VP Welfare and Community Candidate Interview with Rostislavs Popovs

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Wessex Scene interviews Rostislavs Popovs, who is running for the role of VP Welfare and Community in the 2021 SUSU Leadership Elections.

Why have you decided to run for the role of VP Welfare and Community?

Simply put, I want to see the SU take a bigger lead on challenging the effectiveness of current support systems; on revitalising student engagement by providing a guarantee that their concerns won’t fall on deaf ears; and on tackling modern inclusion concerns.

We were sold the idea that the Student Union would be something we could rely on in times of need, a holistic and humble group of students passionate in representing us and holding the University to account. While I know that the people in charge have their heart in the right place, people still see SUSU as corporate and unrelatable. I applied with the hope that if proven that SUSU is here to listen to you directly, if shown that the above values are there at heart, more would feel encouraged to engage with the Union. Why does anyone apply for roles such as these? They see areas for improvement and want to see change.

What experience do you have that would make you an excellent fit for the role?

I am approaching this election with blunt honesty, and the truth is… my campaign is not based on formal experience. SUSU provides training for the formal and technical know-hows, but it cannot train an altruistic mindset. As a first-year, my formal experience is limited, but the role description isn’t ‘be professional and act like you care’, the role requires intrinsic concern for the well-being of others, with no other motivation but to ensure people are not left in the dumps when they are low.

I am WELL aware that my lack of experience as a first year is not an incredible selling factor, but I URGE people reading this to understand that I have done everything since I first accepted my offer here:

  • I have tried to lift those who were unhappy by dropping everything to hear and to understand worries of friends and course mates. By operating an open DM policy as an admin, encouraging people to not bottle up their concerns and telling them ‘it’s ok to talk’, and putting myself up as course rep to actively communicate issues when so many felt abandoned by the department since September.
  • To engage those who felt disconnected by running lighthearted Discord events before the start of university, by encouraging people to say hi and make friends early on. By reaching out to those I knew stayed behind in Southampton over Christmas to make sure they knew they were not alone, by signing myself up for the limited amount of events (such as the Univision show) to remind everyone that things are still happening and bring hope into fellow first years for the future. By consistently making an effort to include all of my peers within activities and events (following rule of six when it was allowed, or digitally in the past few months).
  • To promote good mental health habits by being (almost annoying) with the amount of mindfulness advice and wellbeing tips I post; by being an active advocate for mental health; and more recently, by being part of MindSoc and raising over £1000 for Mind as part of our livestream marathon campaign. It is not something I take lightly.

I am most happy when the people I care for are happy. I do not have an interest in the professionalism of SUSU, I do not have an interest in formalities and bureaucracies, I only have an interest in striving to make sure that every single student is supported, included, and feels like they are a part of the overall student body community.

What are the main problems you identify with the current role of VP Welfare and Community and how would you fix that?

The role is inherently empathetic in nature, yet many people are having issues connecting with the Sabbaticals. Being elected in charge of Welfare and Community within the student body, I would want to change that by reaching out directly to students in a much more informal manner. Sometimes it feels like SUSU becomes a bit caught up in formalities and struggle to come across as a collective of students. I stated before, I have no concern in fitting in with the SUSU brand or coming across as super professional. I simply want to listen, understand, and fix student problems.

To answer the question more succinctly: whether or not the current Sabbs have student voices as a top priority within their decisions, it may sometimes be difficult to see it. I want to talk to students twice as much as I talk to other Sabbs or SUSU, if not more.

Considering it can be hard for people to come forward with their concerns, how do you intend to engage students on welfare issues?

I will continue to operate an open DM and e-mail policy and would encourage people to reach out to me personally regarding issues. Yes, I realise it is a lot for one person but it would be the most genuine way of establishing a communication channel between myself and the students. I absolutely value the work that the SUSU Student Leaders, Senators, and course reps provide within creating a feedback loop between SUSU and students but the simple truth is… many are discouraged by the sheer number of layers and people they must go through in order to raise their concerns, or they are discouraged because they are told “come and bring it up at the next forum or meeting”. The majority of students don’t want to go through these systems, they simply want to state their issues and leave it to us to fix them. This level of bureaucracy creates delay between the initial point of the complaint being raised and Sabbaticals acting on it. Even if the delay is small, it is important to hear issues and act on them as fast as possible before they lose traction. I don’t want to replace the current structure, I simply want to allow students to contact me directly (by e-mail, on Discord, on whatever).

Within the course rep circle for our department, we have been trialing an anonymous form-based system for those that have things to say, but wish to keep their identity anonymous. This has worked really well, and we were happy to see students cooperate with us and offer (surprisingly) constructive feedback. Microsoft Forms can authenticate that the user is from the University without revealing their identity, and for many people that is very important. Not everyone who has good ideas wants to throw their name into the hat of SUSU drama. Since the submissions are validated, we were able to show to the department “LOOK, these are THE EXACT PERSONAL WORDS of what people want”, without ever having to drop a name in the call. If elected I will investigate what would be the best way to scale up this kind of system, while keeping the initial anonymous factor that so many find appealing.

