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A Freshers Guide to the Student's Union

Photo:sussexstudent.com

There are a million and one things going on during Freshers’ Week, and it’s all too easy to get caught up in the hype and forget that a lot of careful planning and organisation has gone into making it what it is. You may not even realise that as a registered student at Sussex, you’re already a member of the Students’ Union, the body responsible for arranging Freshers’ Week. It is also here for you well beyond it, throughout your time at Sussex, to ensure that you have the best possible university experience, and by the time you’ve finished reading this you will be equipped with the know-how to best utilise the Union and make it work for you.

Based in Falmer House, the Union safeguards the interests of students in a sizeable operation spanning several departments, all of which have unique responsibilities.  If that sounds a little non-descript it’s because the Union is involved in so much. On top of planning your Freshers’ Week and producing this newspaper, under its remit comes: societies; student media; sports clubs; volunteering opportunities; advice and representation and on-campus shops and bars.

So if you plan on editing The Badger, becoming politically active, joining a society, captaining the football team, or even propping up the bar, you will encounter the Students’ Union in one of its many guises – and even if you don’t, the Union and its elected representatives are constantly working behind the scenes, lobbing the University on your behalf to ensure that the student voice is taken into account in major University decisions that will effect the whole campus community.

It’s important, then, that it remains a fully democratic body and to ensure this, we have six elected full-time student officers who work with students to steer the direction of the Union, with various specific portfolios ranging from welfare provision to coordinating activities. Working alongside these happy campers are the part-time officers and a number of Union Councillors who tend to their Student Union roles alongside their studies.  The part-time officers oversee Community Engagement, Ethical and Environmental issues and Media Development, while Union Councillors protect the interests of students within their academic schools; all positions are filled following democratic elections. As well as Union Councillors, all schools and departments elect Student Reps who take care of academic issues within their subjects. They meet with tutors and staff and sit on committees to resolve any concerns students might have.

Student Officers and Councillors, meanwhile, once elected sit on Union Council, the Union’s policy-making body, where councillors hold them to account.  The details of Council meetings are publicised, and it is the place to come if you want the Union to take a stance on a particular issue, or to act in a certain way; for example, you might want the shops and bars to stop selling a particular product due to ethical considerations – it is on this basis that we do not stock Coca Cola on campus. There are many ways to become politically active at Sussex, with many groups on campus which focus on issues like Palestinian solidarity and mobilising against cuts. Such groups and individuals regularly bring such issues forward to the Union, which actively encourages involvement. So if there is something you want to change, or you just want a friendly chat, speak to one of the Officers or Councillors based in Falmer House.

Sussex is renowned for its vibrant political atmosphere of radical dissent and as the student body’s democratic organ, the Union is very much at the heart of this. However, it would be nothing without the grassroots campaigns that effect the change and set the direction for the Union to follow. It is also important to attend the Union’s Annual Members’ Meeting (AMM) in November, the largest democratic meeting of Sussex students outside Council, to have your say and vote on the matters students have brought forward. The AMM is a great example of how the Union works. Any student can bring forward a motion or discussion, and if you persuade the room to your viewpoint, it becomes Union policy for 3 years. In the past, we’ve set the Union’s policy on tuition fees here and once even decided we had no confidence in the University management!

Perhaps the most common means of being pro-active, joining a society affords you the opportunity to come together with like-minded folk for fun and frolicking.  I say that, there are also groups dedicated to slightly more serious matters; political discussion and human rights movements, providing just two examples. You may have already heard of societies but not yet know how far the spectrum spans, with both Buddhist meditation and Pole dancing societies.  It’s worth mentioning that neither do these societies compete exclusively for the title of ‘most intriguing’, for I’m sure ‘Humans vs. Zombies’, ‘The Assassins Guild’ and ‘The Circus Society’ would have a say in the matter.  The Union is responsible for a number of society-related issues, like assigning a time and venue, providing funding if it’s needed and available and addressing any queries students may have.  They are also behind the ‘Freshers’ fair’, which showcases many-a-society and gives you a clearer idea of what is on offer, but don’t worry if you miss the fair because you can join any society at any point in the year. Should you find yourself dissatisfied with the 150ish societies that are available, then you can always start your own from scratch and present the idea to the union for approval.

