In July, Wessex Scene sat down to chat with Emily Dawes, the new SUSU President. This is the extended version of that interview, with a shorter version originally published in our magazine issue, Uni Life.
SUSU exists to represent the voice of students and provides a variety of facilities and support services, ranging from the Student Advice Centre to Thursday night’s karaoke at Stag’s.
Emily will lead in 2018/19 a team of 7 full-time sabbatical officers, elected every Spring from and by students at the university. Working alongside Emily, the other full-time officers are: Evie Reilly (Vice-President Democracy and Creative Industries); Steve Gore (VP Sports Development); Fleur Elizabeth Walsh (VP Engagement); Isabella Camilleri (VP Welfare); Emily Harrison (VP Student Communities); Sam Dedman (VP Education).
What was your degree?
Emily (E): BSc Physics.
Where are you from originally?
E: So, my family live out in Northern Virginia, in the States, but I grew up in London.
Brexit or Trump?
E: Hahaha, oh my goodness! Ok, right… I’m going to say officially neither, but for the sake of this question which I promise I’m gonna answer, I’m gonna have to say Brexit.
Love Island or Strictly Come Dancing?
E: Oh my goodness, again, haven’t ever watched either… I’m gonna have to say Strictly because some parts of Love Island just seem a bit whack to me.
Varsity or Union Elections?
E: Varsity. Union Elections are tough and only rewarding right at the end, if you win, aha!
Freshers’ Week or Graduation Week?
E: Ooh, I’m yet to graduate, so I’m not too sure, but I think it’s going to have to be Freshers’ Week.
E: Pink. Big pink fan, always have been, always will be.
E: Oh my goodness! Of all time, is probably 500 Days of Summer, but favourite Disney movie, which I have to include, is Tangled.
If I wasn’t SUSU President, I’d be…
E: In third year. I’d be studying a lot harder for my retakes right now, hahaha.
Favourite thing about the University?
E: Well, my favourite thing for me personally has been being part of the Feminist Society. I was President of that for 2 years, so it’s definitely been involvement in other societies, but specifically FemSoc. It’s been just amazing these last few years.
Favourite thing about Southampton?
E: Lots of vegan food in Southampton! In lots of our restaurants and cafés, there’s usually an option, so pretty dope.
Do you have a favourite vegan place?
E: Yeah, Café Thrive – it’s in town, it’s a little pricey, it’s as a treat, but it’s so good.
What’s your favourite memory of being a Fresher?
E: I really liked my Freshers’ Ball. Actually, I really remember having a really good time at Freshers’ Ball. I think just the atmosphere and I went out with my housemates so we got to know each other a little bit better, and also, my first big event so, really good.
The role and responsibilities of being SUSU President
WS: What can Freshers look forward to from you and the Union this year?
E: They can look forward to, and this is a weird thing to promise, but, a braver Union – more brave and bold. I think that’s what they can look forward to, a Union that is going to speak up when it needs to, speak for the students if they need us to, and then also just make decisions and if we make decisions, stick by it. And if people aren’t happy with that, then we find out why and probably the answer will be more student consultation, but if we can make a decision, the chances are a lot of thought has gone into it and I think we just need to back ourselves a little more I think.
WS: To the untrained Fresher, what is your role?
E: I think historically the role of Union President has been the sort of direct liaison between the Union and the University. And so they’ve been able to champion the student voice to the university and union.
I think this year I would like to turn the role a little bit more into a focus on student wellbeing as a whole… I think the President should be at the forefront of any changes regarding student wellbeing, and I think the President’s main goal should always be the welfare of its students.
WS: What are you most looking forward in the year ahead in the role?
E: So, I’m very, very excited to start a bit of an investigation into the sexual consent and assault here, specifically on campus. It’s something that has never really been done on the topic and so I think it’s almost brand new… I’m not excited per se, because I think it’s gonna be a difficult thing to have to deal with, but it’ll be exciting to actually know the statistics and how big the problem actually is. So I’m very excited to start that.
