BSU President Calvin Jude Jansz, Vice President Activities Suzie Douglas and Vice President Education Ramy Badrie discuss their priorities and look ahead to graduation. They also talk about why they decided to campaign in the first place, their backgrounds and what it’s like studying at the University. Sadly Onyinye Okonkwo, Vice President Welfare, was unable to make the recording.
Alternatively, most of the podcast is transcribed below.
How’s it sound to be the new president, Calvin?
Calvin: It’s surreal really. I’m enjoying the job and everything that comes with it.
What was the campaign like? Interested to know why you wanted to become BSU officers…
Calvin: I was president of the university rugby club, so I knew the SU and had worked with them on bits and pieces last year. I saw it as a bit of a natural progression and a foot in the door of what I want to do after uni, which is politics.
Suzie: I was into doing lots of society stuff. In previous work, I’ve done projects for them so I was massively society focussed. I was really against running because I just wanted to go out there and do my career – because it’s nothing to do with my career. However, it’s something I felt really, really passionate about and really loved societies and stuff and I was like ‘Why don’t I just take a year to do something I really love before I go and work on my career’. It’s like a once in a lifetime opportunity – you can’t come back in and do it once you’ve graduated, so I was like let’s just go for it, and if I get it, that’s brilliant and then I’ll do my career after – if not, I’ll move on now.
What are you aiming to do?
Suzie: I want to be a computer programmer.
Ramy: I actually joined the university last September and have just completed my first year and I kind of got exposed to the SU by being a course rep and being involved with debating law and amnesty societies. I was also hesitant about running because quite simply I was kind of a bit worried being a first year whether I would actually be able to succeed at all, but it was one of those things where I find myself mentally telling myself not to run but everything in my heart wanted me and I really wanted to run, and I couldn’t put it off. I started kind of imagining myself doing that sort of thing and I didn’t go into it thinking at all I would win, but I simply just wanted to have that experience of campaigning and kind of getting to know the SU more. For me when I came to university, I really thought I’d be very academic based and but the SU allowed me to integrate into the wider community with the other opportunities that were available, which I think for students is really important to do.
Let’s talk about your backgrounds very quickly – on your interests and why you wanted to come to the University of Brighton…
Ramy: I’m originally from the Middle East and most of my life I’ve lived between America and the Middle East. My parents emigrated to America when I was a child actually so I grew up there for a bi, and for me I was kind of always interested in international human rights. I’m actually from Syria which is right now in an ongoing civil war. That kind of got me interested. I wanted to come to Brighton because I had two brothers that studied in Brighton, so that was my main motivating factor. But when I visited, I visited a lot of campuses at the time, there was just this very welcoming atmosphere that you could essentially do or say or be whoever you wanted and get involved with the wider opportunities. So that motivated me and it’s why I got into this role as well.
Suzie: I came from Bournemouth. I studied uniform public services at college, did absolutely nothing to do with computer programming. I decided I wanted to go to university after working for a couple of years after college and decided working life wasn’t for me yet, so I decided to go to university, came on an open day and was just overwhelmed by the whole thing and applied straight away, and only picked Brighton. I went and applied for accounting and finance, did a year and decided it wasn’t for me, and then moved over to computing and found a degree in which I kind of felt comfortable with and just kind of excelled at from there. I enjoyed it but I had a bit of a different background from everybody else. I’m a care leaver, so I was in foster care prior so I’d been living on my own, so I came not as a mature student but as a student who had already been living on their own for a long time, so I had a slightly different experience to students who come straight from home.
Calvin: I originally come from Croydon in south London. My cousin came here, I knew Brighton, the area, I knew it was a really nice place to live. It’s a great city to live in but I suppose I fell into coming here. I didn’t really plan on going to uni. It was more that I’d finished sixth form and I said ‘well I don’t want to go into a job’. I’ve always found politics really interesting so I picked that to do my degree in and since I got here, loved it, cannot recommend this uni any higher. Obviously I’m president, so I should be selling the university, but it’s just a great uni – a great place to live.
