cannot imagine the internal stress that players, coaches, managers and others must be experiencing.

“I believe the SU can get involved at every level.”

After further exploring the priorities of Ms Acheampong’s manifesto, Palatinate asked what strategies she would implement in order to achieve these goals, particularly, how is she hoping to improve the welfare hub to which Ms Acheampong replies; “[firstly] it is inaccessible”.

“I want students to be able to access the wellbeing hub as it is there for all students.”

“I want to expand it from physical wellbeing to mental wellbeing.” Ms Acheampong reveals that currently, the SU offers yoga and Pilates within the wellbeing hub, however, she wants to introduce therapy sessions with actual practitioners and mental wellbeing techniques.

Ms Acheampong discusses the importance of having a space where students can feel like they don’t have to commit to a society, a space where students can decompress and relax. 

To conclude the interview, Palatinate asked how she will maintain contact with students as communication is key, especially for the role of Welfare and Liberation Officer. Ms Acheampong states that email may be a great start, but being a student herself, she is aware of how easily emails can go unnoticed.

Ms Acheampong talks about how she would love to start an initiative where she will be able to go to societies and associations, meeting people face to face and hearing what the real issues are. She also hopes to have office hours.

“I want real change. I want to empower students. I am here for the student body; I am here to represent their voices.”

“I am here for the student body; I am here to represent their voices”

Deborah Acheampong

Emma Rohe 

Despite initial uncertainty towards running for the role of Welfare and Liberation Officer, support from her peers encouraged Emma Rohe to apply for the role. With experience as the current Trevelyan College welfare officer, and mental health support training from a variety of organisations, she believes she is a qualified candidate. 

Ms Rohe has centred her campaign around four primary issues, the housing and cost of living crisis, mental health, harm reduction and intra-university collaboration. Her approach to each issue highlights the importance of improving the student body’s access to information around a variety of topics. This varies from financial support options to recognizing the warning signs of an overdose.  

In the case of mental health she stresses the reality that most students are more inclined to speak to their friends than they are a counsellor or trained staff member when they are in need of support. For this reason she believes access to mental health training for the student body could have an exorbitant impact. 

Ms Rohe explained “a year ago I did a course called QPR—that’s for suicide prevention—and they likened it to CPR, the more people who are trained in CPR, the less likely someone’s going to die from their heart stopping, and if you prepare enough people for instances of crisis and mental health issues you’re less likely to have it escalate”.

“If you prepare enough people for instances of crisis and mental health issues you’re less likely to have it escalate”

Emma Rohe

She also says, “I don’t think it’s necessarily about enforcing, a lot of it is making it available, and people are aware of it”. 

In the spirit of communication, a top priority for Ms Rohe is intra-university collaboration, and improving the dialogue between college welfare teams and the SU, to allow them to share their input on what they think is most affecting students. 

“I was going through an old handover book from 20 years ago, that said that they used to have meetings once a week, I don’t really know if once a week is necessary, but like at least having regular meetings, and showing what your doing, is a really good way to start and sort of build up a relationship again, cause I think right now it’s rather disconnected”. 

This is something she has experienced first hand as the current Trevelyan Welfare Officer. Her experience in this role has taught her a lot, and has shaped her approach to her current campaign. For example, she understands the emotional toll of performing a welfare role and aims to expand the mental health services provided to welfare teams across the University. 

Her experience as Welfare Officer at Trevelyan College has also shaped her approach to handling the cost of living crisis. She wants to improve students’ understanding of the financial support offered at college and university level, aiming to ‘actively promote it to them’ as opposed to having it be something students are forced to look for. 

“So what we’ve done at Trevs is we have a SharePoint where there is a document that outlines all of the support you can get from the University, within our college, within the JCR and within the MCR. And I think doing something similar, whether that be for the entire University, or having one for each college, so people can really see what they can get—rather than just having to look for it” 

Ms Rohe has worked in welfare in some capacity since high school, and says that “this is what I really care about” she shared that “where I’m from, we have a suicide epidemic, so its been a really big issue where I live, that’s sort of where it started for me”.

This is what drove her initial participation in welfare at Trevelyan College, and what continues to inspire her involvement today. Although she took some convincing, “I was like, I don’t know if I should do it, and everyone looked at me and was like ‘Emma, you’d be really good at that’”. 

A top priority for Ms Rohe is improving the dialogue between college welfare teams and the SU, to allow them to share their input on what they think is most affecting students

A link to vote in this election can be found here. Voting closes at 17:00 this Wednesday (22nd February).

Image: Daniel Hodgson

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