Cameron Irons explains why students should consider standing in elections and adopting leadership roles during their studies. Cameron was the School President of Social Sciences and Law during 2021-22, whilst also serving as Vice Chair of the Student Representative Council. He previously led the law and mooting societies before adopting more senior roles at a university level. Cameron now works part-time for DUSA as Client Relations Manager and recently led the executive support effort around the student cost-of-living crisis support package. He is currently studying his Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice, prior to starting his career as a trainee lawyer.
Topics of Discussion
The Value of Society Committees
Running for University-Level Positions
Benefits and Drawbacks
Striking a Balance
Just a heads up, if you see university purely as a means to bag a degree whilst having a cracking social life in the sunny city of ‘FunDee’, then that is totally fair, but you will likely be bored by this piece. If you want to save time and ignore my waffle, I have summarised the key takeaway points under the benefits and drawbacks section near the end.
Students are persistently, and often annoyingly, hounded with reminders to ‘get involved’, but we are very rarely told what getting involved looks like in practical terms – especially for roles like School President or Student Executive Officer. Many students rightly question the point of it all. Why should you bother? Who actually cares? I will attempt to give you genuine insight and be honest in what I say. This is not a plea to get you involved either, we are all adults, and we make our own choices. This is merely a blog that might encourage you to have a think.
Take it from me, student representative roles are rather cringeworthy on the face of it, and often seem like a burden. Ironically, this is coming from someone who ‘got involved’ for five years at university (I sometimes recall having a life before it all). Allow me to explain the reality of these roles, and perhaps I can convince you to consider running for election yourself, despite potentially having a few reservations or negative
perceptions. To cut to the chase, serving in a senior leadership position, like School President, is an immense privilege and an incredibly unique platform to build your personal and professional profile. I could not possibly explain it all in one article, but I will give a good crack at it.
It might be helpful to explain my personal journey in elected leadership roles to convey the plethora of benefits, whilst also being transparent about the negatives involved. My personal experiences might have little influence on your own decisions… but trust me when I say you can start off as class rep, and a few years down the line you could find yourself negotiating with university executives for hundreds of thousands of pounds to implement university wide measures – though let me explain how.
The Value of Society Committees
Society committees are a genuinely brilliant and strategic way to prepare yourself for any potential progression to university-level roles within DUSA. Let me explain why, but this is just one way of doing things.
Like most, I thoroughly enjoyed student-society life, and I was particularly keen on getting involved with academic-orientated societies (how riveting). I eventually took up roles like President and Vice President of the two main law societies, and these were challenging like you would expect, especially during the pandemic. Law students are not the easiest to please either, but that is a whole other story!
Committee roles are nonetheless a hugely enjoyable experience – particularly as a President. You must manage a team of peers and delegate vast arrays of tasks, all the while trusting your team and leading the strategic and operational direction of your society. Hundreds of society members are relying on you to deliver competently, be that running social balls or pub crawls, careers events or coffee mornings, you name it.
In some ways, society committee positions introduce you to the world of governance and strategic development, it is a like a microcosm of professional working environments. Working to deadlines, communicating with ‘clients’, managing budgets, planning a schedule of events and so on. Not many students can simply walk into the city centre and easily secure a job in events planning, social media design, marketing, accounting etc. My point being you can gain incredible experience in all of this through leading societies. There is no experience required really, and it will vastly boost your
employability. Convince your peers you should be elected, do some campaigning, then you are on the way to gaining a whole new set of skills. How exciting.
Let me give you a rather bleak example of a society leadership challenge that built my experience in handling adversity and mass unhappiness amongst members.
I was forced to cancel our society ball during COVID-19. Hundreds of our members already purchased tickets, our contract with the venue left us without any recourse or refund. I spent months trying to negotiate a way out, and eventually sought a £3,000 grant from DUSA, meaning we could finally reimburse our members. I had zero experience in such dilemmas, but looking back, it taught me a great deal about business and the art of compromising.
Fundamentally, it was through society leadership that I learned you could make a great deal of change, even as a student at a medium-sized university. You could influence the direction of a considerably large community. Most of all, you could genuinely make the experiences of fellow students better, be that socially, academically, or just in general. If this does not sound appealing, I implore you to experience it first.
It sounds obvious, but my strongest piece of advice would be to watch your time management in these roles. You are still a student doing a degree, and you may also have a part-time job like I did. Balance it smartly and keep a diary. I bought about 7 diaries in 2021 and lost each of them, so be careful of that too!
Running for University-Level Positions
I must be honest; I probably could have left the leadership roles at society-level. I went on to pursue the position of School President of my school, albeit reluctantly, for a few reasons. Admittedly my ‘predecessor’ was a close friend, so I had the benefit of already knowing the benefits and scope of the role, which I am about to explain. I also enjoyed society leadership as I mentioned, and I wanted to continue that on a larger scale, though this type of role was very different for many reasons.