Suzie: I think what makes a uni is where it is. Any institution is going to teach you the skills that you need in order to achieve the degree, and it’s up to you to pull your weight to do that. But actually it’s more than just the academic experience. It’s also about the place that you live because 70 percent of the time you’re in that environment. Brighton’s a really, really culturally diverse place and it means that there’s something here for everybody. You can be the weirdest wackiest person you think in your school, but you can come here and you fit in and there’s no outcast group. I think that helps because your day-to-day living is pleasant, so it makes studying easier.
Ramy: I had a very similar experience when I first joined the university. I imagined I’d be in the library all the time. I even asked my brothers at one point ‘do I need to actually talk to people?’ – because I’m very shy as a person. Susie’s probably going to laugh at me about that! But what the university does really, really well is that it not only focuses on your academics experience, but the wider experiences that you have, and making those opportunities readily available for all students and diversifying what those opportunities are, because we all have our interests and passions outside of our academics and it would be unfortunate if during your time at university you never got to explore those, but what the University of Brighton does is it enables you and empowers you to explore those. The only reason I actually ran for this election to begin with is because I felt really motivated academically by the support team that was already there, by the people that I had met, and I felt empowered through meeting them and that kind of gave me the motivation to run for something like this. I think that’s something that the university does so much for its students really.
We talked about how some of you weren’t initially looking to run, that you were caught in two minds, but to get the backing of fellow students must be quite special?
Calvin: Yeah definitely. The students have voted us in and they gave us the mandate to fulfil what we put in our manifestos, and I think we’ve got some really solid stuff to go on. None of it’s unachievable and it might not happen during our tenures here, but hopefully bring in some really good things, and some of it will be over the next year and some will be in five years time.
Suzie: I think the process of running for a role is very different depending on the background that you’ve had at university before running. So Calvin was obviously very sports focussed – he had the support of his rugby team and stuff like that to egg him on, effectively. Ramy obviously had a lot of support from his school who were very, very proud of his achievements in first year, and were very fond of the idea of having somebody who’s just so good at academia running for this role and had some brilliant points that he wanted to change which were based purely on facts as well, which helps. Mine was a society background but I didn’t really have like a team of people, I actually had more people telling me to run than I expected, a lot of people that I had worked with as a society, as a committee member or just a friend were like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah – let’s go’. It was a real community feel when we were running because although we were all running against each other, we were all facing the same kind of struggle – it’s really hard campaigning.
Calvin: Looking back on it I’d say we enjoyed doing it. Even the people you’re running against, it was very friendly. We were all talking to each other and supporting each other. Everyone was knackered, by Friday we were all absolutely dead on our feet, and giving people those little pick me ups – it was just so nice. It was an exhausting process, but yeah, I enjoyed it.
Ramy: I really agree with that 100%. It was not just a civil process but a very friendly process. A lot of us were exchanging tips about useful places to campaign with one another, even though we weren’t always running together essentially. I think the nicest thing about a campaign, no matter what the outcome is, it’s one of those vital opportunities for you to meet people besides the people who are in your course or in your societies. I met so many people that I simply would not ever had the chance to interact with, simply by campaigning, and we formed friendships, and when we brought ideas together – we actually did not really know one another at all before, and that’s one of the things that has emerged from this, so there’s so much value regardless. A lot of students, I think, stress the outcome of a campaign and it is, obviously for students, it’s hard to put in that effort and not get the result that you want, but there’s so much other opportunities in a campaign and you get to have that platform, interact with the student body, which is ultimately where for the students that’s at the heart of our role. So that interaction is so vital.
