My name is Jamie, and until the 30th of June this year I was President of the Students’ Association at the University of St Andrews. While I wouldn’t say my former job ranks anywhere near the most challenging to do during a pandemic, the experience has at least been interesting enough that I think it’s worth noting down somewhere. If for no other reason, so when I look back on this in (hopefully) more sane times, I can at least be sure that it really was this bizarre.
A bit of background first, for those lacking context. The Association President is one of six Sabbatical Officers (or Sabbs) at the Student’s Association. We are full-time (not very well) paid student representatives focusing on different remits. The President’s role is the wooliest and least defined, but generally focusses on the “outward facing” work of the Association – environmental sustainability, accommodation, widening access, representation on a local, national and University level, etc. I had the decidedly mixed honour of serving as President in the academic year 2019-2020.
So, let’s start at the beginning. It’s early March, and, while you are theoretically aware of COVID-19 as an abstract concept, your main focus is talking the campus laundry provider out of suing the Student Association. (It’s a long story). How bad the virus is going to be really only hits you for the first time at University Court on the 13th of March. You’re not entirely sure what it is that triggers the massive panic attack you have in Sally Mapstone’s back garden, but there are a few candidates for concern. You get back to your office and everything is haywire. Cancelling an entire semester’s worth of events, activities, campaigns and projects takes a lot of talking to confused, angry, frightened people, but you can’t remember a single specific message you’ve sent. (Well, actually you can, but it’s a Facebook conversation with an anonymous shitposting page which has just posted a very detailed description of what they think your vagina would look like if you had one. They don’t take it down.)
The next few days – weeks, even – are a blur. There’s no precedent for this, no playbook. Hundreds of emails, facebook messages, calls start pouring in from students, locals and University staff.
Can you make sure the University cancels exams? Can you make sure the University doesn’t cancel exams? Is it true that the University has lied about the amount of coronavirus cases in St Andrews? How will furlough work for student employees? My landlord won’t let me out of my contract. Can you please give me a sense of the student view on…
Your inbox feels like it’s pulsating with fear, and you know it’s only a fraction of what’s really out there. The student body is up shits creek, and you’re the paddle. While you know that there are hundreds of people out there worse off than you are (and a lot of them are emailing you), you start to buckle. Times like this require an FDR, a De Gaulle, and you’re not FDR or De Gaulle – fuck, at the moment you don’t even feel like yourself. (You’re diabetic – making you immunocompromised – and autistic, so you don’t handle change well. This makes living through a global pandemic a really fun time to be alive.)
There are some days when you wake up and wish you hadn’t, wish you could just fade out of existence rather than deal with even more of the crash-and-burn chaos around you. Every moment you’re awake, you’re panicking that you’re not doing enough, that you’ve missed some small but crucial detail that will lead to disaster, that you’re letting the people who you represent down. Every past success feels worthless, every bitchy comment about you on Fessdrews reads like the unerring judgement of a prophet. It doesn’t help that over the course of your last four months in office, you do fuck up a lot. Miss questions that deserve responses. Run campaigns that go nowhere. Send emails that… well, you all know about my emails.
So, what do you do? You lie, obviously. To your constituents, to your colleagues, to the University, to yourself. You wrap yourself in a fictionalised version of yourself that isn’t terrified, that isn’t at breaking point, that knows what he’s doing. And slowly, you drag that fake-you into existence. And he manages to secure furlough for some students and jobs for others, and get quoted in the Scottish Parliament as part of a campaign that secures £11 Million for student hardship funds, and somehow find the right words to rally the student body, and pull in a 40% price reduction from the laundry provider, and make life a living hell for landlords. And all the while, you stand off to the sidelines and hyperventilate with worry that one day you won’t be enough.
There are some happier moments, to be fair. Your fellow sabbaticals seem to have been infected with the same frenzied determination as you, and it’s beautiful to watch, as they bend all their passion and creativity to keeping St Andrew’s rich extracurricular life healthy and thriving through it all. As our first ever black Rector’s Assessor, appointed just weeks before the murder of George Floyd, pulls off a superhuman (and, by the looks of things, successful) effort to force St Andrews to be better than a homogenous cheesecake of privilege. As the staff at the Students’ Association and University respond to the herculean task of making St Andrews safe. As you and your fellow student officers use the incredible power of STAR radio (look them up they’re really cool) to fundraise for the local community. And you realise you may be the paddle in shits creek, but you’re not the only one, and there’s something beautiful about rowing in concert with people who care just as much about the ridiculous world of student representation as you do.
And then your term ends and you end up unemployed in the middle of a pandemic, and apparently the new academic calendar is all your fault, but that’s a side note.
Editor’s Note: Having worked with Jamie throughout the past year, I have to say what an honour it’s been. I’ll miss him next year, and I’d just like to remind everyone that he was Head of News at The Record before he was Association President – we had him first!