"Sometimes... you can't give people what they want"Illustration by Alisa Santikarn for Varsity

I started this column with a slightly more niche area of the Cambridge experience (rowing), and this article will similarly only directly apply to a minority of students: those who have represented their peers on various committees across the University. I’d love to be able to begin with extolling the rewards of such work — and, at times, it has been really gratifying — but most of the time it’s frustrating, emotionally draining, and unrecognised at best; unconstructively criticised at worst. Organising elections where only just enough people voted to meet quorum and facing criticism from people who never get involved but who have a lot to say about how things are run – all these and more are the joys that you can expect from student representation. What all this has taught me, though, is to be content with the fact that you can’t make everyone happy all the time.

You can’t make everyone happy all the time – accepting that fact is the best way to make yourself happy

Among the many things that I’ve done at Cambridge which I can’t explain in hindsight, other than by a strong hunger for CV points, is my decision to run for Treasurer of Newnham’s JCR Committee. With no Excel skills and only a very basic grasp of numbers at all – my English student maths is limited to counting the amount of syllables in a line of poetry – I’m not sure why I thought it was a good fit. Working on the JCR, albeit in a very practical capacity, was a very eye-opening and rewarding experience. While I was on the committee, we had to react to last year’s drinking societies scandal by discussing the next steps with college and negotiating the JCR’s position, as well as sort out a KFC that students were extremely dissatisfied with, as well as coping with other little niggles and bumps along the way. Every single issue required us to negotiate between multiple groups of people and navigate various arcane college rules and traditions. This inevitably meant that not everyone could be entirely satisfied with the end result.

On a smaller scale, I had to distribute Newnham’s Sportsperson’s Grant, attempting to spread £3,500 between 33 people whose applications totalled £12,000. Needless to say, some people were disappointed. Practically though, it taught me that sometimes there are constraints beyond your control, and which mean that you can’t give people what they want. At the very least, I can now construct a clever budgeting spreadsheet on Excel – even if it took me nearly a year to mould my humanities brain around constructing formulae.

Sometimes there are restrictions beyond your control, and sometimes the restrictions are just elements of human nature. Working with the CUSU LGBT+ Campaign as Women’s Officer and then as Chair, beyond taking up a lot of time behind the scenes replying to emails and coordinating people, really drove home the fact that everyone wants and expects something different from their student representation. Some people were really keen for us to get involved with the political work of representing students across the University through our campaigns – Why Gender Neutral?, Make No Assumptions, etc. – while a lot of students wanted us to provide spaces for them to socialise and make connections within the community. Without a lot more time and resources than we had, the committee had to compromise to the best extent possible while also doing degrees and having lives outside the campaign.


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Restricting my independence gives me independence from my restrictions

While I was Women’s Officer, I created a survey for people to tell me what they wanted from the role, and literally no two people of the forty who responded wanted exactly the same thing. Given personal constraints of time and energy, I just couldn’t organise every football friendly, craft session, bar crawl, and coffee meet that different people requested – and bringing myself to accept this fact was essential because it let me switch off my perfectionist brain and acknowledge that I couldn’t please everyone. At the beginning of the role, I felt as though I was responsible for so many people, their satisfaction, socialising, and wellbeing, because the very description of the role in the constitution is to “represent, support, and organise events” for the relevant identity groups. After realising that it was literally impossible to do that for everyone who wants to get involved without the ability to manipulate space and time, I relaxed into it more. In hindsight, I would add a caveat to the constitution – it’s true that you should do your best to fulfil that somewhat nebulous duty, but only within reason and with respect for personal boundaries.

In the context of extremely low participation in student politics, it can be really frustrating and disheartening to spend your time working towards objectives that people don’t care about, or that they will comment on without making any contribution towards the work that JCRs and CUSU campaigns are constantly dedicating time to. Taking a light-hearted view of human nature and its eternally unsatisfied desires is the only possible way to get through time on those roles. You can’t make everyone happy all the time – accepting that fact is the best way to make yourself happy. Adopting that attitude is the only way that I have been able to survive my tangles with student politics.

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