Suzie: I’d also add that you start to really feel for the people that choose to do careers where they do lots of survey stuff on the street, it is a really not demoralising thing, but you really have to learn to take no and move on and be positive and it’s a really interesting life skill to have to learn is the motivation to carry on, continuously for four or five days, which is tough. You know we are just effectively inverted commas standing there giving out fliers and telling people. But it’s actually shattering and you have to be smiley and some people have really, really inquisitive questions which is brilliant. But you have to answer on the spot and come up with these creative responses.
We’ll come back to some of your priorities in just a bit. Let’s talk very briefly about graduation, which is coming up, and the ceremonies in the summer. Massive occasions and Suzie you’re about to take part in one of those – it must be an exciting period?
Suzie: It’s like what I think people feel for prom. I never had a prom, but it’s that end goal – once you get to put a hat on and a pretty gown and get your certificate and take your photo and stuff, I think that’s the ‘I’ve done it’ kind of moment. We all have different hurdles but that moment…it’s really stressful, it’s really like what do I have to do?! But actually it’s going to be really chill and really nice.
It’s what you’re all working towards…
Calvin: Yeah definitely. I think uni does get you down at times, no matter the circle of friends that you keep and how healthy you are in terms of your mental health as well. It does get you down but I think having those moments of ‘you know what, at the end of the day, it’s only a degree, I can get through this’. And I think having graduation at the end and having that big celebration is just really nice to be like, actually you know what, all that work I did get through, it was all worth it – it’s done now and I can go on and do whatever else I want to do with my life. I think it’s just a nice celebration.
Suzie: Ramy’s hiding something, go on, tell the truth!
Ramy: So I already have another degree. I’ve done this already. The nice thing about graduations I think is that they’re a snapshot in time. It’s what Calvin said, you do all this work and there are times where it’s demoralising and you struggle to continue, but at your graduation, you see all people that have helped you and shaped your journey, you see your academics, your family, your friends, your support network. It’s one of those few times where they’re all in the same room together and celebrating with you and celebrating your successes. We in our roles really have the honour of attending and witnessing those graduations and it’s just such a privilege to see that excitement and see students that have worked so hard and had such unique journeys. Because no one student has had the same as another student, and you get to witness that. So when I had my last graduation, my family couldn’t be with me because of the whole political situation in Syria – they were there at the time. I had my friends, who were very, very supportive, but graduations are just such a fun celebratory mood. I think they’re a combination of everything you work towards.
Where was that and what was the degree?
Ramy: Well I studied criminal justice, and that was back in Washington D.C. in America. So I did that for four years as my undergrad and then I worked for two years after before coming to the University of Brighton to pursue a law degree.
Suzie – do you have anyone coming down for your graduation?
Suzie: My gran’s coming down, so it’s going to be really lovely. She’s been a main support for me through the whole of university, she’s dug me out of every hole when I’ve found myself short of food one week, and when you blow your budget on the Monday and you were supposed to make it last until Saturday – so she’s been a brilliant support net and she’s been my biggest advocate, she’s come up and she’s tried to embrace a student life as much as me. She’s done fish and chips in bed whilst watching telly on a laptop. She hasn’t been clubbing, I think for health and safety reasons clubbing’s off the table, but she’s really embraced it and some of the best experiences I’ve had have been with her and my housemates and she’s just been fabulous. So it’s a big thing for her and she’s just as emotional as I am about it.
She’s got a little outfit and I’ve got to get my dress done and all of that and I think it’s going to be really emotional. It’s the end of a journey but the beginning of a new chapter, I think that’s the best way to put it. It’s a closure of a brilliant experience but also opening the door to just a whole world that you would never be able to experience without it.
What are your plans afterwards?
Suzie: We’re going to go for dinner and then I think we’re going to hit the town – she’s not ready for it yet.
For Calvin and Suzie, your final year has come to an end. And you’re still here, obviously…
Suzie: That’s weirdest, I think. Everybody dispersed – yet we’re still here.
Calvin: It’s sad really. I suppose you lose that safety net. Well first of all, finance, but then you’re out in the big world and you’ve got to use that degree that you’ve got. It’s definitely a sad time but also happy for obvious reasons.
