Year out with Student Union Exec gives Emily the experience she needed

Emily Connor is Hallam Union’s Education Officer and Deputy President. Here’s her story, and why taking a year out from her studies to take up the role has paid off.

I am now two-thirds of the way through my year as the Education Officer and Deputy President on the Student Union Executive. This annually elected role is open to all students regardless of degree or level, offering a chance of responsibility, valued experience and the opportunity to influence University decisions and direction at a very high level. It can be taken the year following any student’s studies, or taken as a sabbatical year between levels – I chose to take up the opportunity following my second year of studies at Sheffield Hallam.

Taking time out of my studies was a huge decision for me. Not only was I worried about taking time out of education before my crucial final year, but leaving my friends and housemates was a concern for my return. I thought I’d be living and studying on my own, practically restarting the awkward ‘meet and greet’ I thought was over after my first year.

This aside, I knew running for Education Officer would be an opportunity like no other. The whole election process really forced me to think about the role and what I would want to get out of it for students. A bit like a week-long interview, my campaign was designed to convince a panel of 35,000 students why I was the right person for the job. I’d always been keen to get involved in Student Union activity and my role as a Course Rep had already helped define my passion for positive educational change in the University. I saw this role as an opportunity to do just that on a larger, University-wide scale. Though scary, my excitement at the possibility of actually achieving this position completely outweighed my fears.

Eight months into the role and the experience I have gained can only be described as exciting and invaluable. Having studied for an English degree, my work experience lay little outside takeaway service and warehouses, so this contribution to my employability will undoubtedly make my CV all the more appealing. Few graduates (especially as young as I!) can say that they have been a Trustee of a charity, or are frequently sat in rooms talking to members of staff who have been in the industry for 10, 20, 30+ years but may still look to me for my opinion. I am in the extremely fortunate position of being able to make positive change for students in an area I am passionate about.

My role essentially calls for me to represent students in decision making processes in the University and to express the ‘Student Voice’ in any discussions I take part in, acting as the bridge between students and the University. I also work with our own Student Voice team helping to train and empower 1,500 Course Reps in their own educational pursuits. I speak to students on a daily basis through focus groups, surveys or even just by catching them in cafes about their concerns and the issues they care about, so I can help the University understand what student priorities are at this point in time.

This job has placed me out of my comfort zone every day for the past few months which has forced me to develop the skills and knowledge I know I will find to my benefit when I finally graduate and seek employment. My time management and organisation skills have been tested beyond what I would ever be exposed to in a full time education setting and after liaising on a regular basis with members of staff in ‘high places’ I am able to conduct myself in a way which helps me to negotiate and convince staff and students to believe in my ideas and campaigns. That and my ability to plan events, train students and deliver speeches are all useful tools which will continue to strengthen, if not give me an indication of where or how I would like to work in the future.

I think I would have been employable if I’d not taken this risk in my second year. But as a 20 year old English student, I think what I can effectively refer to as my ‘placement year’ will set me in an even better position to use and apply my experience in the ‘real world’.