On top of societies are the liberation groups, designed to represent and assist students belonging to groups which are oppressed and marginalised in society. Currently, there are two such groups, for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer) students and women students; additionally, a new disabled students’ society, ‘Positive Action for All’ has been established recently and there are various societies representing different ethnicity and nationality based groups, such as ACAS (African, Caribbean and Asian Society). These groups and societies provide a safe space for students who define within the relevant categorisations to meet and socialise. They also provide advice and help, and organise politically against discrimination and inequality. Black, LGBTQ, women and disabled students also have elected Union representatives who sit on Council to reflect their interests.

Sport at Sussex is huge: combining brains and athleticism is something our University can be truly proud of. Not only do we boast two state of the art gyms, football pitches used by Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion, a vast number of men and women’s sports teams, but we have officially produced the UK’s greatest Ultimate Frisbee team – The Mohawks. That is not to say that if you fit the description of the aforementioned student propping up the bar that you can’t try your hand, or foot at sport at Sussex. While there are some seriously competitive teams around, there also exists what are affectionately known as ‘B’ teams and in some cases, like Ultimate Frisbee, you will be the exception to the rule if you’ve ever played before. This year our newly elected Activities Officer decided that membership fees for all sports clubs should be frozen, and so now it will cost you only £50 for full membership to every single club on offer.

Beyond competing, some teams chose to use their sport as an opportunity to give back to the local community by volunteering as part of the University’s ‘link up’ scheme and yep you’ve guessed it, it’s orchestrated by The Union.  ‘Link up’ schemes can take the form of team building days, one off volunteering opportunities or ongoing long-term projects for clubs and societies.  Previous examples include: The Men’s Football Club, who linked up with the Justin campaign to raise funds for Football vs. Homophobia by organising a Football Funday; the Women’s Cricket Club, who set up an after school project with a local school for 10 weeks during the summer term; and The Circus Society who joined forces with Nacro (a crime reduction charity) to offer a one off circus skills workshop to young people.

However, volunteering opportunities are not solely resigned to sports teams and societies, with ‘Project V’, the Union’s volunteering programme, enabling students to volunteer in the wider community.  Alternatively, you could volunteer for the Union itself as a writer, editor, receptionist, computer engineer, committee member or general dogsbody, or you could get paid working in one of the Union’s shops or bars.  The possibilities are endless!

The Union is what you make it, with you deciding your level of involvement.  But perhaps one of its more fundamental features offers students free, independent and confidential advice and representation.  At the Advice and Representation Centre, professional advisers and elected student representatives are on hand to discuss any academic or non-academic matter you feel needs raising and says ‘no issue is too big or too small’.  The centre can be found in Falmer House and is open between 10am-4pm Monday to Friday; alternatively you can peruse your enquiry online. So if you’re in need of: housing advice, financial advice, support in making a complaint against the University or require help and representation throughout the University academic misconduct and discipline procedures or if you’re unhappy with your course, you now know where to come!

Last but not least we come to the arm of the Union responsible for this fine publication: student media.  There are four exciting ventures to get involved in for the budding media moguls among you: The Badger newspaper, The Pulse magazine, UniTv and URF (University Radio Falmer), each offering their own take on University life and beyond.  The latter for example last year aired a show called ‘Eargasm’, whose presenters promised to spray ‘musical juices all over your cortex’.  Contrast that then with The Badger whose features last year included looking at political diversity on campus and asking how effective protesting was in light of the hike in tuition fees, and you begin to see that there’s something for everyone.  In fact it’s never been easier to get your voice heard around campus without resorting to shouting in the library square, just get in touch and start expressing yourself in whichever medium you see fit. Student involvement in this area has led to award winning projects and prestigious job opportunities so I would say to any future journalists or presenters out there, let’s keep it up in 2011-2012.

We count seven departments then that fall under the students’ union sphere of influence: advice, activism, sport, societies, volunteering, media and shops and bars.  So basically the Union can single-handedly offer advice; bring out the sportsmen in you; cast you into weird and wonderful societies; help you give something back by volunteering; facilitate random tangents like this one through the newspaper; and get you drunk, what more could you possibly want? The Students’ Unon is behind a great deal at Sussex and you would be well served to familiarise yourself with it. We are lucky to be unionised and we should make the most of it.

Even if you’re entering your second, third or further year of study and you’re still wondering what the Union can do for you, how to get involved, or simply want to hear more, then its never too late. Check out the website at www.sussexstudent.com for more information.

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