What do you take away from your studies here? Was it what you expected? Have you seen yourself change in your time here?
Suzie: I’ve learnt to appreciate that there are different approaches to the same problem. I thought not necessary my way was right, but I was quite narrow-minded when I came to university and now I am a bit better at accepting that there are lots of different ways to solve a common goal. I’ve met people here from so many different cultures and backgrounds. It has just expanded my general knowledge and respect for so many different countries. I think I’ve matured massively as a person and a big thing for me was I learned to enjoy my own company, which sounds really weird because university is a buzzing place, but a lot of the time you do have to stop and focus and study, and when I came I never really liked being on my own. But I’ve really learnt to like my own company and take time for myself when I’m busy rushing around doing essays, sometimes I just stop and relax and I think that’s something I’m definitely going to take onwards in life, is making the time just to stop and appreciate the moment.
Calvin: I think you just acquire so many more skills and attributes at university – I’m sure you could get them in other places, but I think it’s just a very unique place – especially in Brighton. I think the things I’ve gained, in terms of leadership skills, and working as part of a team, it’s just a very unique place. You don’t get those kind of opportunities elsewhere.
Suzie: It’s a lifestyle change, but it’s a good lifestyle change.
Ramy, you’ve done your first year – you’ve taken a different route in that you’re taking a year out to do this. Was that quite a difficult decision for you?
Ramy: It was and it was one of those things where I think I had a lot of people telling me that I probably should wait and finish my degree first before doing something like this, but I think in my heart I really wanted to do it and it got to a point where I was trying to convince myself not to do it. So I think when you reach that point, you know that you probably should just go ahead and do what you really want to do. But what really shaped my perspective in the university was that when you come to university, you think what you want to be doing – and it teaches you, it flips the question, it emphasises the value from seeing things from people’s perspectives, because often we see things really as we are and we think we’re being objective but we’re not. I think if anything university just teaches you a lot of empathy, which I think we really need to be focusing more of. I’m kind of living in other people’s experiences, working with them, reaching some sort of a joint consensus on things, and I think that’s the thing that I really gain from my first year at university, just meeting those people, seeing that, because everyone does have something to contribute and really what we should all be doing is bringing out the best in one another.
You can compare two completely different experiences but both being at university in two different countries. How does that compare? Is it a huge difference?
Ramy: I’m sorry to all my American friends – but I love being here more. Jokes aside, my experience in America was very different. Being in Washington DC was a very political city. One of the downfalls of that is that people will associate with one another based on their political leanings, because that sort of conversation always comes up. And I think the difference that I experienced in Brighton on the other hand was that people didn’t look at you for your background, who you were, where you came from – that was important and people were always interested in that, but it wasn’t essentially what they were focusing when they were interacting with you. People saw you for your contributions, your ideas, what you brought to any room – any idea to any table. I never thought I’d end up living in the UK, I never thought I’d end up doing anything like this at all in my wildest dreams. Genuinely I thought I’d be in the library – even now. Thankfully I’m not in the library right now -shout out to the students, thanks. It’s just a totally different experience.
You’ve all got some key priorities that you want to focus on while you’re in your roles. So let’s go around the table and just discuss what some of those are…
Calvin: I’ve got a few things I want to focus on. One of them is employability and making sure that students feel as though once they’ve left the university, they’ve actually gained the skills necessary to go into whatever field of work that they want to. I think it’s one of those things it’s not really discussed enough that people can come to university and leave and be like, hold on, actually am I qualified to do anything I do want to do – I may have had a good time and everything else, which is great, but is it actually going to help you in that long term goal? Because at the end of the day, people come here and they leave with a massive amount of debt and if it wasn’t worth while then all that fun…So yeah employability, just making sure that courses have got it built into them so students feel as if they can leave with those skills.