I’m also really excited to have my team [fellow student union sabbatical officers]this year. We’ve got 5 really strong women which is cool, but then Steve [Gore, VP Sports Development] and Sam [Dedman, VP Education] absolutely know what they’re doing and we’ve all so far really backed each other and championed each other’s ideas which holds us in good standing.
WS: The University Council is the highest decision-making body of the university. As SUSU President, you’re the one direct student representative on that body. What are the particular topics you want to advocate for?
E: So the biggest one is, and I’ll use the word transparency but I don’t really like that word so I guess accessibility – accessibility to information. I think that both the Union and the University don’t really tell much of their story. Sure, they don’t leave out all the bad things which I think students have a right to know, but they also don’t do a good job of sort of boasting when they do good things either. I think a lot of students feel, and there’s this general feeling, that ‘Ohh, the Union kind of keeps to themselves, they do their own thing, like I couldn’t tell you what they do or anything’ and I think you know, while there are some things that are completely confidential, you know, and not even I, or the sabbs know, the things that aren’t confidential we should be publicising them, we should be promoting them. We’re starting to look into where our fees go and things like that, the questions which students want answers to.
WS: On 29 March 2019, the UK is currently scheduled to leave the EU, or ‘Brexit’. How much is this looming, very significant change affecting SUSU plans for the year?
E: So, at the moment, I think it’s a little bit of something that we’re just trying to pretend isn’t happening right now, haha, because we’re training and no-one sort of wants to, no-one wants to bring it up. But I think in the next couple of months, and especially once Freshers’ is done, it’s something that we really are going to have to keep in mind, especially because I mean, you saw the way the industrial action really affected us this year and no-one had sort of saw that coming.We can see it sort of, you know if it’s going to come again we’ll be more aware this year, but again, it’s being aware that these things are going to happen and how that’s going to affect us, I think the biggest thing is going to be ensuring that out international community feels supported.
I think that a lot of rhetorics that went around during the Leave campaign – and I’m not saying that anyone who voted Leave agrees with this specifically, or that was the reason they chose to leave – but one of the rhetorics that went around was obviously a little bit of anti-immigration and more border control and nationalism. I think that I’d be very worried if any of our students felt that we were not supporting them. Whether they are first or second-generation immigrants, whichever it is, we’re here to support them and make sure they feel welcome here at Southampton.
You know, I don’t know whether you know, obviously we are a largely sort of white campus, and most of our international students come from China, Malaysia and Asia, and then apart from those two big groups, we’re not very diverse, and I think we need to make sure our communities of colour know that they’re being supported when it comes to Brexit.
As for the actual Brexit, who knows? I think we saw a tonne of economic backlash when the vote was approved back in 2016 and no-one sort of could have perfectly anticipated what was gonna happen there, I think we’re going to have to be aware that there’ll be budget cuts because of Brexit because sure, for whatever reason, our own government’s gonna have either less or more money and you don’t know how that’s going to affect university grants, so I think it’s something to keep in mind. I think also trying to remain unbiased but also sort of, showing the benefits, like students would have benefitted from Remain, but there is also benefits from leaving that I think we, if it is going to go through and it is going to happen, we have to say you know, right, it’s happening, let’s look at the positives, let’s focus on those, let’s help our students as much as we can. And again, through this support, because the economic and the practical things – who knows? [Nervous laughter].
Involvement with FemSoc Society
Picking up on Emily’s’ previous mention of involvement in FemSoc as her favourite thing about the University, we asked if there was anything she was particularly proud of achieving or taking part in as President of the society. Emily cited the organisation of a ‘Reclaim the Night March’ in November 2016 as ‘the best thing we did’, praising her friend and then-Vice-President of the society, Devin Jay Valentine, for his significant role in helping make the event happen. Reclaim the Night March is a national and international movement, which sees women march every year against rape and all forms of male violence against women and for gender equality. Marches typically take place as close as possible to 25th November, the UN Day to End Violence Against Women.