Most students either want to bring up their concerns personally without having to go through hoops which instantly reduces the emotional backing of their points, or they want to state their issues anonymously without having to get involved with the bureaucracy. The current systems, as far as I am aware, don’t accommodate either of those groups particularly well.

How would you work to improve equality and diversity within the Student’s Union as a whole?

I will oversee and challenge any diversity concerns that I or the students see withering the Union. I am confident (or at least, really hope) that no one at SUSU wishes to exclude any group of students in any context, however despite all of the progress made, these things can sometimes slip through the cracks or be unintentional. In those cases, we would examine the system and the people in charge to see where the issues originate, and not only patch them up, but ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As always, I would invite students to promptly reach out to highlight any inclusivity concerns that they spot within SUSU, the University, in halls, or in any context. Most of the time people are not exclusive maliciously, they just need to be more aware and informed.

Students have expressed concerns with how the University has handled the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on student welfare. What will you do to ensure that the university ensures the welfare of all members of the university community is a priority in the next academic year?

You would want to think that the University has learned from its mistakes (one small example: ECS has admitted that one of the biggest mistakes they made was not timetabling out their pre-recorded lectures, leading to many people struggling to keep up and causing unnecessary stress). Whether or not the University has learned, we certainly have.

While I wish to remain optimistic, I doubt the situation will return to full normality by next September. Whatever the case, I will make it my own personal goal to place student welfare at 100% top priority within all my decisions. The University has not done everything it could to check in with students during the past year—what about all the vulnerable students left alone in halls? Would a simple run-through of the system and a phone call to check up on them.. would that honestly have been that radical to organise?

Part of your role is leading on Welfare & Community campaigns such as Disability Awareness Week, ‘You are More Than’, Black History Month, LGBT+ Month and Culture Festival. How will you improve student engagement in these campaigns?

Include the students as much as possible. As stated in my manifesto, “the best people to speak out and represent the various student groups.. are the students themselves”. I will reach out to respective societies and hope to engage as many students as possible to hear what they would want to get out of these events—what should be the elements for us to focus on? What can we improve on from previous years? Are there new ideas that we need to raise awareness for? Help us make the itinerary!

These events are, by nature, personal to many people. It would defeat the purpose and dull the message if those people were not involved in the planning of these events.

If you are elected, what will be your top three focus areas?

  • Enabling Services. Why is it that half of the people I have spoken to say that they felt they were not supported by their experience with Enabling Services?
  • Address the student-university communication divide. What could be done to make students feel supported by their Union again? Why does it struggle to be relatable?
  • COVID has highlighted the absolute importance of mental health. What could we do to continue raising this awareness and how can we make the advice more directly relevant for students?

Throughout everything that I would do, student needs and student concerns will always be the motivation AND the endgoal.

In your manifesto you mention that you believe the divide between students and the union is due to ‘a lack of earnest and down-to-earth communication’. Can you expand on this more? How would you address such concerns?

Simply put, I believe the current systems of communication discourage students from speaking out about their concerns. We need to bring SUSU lower to the needs of students—SUSU can act like a corporation all it wants, but it is there to hear all students; to understand what they are saying; and to do all it can to support and lobby for them.

When the things SUSU do are misaligned with what the students want, we have a massive problem. During one of the worst points of this pandemic, with so many students complaining, SUSU did another rebrand!

As mentioned earlier, I want to create and maintain informal channels of communication between the Sabbs and the students. This would make communication easier (not having to jump through hoops), faster (these channels would be constantly open, no need to wait for an Instagram post to tell us what’s wrong), and more meaningful (you would be communicating directly with me or one of the Sabbs, and we would be there to listen and to hear). SUSU is intimidating, it comes across as corporate. It is difficult for students (especially new students) to reach out and it is difficult for SUSU’s replies to sound genuine. There is no reason we can’t work on that.

How do you intend to tackle the ‘systematic and organisational’ issues with the enabling services, which you mention in your manifesto?

I have had my fair share of adversities before and during uni, and I know how important it is to have someone to rely on—someone to be there to hear you and understand what you are going through. It is not fair (especially during COVID times) to assume that everyone has someone like that, which is why Enabling Services needs to be consistent with the support it offers and understand why it is such a big issue that it currently does not do that.

Let’s invite students to contact us regarding how they felt (no reason this can’t be anonymous), let’s ask why they feel that way and what gave them such a sour impression of Enabling Services, let’s find the consistencies within their experiences—can we see emerging patterns?

I want to think that Enabling Services would be happy to hear our concerns and collaborate with SUSU to ensure changes are implemented.

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Deputy Editor 2020/21. Final year History student.

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