Wessex Scene interview Gladys Restrepo Perdomo, 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 Communities?
I am passionate about participation and democracy. I want to be a voice for all students and put their needs first. I truly believe that we are living in challenging times which requires more than the usual bureaucracy and political standing, moving to a more listening and supportive role than ever before. The epidemic of mental health has come to light in recent years, but I’m not sure how seriously this has been taken. Universities have become businesses and I’m not clear how this business model is responsive to the needs of students, which can be subsumed by financial imperatives. I am also inspired by the example of my husband, who is a social worker and social work lecturer. He has taught me the importance of compassion and the need for institutions to be more responsive to individual needs. The university is an important institution in Southampton, so I believe it also has a responsibility to give back to the community. I would like to see the university facilitating more student engagement with community initiatives.
What experience do you have that would make you an excellent fit for the role?
I was a course rep during my first year at University and this gave me interesting and insightful experience, working as an advocate for my peers. I also have wider life experience, in finance and marketing, and as a busy working mother. I understand that students are not just students, but people with wider hopes and aspirations. I believe universities need to help students become well-rounded individuals, not just academics. The university needs to support welfare and encourage community responsibility.
What are the main problems you identify with the current role of VP Welfare and Communities and how would you fix that?
Student representation is always a challenge in universities. I worry about tokenism on the part of the university. My experience of the business school, where I am a student, has been very positive, but my sense is that higher management are not always as attentive to the student voice as they should be. I worry about cuts to student services and the considerable mental health needs of the student population. I believe the VP role needs to raise the needs of students higher up the agenda. Covid only serves to exacerbate all of this. As an international student and a mature student, I am also worried that these two groups are often overlooked, although I am committed to representing all students from all backgrounds. My main approach to the role will be to act as an advocate, to campaign for increased student services and offer more support to academics who I believe are under a lot of pressure to do more with less. I would like to see a more robust system of support for mental health, disabilities, those with caring responsibilities, and international students. This needs to be the role of an expanded service, including a wider range of specialists.
Considering it can be hard for people to come forward with their concerns, how do you intend to engage students on welfare issues?
One of the few positives of Covid is that we have started to communicate more online, which offers many advantages. I will make myself available through the usual online platforms (email, Teams, WhatsApp). When campus opens, I will also be available for face-to-face discussions, both through open ‘surgeries’ and appointments. I will also run a number of social media pages, including on Facebook. This will allow people to communicate with me anonymously, if they feel more comfortable doing so.
How would you work to improve equality and diversity within the Student’s Union as a whole?
I think the student union, first and foremost, needs to be representative of the student community. I being some of that diversity myself, as a wife, mother, and Colombian! The student union needs to make its information available in different forms, including different languages and in different formats such as Easy Read. It also needs to have a clearer set of principles – a clear mission statement, if you like, which sets its values around equality and diversity. I believe there should also be room for dialogue with the wider student community. Easy ways to contact union officers and the union itself needs to be readily accessible to students. The union also needs to be open to debate and disagreement.
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?
Firstly, I must acknowledge that the Covid situation has been incredibly difficult and I empathise with the challenges university leaders have faced over the past year. I think the switch to online learning has been mixed – some academics/departments do it better than others. If we stay online in the next academic year, academics needs to be more accessible online. They need to offer drop-in sessions for students and use technology to build communities of learning in order to negate any feelings of isolation. If we return to campus and some form of blended learning, there needs to be a much more robust pastoral support system available on campus. For example, student services need to make more counsellors available. I believe academic departments need to be accessible. There needs to be greater utilisation of personal tutors, and academics needed to be supported with this. I don’t want to put more pressure on academics, therefore I advocate for increased staffing to support student needs – including using research students more as pastoral tutors. I believe each academic school needs a forum that is about discussing the wider pastoral needs of students, and who these needs impact on academic progression.
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?
Through online and campus based initiatives, where the latter is possible. I would ask students, not just union officers, to contribute to the design and running of campaigns. I will bring in guest speakers which students will hopefully find interesting and relevant. I also think we need to review these events – what do students want to mark and celebrate? What is important to them? If students feel a sense of involvement and ownership, they are more likely to engage. I will also liaise with reps at school and department level, work with them to set- up department events, and consult students on wider university events.
If you are elected, what will be your top three focus areas?
- Support – meeting the pastoral needs of students.
- Employability – helping students to be the best they can and realise their aspirations.
- Community engagement – we need to support the local community and give students an opportunity to contribute.
How do you think your experience as both a mature student and an international student will shape your work as VP Welfare and Communities?
My personal experience has equipped me with an open view and perspective of welfare issues. I have always been a very compassionate and empathetic person, with a couple of bad experiences at the start of university, I knew from very early on that this was the role for me. As students, we have the knowledge, the awareness, and the voices to change our university experience, and I’m excited to do everything I can to facilitate that! I also think the university does a lot of good and that should be celebrated. As a mature student and international student, I bring two interlinked perspectives for two important student groups. But equally, as a mature student I have also been an 18 year student, a student trying to find work, and a student trying to find their place in the world. All this will help me in the VP role.
You mention wanting to make employability a priority, could you give some more examples of how you intend to do this?
To ensure employability is at the forefront of all programmes, the university needs to adopt a real-world perspective. By that, I mean for teaching and assessment, including learning outcomes, and the need to develop key skills such as critical thinking and writing skills. These skills need to develop intellectual capacity and prepare students for their post-university lives. I know Solent University has had excellent results with its real world learning framework, and we can learn from that. I also believe academic departments need to be using placements much, much more. Not just years away in industry – although this is great, but this should be embedded throughout courses. This requires more robust engagement with local employers, not just employers based in London (an issue in the business school). I also want to see the university bring in more guest speakers from industry, at university and departmental levels. Academics should be supported in making this happen, for an example more funding. Online platforms are a great opportunity to bring in speakers from all over the world. There also needs to be more focus on developing practical skills, such as interviewing skills and networking, to help students gain employment. The University of Southampton is a powerful brand and I want our students to make the most of this.