Next on my agenda would probably be closing the BAME attainment gap. So we’re doing a lot of work with Jo MacDonnell here and making sure that we can get those numbers up to where they should be, making sure that it’s just a really inclusive place. That includes inclusivity, it stretches to all of the what we call liberation groups – so LGBT, disabled students, mature students – anyone who feels as though their voice isn’t properly being represented. I want to make sure that they feel part of the conversation. And then when we go into shared goals – for Suzie and I, varsity is a massive thing. Obviously with my sport background but Suzie with her society background, we’re really keen to work together to make sure that varsity is better than ever.
Suzie: With that, we’re quite keen to reach out to some local schools and invite the younger children to encourage them to look into extra curricular activities and keeping healthy and fit – it’s brilliant for your mental health as well. It’s about making sure that all the varsity teams are gender equal, making sure we’ve got mixed teams, women’s teams, men’s teams, making sure that we’re supporting all sports that we can offer. We’ve got a meeting lined up with the Sussex President activities person over there, so we’ll be collaborating with them and One World Week, which is a big one for celebrating different cultures. So we’ve got some shared goals.
We’re very, very keen for the freshers period to be a lot more out on campus, speaking to people and really changing the dynamics around Brighton and making the Students’ Union a much bigger part of the student experience. So communication is quite a big one for us. I don’t want to stand on Ramy’s toes, but obviously employability is big one. I’m very keen at the looking the volunteers and making sure they get some accreditation for what they do. Inclusivity is another big one.
Ramy: The biggest thing that we can do as a union and as officers is encourage and empower students to bring their ideas and for us to support those ideas. We had for instance last year Bella Wilson, Expect Respect, which is a campaign essentially focused on the idea of consent and the importance of that. So we want to work with students directly, we want to be serving them, getting the feedback from them and as Calvin said, we have a lot of shared joint goals. A lot of our initiatives will be focused on improving wellbeing and making sure a lot of the services in place and activities provided support that. A lot of what I want to do is obviously education based. But I want to go beyond education. We want to diversify. For instance, the placement options that are available for students, because that comes up time and time again. We have such a broad range and a diversity of students and we want to make sure that the placement options, those work schemes and those vital opportunities, that there are more more of them available to students, more diverse opportunities in other countries as well not just in the UK for those students that do want to travel – which is a significant portion. I do also want to create more visibility for mature and postgraduate students. Many times I guess they don’t always feel that they are part of the learning community, because of perhaps that age difference, because of their different experiences, and we want to incorporate them more and provide more opportunity for them as well.
A lot of my fascination is with course reps – I love course reps! We want to make sure that not only are course reps trained, but that we have a clear network of those course reps, that there is greater interaction between SU and the university and implementing a school level model within each of the schools that we can then kind of feed back and develop that network. We’re most excited, I think, working as a team as well. We have so many shared joint goals and visions and we’re only as effective as how hard we work and how well we work with one another – so far it’s been really exciting in that regard.
You must be deep in the planning process now then with the new academic year coming? Have you had any conversations with your predecessors?
Calvin: I was lucky enough to get a hand over from Tomi (Ibuken) – my predecessor, which was cool – we’ve got a pretty good working relationship. Tomi’s sticking around (studying), so that’s really nice – I’ll have someone to go to for advice.
He’s given me a few bits to look out for but also said to make sure I really enjoy the journey.
Ramy: Yeah it is very busy but also, speaking of the previous officers, they were so effective in being engaged with the wider student body. When I was when I was considering actually, I didn’t know any of the officers, but you always want to know the perspective of an officer to see what the role is like, what you’re going into and I messaged them individually. I did not expect to get a reply because I didn’t know them but I met with all four of them multiple times. I was very nervous, I was very worried. I came with so many different questions and they took the time to answer every single one of them. That’s kind of what motivated me and put me at ease with the whole process, so a massive shout out to Amy, Parker, Sam and Tomi.
