CUSU recently released an online Welfare GridCallum Hale-Thomson

When I came to Cambridge, I was just like everyone else: my first term had its ups and downs as I settled in. Things didn’t start going wrong until second term, when I suffered a bereavement a few days before term started but tried to carry on as normal, on the advice of everyone around me. My ongoing mental health disorder (which I’d coped with all my life without any huge disasters) rapidly deteriorated – or became resistant to the medication I was on – and I was put on a waiting list to receive treatment and/or a medication review. The waiting list was two years long, and I didn’t get the support or treatment I needed until my third year, at which point I was practically unrecognisable from the friendly, if scatter-brained, girl who arrived in September 2012.

As a result of trying to get myself through first and second year at the same pace as my peers, despite how incapacitated I was without treatment, I’d fallen into deep depression, developed severe anxiety, become unable to focus, exhausted and infuriated my friends, and generally behaved in ways completely at odds with my personal values. Finally, I was seen, and I was able to start accessing the education I was paying for. I also began to learn about inclusive teaching practices and the rights of disabled students, and I was writing a dissertation on the experiences of other students at Cambridge with mental health issues. It became apparent that my experience was actually not atypical, and yet when I’d asked my college what adjustments were available so I could learn without endangering my mental health, I was told that there were none and that my situation was unique.

It was when I found out that this was not the case – that ‘extended study’ or ‘alternative modes of assessment’ (which my DoS and Tutor had never been informed of) existed precisely for this kind of scenario – that I got pissed off enough to decide to apply for CUSU-GU Welfare and Rights Officer an hour before the deadline. I don’t really know what I’d been expecting the role to involve, I was just determined to make things better.

I’ve spent my sabb year doing all sorts, from outwards-facing events such as ‘Meet the Animals’ to inwards-facing University Committees (ranging from ‘Welfare & Finance’ to the more niche ‘Ionic and Non-ionic Radioactive Substances’). Some highlights of the year include accidentally spending six months acting as President of the Graduate Union, a role in which I composed a presentation that sought (in direct discordance with CUSU’s strategic aim to absorb it), to illustrate the importance of the GU’s continued independent existence to the University; seeing a 48 per cent rise in the numbers of students using the Students’ Unions’ Advice Service; writing and giving reports about condoms for the Senior Tutors’ Committee; and receiving more emails from the University of Cambridge and its colleges threatening legal action against an area of my work than any person would feel comfortable with. This has all culminated in the most amazing, stressful, empowering and, frankly, bizarre year of experiences I’ve ever had.

One of the biggest issues I’ve worked to combat is the scarcity of information about welfare and rights. If students don’t know what their rights are, or what provisions they’re entitled to, they face a power imbalance when it comes to asking for help. The lack of accessible and simple information contributes to poor student welfare and hinders access to support, and is sometimes exploited to wiggle out of providing proper help. I’ve worked to tackle the array of inconsistent and conflicting information provided by the college websites and resources, and tried to empower students by creating single, cross-collegiate resources, including the Welfare Guide, Welfare Bulletin, Welfare Grid, and the Welfare Officer Handbook, new guidelines on intermission, the changing colleges policy, and the CUSU guide to exams and students’ rights.

Understandably, these have been rather time-consuming tasks. I think the majority of CUSU sabbs work at least 30 per cent more hours than they’re paid for – although this does vary significantly, and workload does correlate to work ethic. I don’t think any of us really mind, but it bothers me that there’s an expectation for CUSU to be of a high standard with us supposedly only working nine-to-five, Monday to Friday. That just isn’t physically possible. And it’s extremely frustrating that when CUSU fucks up, it’s assumed that we’re stupid or can’t be bothered, not that we didn’t spend every evening that week sorting emails because we’ve prioritised our own self-care for once.

Having said that, I have loved my job this year. After studying an arts degree, the structure has had a hugely positive impact on my health and well-being. Knowing that I’m doing a good job, seeing the impact that I’m making, and, above all, being taken seriously by members of the University is validating. Knowing that I’m not supposed to work at the weekends, and that if I don’t I should feel proud, rather than guilty, is an amazing contrast to the time when every moment spent away from academic work felt shameful.  

I’ve also realised a lot about myself.  It is incredibly difficult working alongside the other elected officers, with each of us a leader in our own right, and it’s hard not to be intimidated by the amazing expertise, resilience, and determination they exude, particularly Priscilla and Charlie. The same applies to Chad, the funny and friendly GU President who knows how to make anything coherent, has been my go-to for any campaign-related advice, and who is impossible not to like. However, we’re all conscious that we each bring different strengths, and it’s surprisingly validating and affirming to have such formidable individuals as these defer to your expertise. The teams have consistently worked best in situations where we have not all sought to provide something uniform, but have each had the freedom to contribute from our own, different areas of expertise. I now know that in high-pressure welfare situations, I can stay calm, think clearly, and direct and support the team for as long as necessary. Anything relating to mental health, students’ rights, generating ideas, thinking from multiple perspectives, I can offer. I’ve also learnt that, together, the Welfare Officers from different colleges can make a huge impact. Moving forward, CUSU, the Graduate Union, JCRs, and MCRs must prioritise working together and bringing people together to contribute what we each excel in, rather than homogeneously, in order to have an impact.

As Cambridge students we are smart, resilient, and determined, and together we make a powerful force for change.