• Fri. Mar 1st, 2024

“A role with nothing to lose and everything to gain”: EUSA President Sharan Atwal on being a Sabbatical Officer

ByNancy Britten

Feb 12, 2024
An image of Teviot Row House during graduation ceremonies

It’s a sunny Wednesday morning when I make my way to 7 Roxburgh Street, the new hub for Edinburgh University Student’s Association offices since the closure of Teviot. I’m warmly welcomed at the door by EUSA’s President and one of the five current Sabbatical Officers, Sharan Atwal. Ahead of the nomination deadline for the 2024/25 EUSA Elections on 14 February, our conversation gives me the perfect chance to find out all about the motivations, challenges and rewards involved in this role and the opportunity for impacting the student experience.

Over the past academic year, Sharan has fully immersed herself into her duties as Student’s Association President, explaining to me that from the inception of her campaign until now it has been pretty much non-stop. From speaking at University Court and Senate meetings, to attending the National Union of Students conferences, there have been so many unique opportunities. As she pulls out her Outlook calendar to show me, I can confirm this is true! Every day of the week is meticulously organised, fantastically colour-coordinated, and absolutely crammed with events.

Although Sharan applied for the role in the final year of her Maths and Statistics degree, one of the unique features of the Sabbatical Officer elections is that students take a year out of their studies for the role. On her motivations to run for the role at this stage, Sharan tells me that she always had strong feelings and opinions based on her own experience as a student, “I had a vision for what I wanted to see based on feeling super isolated in my first and second year and this all culminated in wanting a seat at the table and having my voice heard.”

She explains that as a student of colour from a widening participation background and the added pressures of starting university during the Covid-19 oandemic, it was difficult to find her place in the
University, “without having my identity thrown in my face.” She continues: “This is a role with nothing to lose and everything to gain, making sure that future me wouldn’t have as bad of an experience.”

One of the most daunting elements of the job is the process of applying which involves deciding on manifesto points and priorities, planning a campaign, headshots, and workshops. However, as she describes her experience, one of the things that stands out to me is the support network on offer not just from members of staff but from former and fellow sabbatical officers. From candidate mixers, workshops on how to campaign and even pastries and chats with support staff, this seems like a really friendly environment.

The key areas of focus for Sharan include increasing student engagement and decolonising the University’s values and curriculum. “My manifesto has gone through a lot of workshopping and re-imagining since writing it and later prioritising what is actually achievable.” She advocates for a focus on Widening Participation students from low-income background, “to not only have the opportunity to study here, as a number on an entrance form, but to come and succeed.”

On why the Sabbatical Officer roles are so important, Sharan tells me: “Nine times out of ten, you are the only student in the room. Everyone else in these meetings are so far removed from what it’s
like to be a student right now. That student voice is so valuable and can often change the path of
really important things.” The student representatives are essential in ensuring that the University’s decisions and structures are aligned with Edinburgh students specifically, “otherwise the university is not fulfilling its role, promises and commitments to us at all.”

Naturally, as President thus required to sit on the University’s Executive with trustees and external stakeholders, there can be challenges that arise. “I’d be lying if I said I felt comfortable at the start speaking at these things. I am always incredibly conscious of being the youngest and sometimes most inexperienced in the room.’’

Sharan tells me that understanding the difference between “influence versus change” has helped her find perspective in navigating the balance between diplomacy and activism. “You’re not going to change everything in one meeting, but you can influence a few people and change the trajectory by forcing people to consider alternatives.”

On Monday, dressed in a hard hat, high-vis jacket, and steel-toe boots, Sharan got to visit Teviot Row House along with Vice President Activities & Services, Katie Hardwick, to see the early stages of the refurbishment. I am intrigued to hear the insider scoop on the progress of this much beloved building. “It was crazy to see but so exciting because the plans are incredible. When it all comes together the students are going to love it.”

Beyond being a voice for her fellow students, Sharon is hugely appreciative of the opportunities for her own self-development afforded by this role. “I don’t know yet what I will be doing next year, but this has opened my eyes to a lot of the structures involved in governance at a big institution. I am now very much invested in the landscape of higher education. I have developed so quickly, learned so many new skills like writing, presenting papers and strategy decision-making that go beyond my maths degree.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Sharan is eager to show me the office for her and the team. Despite having to climb about three flights of stairs, putting my cardiovascular fitness to test, the office at the top was everything you would expect from your student representatives. The room is complete with a round table and five desks for each Sabbatical Officer all facing each other, re-confirming the supportive and team aspect of the job. The walls are adorned with banners and posters from protests and campaigns which all stand as visual testaments to all the hard work that goes on within these walls.

For any student considering nominating themselves as a sabbatical officer, Sharan is eager to offer some words of wisdom and offer her support. “It is a role for everyone. You don’t have to be so bold and brave with crazy ideas.”

“Sometimes the simplest things are the most impactful.”

Nominations for the 2024 Student Elections close on 14 February at 12:00 GMT. You can find more information on the EUSA website.

Teviot Row House, Edinburgh – Graduation day 2017” by Stinglehammer is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.