Right now we have a session scheduled where we’re going to be focusing on what our campaigns exactly are, we discussed a bit briefly the idea and the importance of equity, and the terminology of it isn’t always very clear to students. I remember when I campaigned, I had equity all over my campaign materials and a lot of students actually asked me about the use of the word equity, because I think what we fail to sometimes realise in the educational system is that there are a lot of people that are at a disadvantage and for factors that they do not control. But I think what we can control is the assistance that we provide those students that are disadvantaged, to level the playing field, to make sure that they have an equal chance of success. There are students that need more support than others and we need to be aware of that and we need to be working towards that.
Finally then – excited?
Suzie: Buzzing. I can’t get over the initial buzz. I can’t wait until freshers. I can’t wait to get to finalise what we’re doing and then we can start going. The problem is, we’ve had so long to brainstorm and chat about this ideas list – we started with our original manifesto points, but we actually got an email and the title of it was ‘the long list’ – it’s just this massive list of everything we would love to achieve, so we just have to refine that now.
Calvin: We’ve only been in post for three or four weeks but it’s been a lot of meetings, a lot of gathering ideas and as you speak to one another and as we speak so other people at the university, you just think ‘actually this needs fixing, this needs looking at’ – so yeah let’s say that the list just keeps growing and growing.
Suzie: It’s been amazing networking so far though – I’ve met some phenomenal people.
Ramy: It’s just this sense of gratitude, I think, on all our parts. We’re just so thankful to be able to do this. You are obviously very busy on the job and you have nonstop meetings, but it’s a very good kind of busy. You get to be a part of this unique process of really implementing change. We’ve had such fantastic support within the union, within the university. The idea of this partnership keeps reoccurring, working in strength with one another and building things together.
We end each podcast with some quick-fire questions away from what we’ve been talking about. We’ll go round the table – since you’ve been here, can you pick a favourite place in Sussex? What stands out for you?
Suzie: Cuckmere Bridge.
Ramy: Sealife Centre. In another life, I would have probably been a marine biologist or a professional scuba diver. I don’t have any hobbies these days. But the architecture is just absolutely stunning in there and everything that you get to see is just incredible.
Calvin: What did you say, Suzie?
Suzie: Cuckmere Bridge – literally between Seaford and Eastbourne, and it was phenomenal. It’s peaceful, people can canoe there. you can walk there, and there’s this pub that overlooks it. It’s just a lovely place to go. I’ll take you there. We can all go.
Calvin: I’d say Kemp Town, where I live. It’s just really nice, quite a few pubs around. It’s always buzzing.
If you could invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?
Suzie: Gordon Ramsay – he can cook and I absolutely love how brutally honest he is. We have a very similar personality in that respect.
Emma Watson, because of all of the work she’s done with gender equality, and also the fact that she chose to continue with her education whilst doing all the filming stuff for Harry Potter.
Barack Obama – obviously he’s really interesting to listen to and he is a brilliant example of race equality. But to have a discussion between Emma Watson and Barack Obama – I could just sit there and listen for hours. That intellectual conversation would be fascinating.
Ramy: I would pick Amal Clooney, mainly because of her international human rights background – she’s taken on so many significant cases of human rights abuses. I’ve just always been interested in the cases that she takes on and why she takes them on. I just find it really fascinating.
Oprah Winfrey, because of how much she’s been able to accomplish in the personal struggles that she’s had and the obstacles that she’s surmounted to get to where she is, I think it’s just incredible and testament to the human spirit in general.
Martin Luther King Junior – iconic in so many ways. Obviously with the civil rights movement and everything he was able to do, but really in standing up to oppression and the legacy that he’s had, the influence that he continues to have and how he shapes things years and years later is just fantastic.
Calvin: I’d choose Sylvia Plath – I did English Literature at A Level and I loved reading her stuff, thought it was just amazing. I never really thought that literature could grasp you like that. It’s really powerful stuff.
I did philosophy at Uni so let’s say Socrates – really like a lot of his philosophies.
And finally, it’s got to be Eric Cantona – a cultural icon.