My time at Durham Students’ Union first began while applying for a part-time student-staff role while I was working on my PhD in Anthropology and teaching in the department. Within a week of my interview, I was thrust into Freshers’ Week wearing a ‘Happy to Help!’ t-shirt and rapidly learning about the Students’ Union. Over the course of two years, I worked my way through various student-staff roles including receptionist, bartender, and café supervisor. I would rush from making coffees to get to my next class to teach, then writing in the evenings.
During this time I became increasingly interested in the student politics side of the university, which encouraged me to apply to become one of Durham’s postgraduate faculty representatives. Along with the other two PhD faculty representatives, we began a fight for teaching assistant rights. Knowing I could not accomplish fair teaching pay for PhD students within one academic year, I decided to put my name forward for Postgraduate Academic Officer at the Students’ Union. I campaigned hard, but ultimately lost against a stellar colleague of mine. I pushed through the feelings of failure (not without tears, mind you) and continued working on the final touches of my PhD thesis, while also being promoted to café manager in the Students’ Union’s Riverside Bar and Café.
It would be dishonest of me to say that I was not disappointed with my life at this time. Many PhD students know the feelings that come with the final stages of the thesis. You are isolated, you feel exhausted, and you feel hopeless at times. I had finally realised I no longer wanted to be an academic, and this realisation intensified the feelings of failure—that perhaps I had wasted years of my life on a specialised research project. I had been so locked into an academic mentality that I momentarily took for granted the transferrable skills I was developing along the way: time management, professional research and critical thinking, public speaking, team work, delivering high quality projects and papers, etc. With the help of key mentors, I remained patient and I kept pushing forward into the unfamiliar territory of ‘not knowing’.
In October of 2017, an ideal role opened up at Durham Students’ Union for Welfare Policy Coordinator. I was successful in my application and interview, and by November I was in my new role. What I love the most is being able to work in a research and policy role that enables me to support officers and representatives in defending student voices and rights. Some of the exciting projects that I have had the opportunity to work directly on include ‘Pincident’ which is a sexual violence and discrimination online mapping tool, supporting a successful proposal for a rent guarantor pilot scheme, and raising awareness around postgraduate mental health. This role is helping me to shape a career trajectory outside of, but complementary to my academic background. I am fortunate because I am surrounded by a motivated staff team, including two other HE policy and research specialists who enjoy supporting students as much as I do. Our day-to-day includes a lot of research, writing report drafts, and reviewing committee papers to support our officers (we also sneak in much needed periods of laughter and pranks).
Through all of the years of existential crises, I am pleased to say that I have finally found acceptance in not needing to always know where I am going, and this has made me profoundly happy.