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Kirsten Lightfoot
Director of Learning
Durham SU / Student Associations

Moving from a large global FTSE 250 organisation in the private sector to a Students’ Union / Student Associations may sound like a huge career change. The reality is that it really isn’t. My previous environment which specialised in offering consultancy, engineering, construction and project management services across the Oil & Gas and Power & Process markets is not that different.

Firstly, we all deliver a service, we need to understand our audience, their needs, and expectations and be able to deliver that service in a timely and professional manner. Sure, there are many differences but with the right team and support, the transition is an exciting journey.

Secondly, SUs / Student Associations are a people business and we deliver our services through using the talent within the organisation whether that be helping students to develop and lead a campaign, talking to students about their challenges and working together to resolve these or simply through supporting them with running an event or raising awareness of opportunities that could add value to them.

I’ve worked in HR, specialising in learning, development and talent management for my entire career. I’ve worked closely with graduates having had accountability for a graduate programme for almost 10 years. It gives me a great sense of achievement seeing people develop and evolve their careers so when the opportunity arose at Durham to work with students, I had to apply as I wanted a new challenge and was keen to work in the third sector. It was the perfect opportunity; something I believed I could add value to and something which would give me some stretch for my own development having had no experience of working in the charitable sector.

The easiest part of the transition was the pace of the organisation. I’m used to working in a fast paced organisation and a matrix structure so having (what can appear to be) conflicting priorities is comfortable for me. The most challenging part is understanding the democratic processes within the organisation and how relationships work, not only within the Union and its membership but also within the University. There are many interdependencies and this is something which you need to understand pretty quickly if you want to get things done.

One of the biggest learnings I’ve had is how forward thinking the sector is. From my experience, SUs / Student Associations are very much leading the way on equality and diversity issues along with welfare and liberation. I’ve had a swift and enlightening education in this space, in particular on matters such as mental health and LGBT+. Our officers are amazing and are happy to pass on their knowledge to me even though they do laugh at me when I have no idea what a BNOC is (well, I do now!) and I assume they are talking in a language which I am yet to master…..this is part of the fun.

If you are considering a career change and are unsure of joining the sector, try it! Your specialism will translate and the other learning is an incredible experience with many great people to help you along your way. It’s a space where you can genuinely influence change, pass on your knowledge to help others and the sector shares everything – this was one of the biggest surprises! Everyone is in it together and there are many opportunities to network which really does help you to find your feet.

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