Emily also described how she felt her involvement with the society had helped develop her as an individual into ‘an open-minded feminist which I think all feminists should be’ and enabling her to merge ‘activism with professionalism’. She also expressed excitement for the plans of this year’s FemSoc committee and how she felt the society, now more than a decade old, had increasingly become ‘a place of resource and information and just general sort of help for lots of different communities’.
We discussed in some detail with Emily a central focus of her manifesto when originally running for SUSU President, sexual assault awareness. On her manifesto commitment ‘to improve resources for sexual assault victims‘, Emily said that this had strands to it.
The first, ‘most importantly’, was making more easily available and accessible the reporting process, with which in mind she discussed plans to work and consult with Yellow Door, a local charity who supports those who have experienced or are at risk of abuse. The second strand involves, Emily explained, ‘getting everyone on board that this is an issue, it’s a bigger issue than anyone can imagine, and we’re not doing enough to tackle it’, with the investigations survey previously mentioned a key part of this process. She explained that she wanted to get ‘local clubs involved, we need to get the police involved, the Council, anyone with the best interests and well-being of students’.
On the investigations survey itself, Emily admitted that it being the end of July, plans weren’t completely finalised about how it’d take shape, but anticipated ‘a complex combination of online surveys through different sort of social media outlets’ and possible significant focus on investigating prevalence of sexual assaults in sports.
Since our interview, polls on social media assessing how important people think the issue is, have already taken place.
On ‘assault awareness training’, another key plank of Emily’s manifesto, she clarified that this’ll be the primary focus of VP Welfare, Isabella Camilleri, but she put it in the manifesto to ‘show that is what I’m passionate about’ and she’d back Caramilieri ‘100%’ on it as an initiative. She spoke, however, how she imagined the first step would be ensuring all bar and reception staff are trained with the aim she had in mind of ‘by the end of the year, 100% of our staff to be at least basically trained in dealing with it’.
Disability access and gender-neutral toilets
Moving onto other parts of Emily’s manifesto, it was apparent throughout that 2018/19 SUSU President clearly views student inclusion and welfare as particular areas she wants to push while President. Disabled access ramps, cited specifically in her manifesto, were discussed extensively. Although the initiative to get disabled access ramps around University of Southampton campuses was started by former SUSU President Alex Hovden who had personal experience of the issue himself, Emily clarified that she was keen to look particularly at buildings where disability access is provided and potentially improving accessibility efficiency. SUSU Building (B40) would be a key focus in ‘making sure’ that disability access is ‘as efficient as possible’, as well as halls. The focus will ultimately be trying to avoid an individual’s mobility issues ‘limiting their choices’, such as with Halls of Residence and former President Hovden picking accommodation based specifically on disability access.
On providing more unisex toilets, Emily said she ‘should have worded it differently’ in her manifesto and rather referred to them as gender-neutral toilets. She detailed how 2017/18 VP Welfare Sam Higman had begun this process by advertising the toilet located on SUSU Concourse level as gender-neutral, but there was ‘a huge backlash’ to this, having previously been advertised as a disabled access toilet and ‘a lot of people thought that meant you were taking away from the disabled access toilet’. The aim this year, however, was to make all Union toilet facilities ‘as close to gender-neutral as possible’, with VP Welfare Isabella Caramilieri taking a leading role in enabling this. Emily suggested that this would be achieved via ensuring any toilets already in place have cubicles because ‘one of the big problems is, you know, people don’t want to kind of, be using the toilet in front of other people if that’s not what they’re used to’. Additionally, there’d be an element of reminding people that gender-neutral toilets ‘aren’t like a scary thing’, effectively occurring with bathrooms in people’s homes, and nothing will really change if you’re cis-gender. In the face of criticism when announcing such changes, the Union would need to “be brave and say ‘No, this is what we’ve done’ and say why we’re doing it, and our transgender community needs it”.