What is a School President?
School Presidents, at least within our university, are essentially the lead student representatives of their academic school. Representatives in this context are not like society leaders, School Presidents work very closely with university staff and DUSA. Your core function is to ensure your fellow students’ voices are transmitted to the
governing committees of the school. It is all about enhancing the learning and teaching and the students’ overall satisfaction with their courses. How boring, I know.
In all seriousness though, this was a unique platform to have. I was surprised by how much the role could allow me to do. I was required to attend various governance boards and committees with the heads of each discipline, and I met with the school ‘Dean’ on a monthly basis to discuss the most pressing matters. I was regularly allocated a slot to present key student issues at meetings with all members of the faculty. This was a school which had five separate disciplines and three thousand students. By the way, I know these core commitments might sound intense, but they realistically only took up around 10 hours of my week. If you enjoy the challenge, you will find the time, and that is a crucial element of this sort of work.
What is it like in the role?
I must be honest; in the first few months I was out of my depth in much of these meetings. I had no idea how to ‘represent’ effectively or communicate key issues and have them resolved through official university channels. That is all learned though, you obviously develop over time.
The first semester of my ‘term’ as School President was heavily dominated by the academic restructuring project, which seen the amalgamation of three schools. Most current students will recall how unpopular this project was, particularly due to the inevitable staff cuts and potential for a confusing structure with diluted representation and communication. This was a key issue I had to lead on behalf of the affected students, which totalled 6,000. In a situation like this you must focus on the bigger picture, as there was clearly no stopping it. Some student activist groups were livid, but for the most part students were quite indifferent to it. My main responsibility was reporting on it, which seemed like an impossible task. Luckily, I had a strong team of student colleagues who assisted in developing a multi-school feedback report that collated the views and recommendations of over 300 students and 15 focus groups. It was a considerable task, but a very worthwhile venture that led to direct responses and clearer messaging from those directing the merger. The university were incredibly open to our work, even if it was on a difficult topic, and they were grateful for the representation we provided. On that note, do not be wary of having to work with university officials. They are human, and they are usually welcoming and respectful of your work as a student leader. You will actually build some really strong working relations with various Professors and Directors, and that can go a long way.
That is just one example of the tasks that a School President might face, there are obviously differing issues depending on your school community. Mine just happened to be dominated by a specific issue, but it did present me with the opportunity to sit on the interview panel that selected the new Dean of the combined school. This was a great privilege that exposed me to the interviewing skills of top-tier academic leaders. That is just a small perk - there are many that pop up along the way.
Potential within the SRC
It was being Vice-Chair of the Student Representative Council that really allowed me to pursue my wider goals. I was fortunate to be in a position where I could lead large projects that had potential for genuine impact. This is what the SRC offers you. To give an example, I led a working group that lobbied for the reintroduction of a Dundee Law School Legal Clinic. I drafted a large research paper, making the case for its revival, and using real data from our law students. After formal support being sought by the SRC, our work was eventually accepted by law faculty staff and work is now underway to make the clinic happen. It was through these leadership positions that allowed this issue to have greater weight and wider influence. It meant students would follow my lead and trust I could take it somewhere.
Another good exemplar project was the proposal for the future implementation of a Core Pre-Matriculation Awareness Module, one that all students would eventually be required to complete prior to enrolling as a student. This was indeed a massive project.
It involved over 1000 students in some way or another, be that through surveys, focus groups, interviews, and social media debates. I led a team of 15 students to draft a 100-page report, outlining the case for this pre-matric module. There were four key topics that needed greater awareness, and crucially, widespread mandatory training. Those were Gender Based Violence and Consent, Diversity and Inclusion, Climate Action and Academic Integrity. I did not whip these proposals up from scratch, it was through extensive research and examining what other universities had in place that drove the rationale for it. I merely questioned why Dundee University had not taken these steps, and eventually, so did many others.
Some still call me mad for it, but I printed off that 100-page report and, contrary to advice, had it hand delivered to the Principal and Vice Chancellor himself. I did not expect much of a response, but the executive group embraced it and accepted almost all the proposals we presented. I would not recommend mirroring my tactics, but you do need to be relatively bold to get things done. Work is still underway to see these training modules developed and implemented, and the project has fallen under the control of a board of staff and DUSA executive officers. I genuinely could not have achieved that, had I not been a School President with access to data, access to communication channels and with the connections to university staff and the likes of the SRC. This is probably my best example of what can be achieved in such a role. I genuinely believe the success of these campaigns are made easier with the positions and platforms you might have. You can literally do anything you like, within reason of course.
