Sally Patterson
Sally Patterson

Navigating campus life and leading by example

I never thought I’d stay for a fourth year in Bristol – in fact I barely scraped through my first year.

The shock of student life, my existence in a rabbit warren of a hall, and the lack of available support pushed me to apply for a transfer just 3 months into my first year.

Starting university is tough for any new student and the contrast between the idealistic, optimistic, and communal gap year life with my youth movement, versus the hedonistic, lonely and unstructured life as a fresher weighed me down.

The support of my friends and family allowed me to turn a corner, but over the years I’ve watched many others drop out or spend days or even weeks alone in their rooms.

I’m now determined to challenge these negative patterns as an elected sabbatical officer.

A recent YouGov study showed that one in four students experience mental health problems during their time at university. This ‘mental health crisis’ cannot be solved with a quick fix, but what’s clear is that things need to change.

There are some obvious, practical steps that can be taken to improve students’ well being; an increase in pastoral care and better funded student counselling services, for example. But we also know that students need to feel included; they need to find others with whom they identify and connect.

For students from marginalised backgrounds, this is often particularly challenging. Xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred are on the rise, including on campus.

Whilst these may take the form of online, physical or verbal attacks, prejudice is often more hidden. Loaded language, snide comments or simply feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome can be draining, or even unbearable.

We need to identify and challenge ingrained racism and fear of ‘the Other’, and every institution must stand up and take responsibility; universities, students’ unions and halls of residences.

As we tackle these issues, it’s vital that we recognise the unique needs of students from minority groups whilst remembering that these groups are not homogeneous.

We tend to speak about neat identity categories, from religious students to LGBT+ students, yet the opinions and needs of these individuals are far from uniform.

An over-riding challenge then, is creating a student-wide kehillah, or community, whilst also protecting the diversity which makes the student movement so strong. We must listen to one another, and then we must stand up for one another.

A commitment to tikkun olam, or repairing the world, has been integral to my upbringing; with the refugee crisis, homelessness, childhood poverty and so many other injustices staring us in the face, this value feels more pertinent than ever.

As a sabbatical officer in Bristol, and a member of the NUS National Executive Council, I know that I am only where I am because of the support of those around me. I will do everything I can to do right by them; I will be held to account and hold others to account, and I will try to lead by example.

I’m proud to be working alongside a group of leaders across the UK striving to make universities better, safer and happier for students, and to offer them the chance to contribute to a better world.   If I can save one student from experiencing a first year like mine, then I would feel I had made a difference.

About the Author
Sally Patterson is the elected Equality, Liberation & Access Officer at Bristol Students Union and an elected member of the National Union of Students NEC. She is an active campaigner for gender and racial justice, and founded the first Nisa-Nashim student group. She has spent the past three years on UJS National Council, working to narrow the gender gap within the Jewish community and make Jewish spaces more accessible and cross-communal.
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