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My 3 lessons from being the President of UCDSU for a year


The day has come to wrap up my time as President of UCD Students' Union. Our SU has a long history and legacy, and it has been a privilege to leave my own mark on it. As the 6th woman to hold the position (compared with 39 men) and the first immigrant, I was excited to bring a fresh perspective and experience to the table. My main goal for the year was to improve the reputation and trust that the SU had with the student body and with the campus community. I tried my best to serve students and stand up for our rights at every possible opportunity. I was lucky that I got to do this with a brilliant team at my side.


After an incredibly varied and busy period of 12 months, I have learned and experienced a lot. From team management, to budgeting, campaigning, media, negotiation, facilitation of training, and plenty more that I could talk about. However, if I was to pick the top things that I will be taking away from my term, then these three points would be the most important lessons and reflections:


1. Trust your gut.


In the SU, the minute you take up office you are thrown into a massive pool of responsibilities. On top of that, random and unprecedented events are quite common throughout the year, so you and your team need to trust and support each other in facing them. As President, you have to learn to make good decisions when under pressure. Whether it's answering individual students who turn to you for help or direction, or entering a room full of management, mid-discussion about a matter affecting students that requires your input to shape a decision - you have to find your voice and learn to use it. Fast!


My attitude to the role was that I had a duty not to let the students who elected me down, and to always do my very best to achieve positive changes for them. While this approach was very motivating, sometimes it amplified the pressure that I was under to an extreme. I had to learn to have faith in my own leadership ability, to trust my team and consult them when I needed support, and to listen to my gut feeling when I was put on the spot to make decisions.


When you believe that the work you are carrying out is the right thing to do and have a passion for it, it becomes easy to lead with the values and policies of the organisation that you're in.


2. Trust your values, and don't be afraid to challenge authority!


I was well aware from previous experiences as an elected representative that whatever you do, people are always watching and making up their minds about it. Students, their families and friends, the staff and management on campus, other SUs, journalists, politicians - so many eyes are on you, and everything you say or do is documented in media and online. The only way to come out strong from that level of pressure is to always stick firmly to your values and stand up for the people you represent. Even when that means challenging the authority that you are trying to work with, to create a better environment for your constituents.


We took a turn half way through the year. We drew a line between what we stood for as the Students’ Union, and a decision taken by the management in the university. We began sharing videos, speaking out in all major national press, mobilising a stronger presence across campus and challenging the decision-making structures within UCD. That was not an easy thing to do. It got to a point where my leadership voice was described as ‘emotional’ in numerous national media interviews by a powerful member of management. This play on my age and gender as a means to belittle the arguments that I was making, made it hard to keep going. But we did.


We were up against decisions that were part of multi-annual processes, and we only had a few months to learn about them and try to influence their direction. It was massively challenging, but we persevered and paved a way for further student agitation of managements' decision making on campus that doesn’t align with our values as an institution. I hope the student movement on campus will remain confident in standing by our values and challenging authority, when necessary.


3. Remember - you are not defined by the sum of your productivity.


This is a personal lesson, and one I am still learning to accept. As someone who enjoys working hard and cares about their work, sometimes I find it difficult to separate myself and my self-esteem from the things that I do. However, it's important to remember that no matter what situation or role you find yourself in, the truth is that things will go right and things will go wrong, and that does not make you a better or worse person.


In the SU, there is no step by step guide to being a brilliant officer. And fair enough, no such guide exists to anything in life. However, as a freshly faced graduate, stepping into the role of President and CEO of an organisation that represents 30,000 students - it immediately places an incredible amount of pressure on your shoulders, and it's really hard at first to get things right. If you choose to pour all of your focus into every small matter as it arises, it’s a recipe for driving yourself mad. You have to find a balance between being dedicated to your role, and recognising that your personal development and happiness does not rely on succeeding in every single task or campaign. Your self-esteem has to be grounded in more than just completing a list of goals, so you can see value and strength in yourself and constantly learn from experiences, even when you don't succeed.


In the long run, I found that focusing on my well being, rather than counting each achievement and failure, was a much healthier approach to doing well. I allowed myself to speed up at some points, and forced myself to slow down at others, to ensure that I could get to the end of the term feeling proud of my accomplishments, while also maintaining good physical and mental health. And in the end, I really enjoyed being the SU President.


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So, after a whirlwind of a year, and over 6 years in the student movement in total, it's time to finish up my journey with student leadership and focus on returning to study and finding my feet in 'the real world'.


Despite the current COVID-19 situation, I am looking forward to embarking on the master's course of my dreams in September. Let's see how my learning applies to pursuing international trade and investment law at the University of Amsterdam.


Finally, the very best of luck to the new UCDSU sabbatical team for 2020/2021, Conor, Leighton, Ruairí, Sarah, Hannah and Carla!


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