I hope these examples demonstrate the scope for changes or initiatives that you can start in university leadership roles. These positions of responsibility breed opportunities and spawn new challenges you would otherwise never come across. Indeed, you need not have to do these things as a student leader, these are optional endeavours that can only be executed with passion and in line with what the student body demand at any given time. Everyone will have their own priorities.
On a lighter note, I also organised the first social gala for our school, inviting both staff and students to celebrate the end of the year. Coincidentally, my experience with society committees and organising balls came in handy! This was a huge party and one of my fondest memories, even if I fell asleep at the table beside the most senior law professor, and then having the School Dean jokingly raise it with me the following week. I broke my foot that night too. Worth it!
If you are to adopt a leadership role, remember to give the students what they want (big fancy parties).
Benefits and Drawbacks
For the sake of brevity, I have summarised the key benefits and potential drawbacks in holding leadership positions under the auspices of DUSA and at a university level. These are my personal opinions and experiences; others may disagree. I hope they are clear; I have not ranked them in any set order.
Develop a widely transferable, multi-disciplinary and unique skill set.
Make significant and lasting changes to the student experience.
Hugely enhance your CV portfolio with an abundance of robust examples, thereby enhancing your employability.
Experience in project management, governance, and lobbying.
Direct access to key senior university officials that can teach you a great deal about management, strategy, and communication.
Develop your personal resilience and confidence.
Network and build relations with a diverse range of students, external stakeholders, and professionals.
Learn about complex and engaging higher education matters.
Possess a platform like no other, an office of responsibility whereby you can implement, lobby, represent and create.
Other commitments might be too burdensome.
You may not feel ready for such a role.
You may lose interest or passion, depending on other factors.
You might prioritise the extra-curriculars over your academic responsibilities.
You may struggle to work with people with different goals, methods, and views.
You might find these roles demanding and stressful.
You might not always get recognition or support when you feel you need it.
Most of your day-to-day work will go unrecognised by the everyday student.
You might find the role too politically orientated or public facing.
Striking a Balance
It is paramount that you strike a healthy and comfortable balance, should you ever adopt a leadership role like I have discussed. I do not just mean time management skills. You need to learn to detach at times, not become overly obsessed, not get mentally or physically burdened by the extra commitments you adopt. University is already a heavy task; you will likely make your time as a student harder if you want to lead and start initiatives like I have explained. It will, however, pay off (in spades) over the long term.
You ultimately need to decide for yourself how you want to spend your precious years at university. Most of us only have four or five years to enjoy student life. That limited time might be the very reason you want to get involved; it might be your motive for getting the very most out of your time here. Most of us get involved in a society or sports club at some stage in our academic journeys anyway, so you do not necessarily need to go beyond that and enter the realms of wider student leadership. In fact, very few do. I have merely tried to present an honest account of the realities in taking up these roles. It is an acquired taste, but equally, it is an opportunity that students in any course would reap many benefits from. The drawbacks are certainly overshadowed by the pros. It is a unique experience, but one that I would strongly recommend to anyone who wants to better themselves, broaden their experiences and develop a strong portfolio to take forward into any career.
Personally, it has made my time at university incredibly fulfilling, but equally, it has been occasionally overwhelming and often stressful. That is just me though. It has its longer-term benefits for sure. It has certainly moulded me professionally, and it has given me skills I would never get anywhere else. These extra-curricular positions were raised in all my job interviews since completing my undergraduate. My past experiences secured me a really rewarding job with DUSA throughout my fifth year. This job (now Client Relations Manager) meant I could continue working on university projects, especially the likes of the cost-of-living crisis and helping to design and implement a series of support measures in times of widespread hardship. I will probably never have a similar opportunity, the chance to lobby alongside colleagues for hundreds of thousands in investment funding, and then watching your work directly make a difference to students during difficult times. I reiterate, it was adopting leadership roles throughout university that enabled me to have this experience. It was nothing else.
I am about to finish my fifth year as a student, and there is no doubt I am leaving with more pride and fulfilment about my work in past leadership roles than any degree could give me. It was honestly that worthwhile.
Crucially, do not let imposter syndrome stop you, do not be put off by the apparent cringe worthiness and ignore the dramatic student politics involved. It really is an invaluable venture, and a potentially life-changing challenge. One last point, someone once told me to push myself out of my comfort zone at least once a year. This is definitely wisdom to live by. We do not have enough time on our hands to shy away from opportunities to grow, but equally, we do not need to rush things. Your comfort zone is obviously comfortable, but you can discover so much more about yourself on the outside of it.
Good luck and remember the famous words by Shia LeBeouf: “Just do it!”
If you wish to submit any ideas of your own to current student leaders, please visit our new and improved student voice hub at www.dusa.co.uk/get-involved/student-voice-hub