On her other commitments to trans-students, Emily suggested that as a Union, the aim would be to provide a space for trans-students where ‘they felt comfortable’, and comfortable in sharing ‘any issues they have’. She also said that new VP Student Communities, Emily Harrison, was already ‘working really hard’ on marking Transgender Day of Remembrance (20th November) and LGBT+ month. On her own role as President, Emily suggested her ‘most important task’ in respect to trans-students was making sure ‘they have a voice when it comes to University Council’ and other decision-making bodies of the University, while specific action, like gender-neutral toilets, will come more from the SUSU Vice-President sabbatical officers.
Since our interview, VP Welfare Isabella Caramilieri has announced that talks have taken place with the University on the issue of gender-neutral toilets.
We are wayyy too far behind the times. Talks with the University are taking place, part of my Sabb plan this year is to ensure every new future build has a GNT! Also, looking to convert single gendered cubicles to GNTs too 💪🏼🚽 https://t.co/kWheUhCj5P
— Isabella Camilleri #SotonFreshers (@SotonVPWelfare) September 5, 2018
Water fountains, ‘alternative career fayres’ and SUSU feedback system
We also discussed with Emily a number of other policies contained within her manifesto, concerning mass water fountain installation, ‘Alternative Fayres’ for postgraduates and a SUSU online feedback system.
The push for mass water fountain installation was a part of SUSU ‘pushing for sustainability’, encouraging people to reuse water bottles bought and Emily also mentioned that with significant investment, it’s now possible to purchase water fountains which can log how many water bottles are filled up or saved from being thrown away, providing crunch sustainability data.
On the subject of ‘alternative career fayres’, this idea came from Emily’s personal experience as a Physics student with some Career Fairs having a relatively limited range of choices. While still very much in the planning stages on how to implement – Emily mused on whether trial by a single faculty first would likely be the approach adopted, before expanded – when we interviewed her in July, she did say that she’d soon be talking to the University Head of Student Services about diversifying the career fairs offer for students, with renewed focus on local businesses and organisations:
I’d love to have a careers fair where, if you walk in as a student, you don’t recognise 90% of the things, you know.
Finally, on a SUSU feedback system, Emily admitted she wasn’t aware when writing her manifesto to be SUSU President back in Spring that SUSU’s ‘You Make Change’ already provided this. Not knowing this herself before writing her manifesto she suggested though, indicated that it needed more promotion:
…[T]his goes with the sort of story-telling kind of thing, we don’t promote it enough; like students don’t know that that’s on our website in order for them- like that’s the thing, even if something happens, where they wanted to say, ‘Hey, I was in the sabb office today and someone was really rude to me’, then it doesn’t feel like ‘You Make Change’ is the right place for that, but that’s where we would direct them and we need to let students know that You Make Change is for your suggestions, sure, but also for any kind of queries or complaints, or things like that. And so, I would like to work on improving that…
Representing SUSU and having name on the SUSU Presidents’ Board
Emily said she’d ‘loved’ the experience of representing SUSU at the University’s July Open Days and chatting to sixth form students, appreciating ‘that excitement that I forgot you have’ of looking at which university to attend. It had also been ‘really interesting’ to get a sense of what issues mattered to prospective students. The very day before our interview, Emily received pride of place on the SUSU Presidents’ Board roll of honour, which evidently had tremendously excited her: ‘…I was so excited, I tweeted about it, put it on my SnapChat, I sent it to my family group chat’. While acknowledging there was a ‘little bit of pressure I think seeing all those names!’ on the board, Emily noted that in spite of first names being initialised on the board, she’d got a sense of the significant proportion of previous Presidents who’ve been men and added: ‘I really want to do a damn good job at being a woman in this power and this responsibility’.
Editor’s Note: Apologies that this interview was not published on the 27th September as written in our Uni Life magazine.