Diary: Simon Blake visits America

Friday 18-03-2016 - 11:29

Our Chief Executive Simon Blake is in America over the next few days where he will first be visiting Michigan and later, attending the ACUI Conference in New Orleans. Simon will be updating us on his trip regularly here.

Jump to a diary entry by date: Thursday 17 March | Friday 18 March | Saturday 19 March | Monday 21 March | Tuesday 22 March | Wednesday 23 March | Thursday 24 March | Summary

Thursday 24th March 

On Tuesday evening I went to the LGBT+ Community of Practice dinner. I was sat with a really diverse group of people across different States and at different stages of their career. It was interesting to learn about the academic routes into SU careers, the range of internships and the range of work and volunteering opportunities in both their SUs and nationally through ACUI. 

Most interesting and challenging was the discussion about guns on campus. I had visited Kent State University, Ohio in 1993 where there had been a shooting in 1970 so I was rattled when I heard that in Texas the law was about to make it easier to have concealed guns on campus.

Wednesday was the final day of the conference, and the gala dinner. The plenary session was about global perspectives and student engagement, and Audrey Burns, CEO of Stirling University Students' Association represented the UK on the panel. 

Audrey gave an overview of the multitude of ways that students are engaged as partners and leaders in both their academic and their wider education. Audrey showed us a video of students and officers from Stirling University talking about the importance and value of student engagement. If there were any doubters of its value in the audience those doubts would, or certainly should, have been absolved. 

Aidan Grills reflected on the session and his visit to Louisiana State University, saying: "It was great to look at the opportunities for student engagement through a global lens, hearing from a senior leader from Mexico, Australia, UK and Abu-Dhabi, respectively. The multi-cultural dimension to this was at the fore and it struck me how international students are such a huge part of the higher education picture globally. The concept of “international learning” must therefore be evaluated: whilst in SUs we work hard to find opportunities to fit new culture into our programmes of activity, I don’t recall huge attention given over to how students from different cultures learn best. This could be a new area of advocacy to pursue, with a huge potential benefit to the learner (and also the institution!).

In the afternoon I was able to visit Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge with a small group from University of Michigan. The welcome here was really warm and included a chat with the University President (equivalent of our Vice Chancellor) I who happened to be walking by at the end of our tour of the SU. His primary challenge was to increase the percentage of students who complete/graduate. This is ultimately how university success is measured here, with learner gain/value-added clearly demonstrable against entry qualifications and social demographic of the student."

I sat with colleagues from Canada during the gala dinner. Canada has the same model of student leadership as we do in the UK, with officers elected to run their students’ unions on an annual basis. Officer induction and continuity was one topic of discussion. I was interested to learn how the University of Alberta’s outgoing and incoming sabbatical officers spend a week together as part of new officer induction. The CEO was clear that this week was helpful for incoming officers and equally was an important ritual for those officers finishing their term of office. 

Summing up 

Both the visit to University of Michigan and ACUI conference provided a huge opportunity to discuss, learn and listen with colleagues from the USA. 

As a relative newcomer to the sector still, this was an opportunity to learn about similarities and differences between SUs and HE in USA, Canada, Australia and the UK which many of you will already know, to reflect on what I have known and to take some time to process that. 

Members of ACUI have an enormous amount of pride in the importance of SUs and the culture of celebration was simultaneously heart-warming and so counter culture it was uncomfortable, but it was a reminder that we must celebrate what we do well as much and as often as we can, as we did through #LoveSUs, because it inspires, motivates and stimulates creative thinking and innovation. 

I continued to find out about scholarships and bursaries and the federal approach to student finance and funding, and have written separately about this and am getting it checked for accuracy before I publish it. 

I will never be able to say “I am going to my first ACUI conference” ever again. And New Orleans is definitely a good place for my first one. What a welcome from ACUI and what a place. 

Wednesday 23rd March 

Aidan and I started Tuesday morning with a 5k FUNd Run around New Orleans. It was a beautiful run, raising funds to support training scholarships for their younger members.

The highlight of my Tuesday was a presentation by Jamie Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love on Her Arms. TWLOHA is a non-profit organisation which provides support and hope for people struggling with depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and mental illness. He emphasised the importance of understanding the impact of mental health on students and the importance of students getting the help, advice and support they need, and the challenges of both societal stigma and personal discomfort in making this happen. It started because Jamie wanted to help his friend and work with her to tell her story.

Mental health and emotional wellbeing is a really important issue with evidence that it is a growing concern for students, and therefore must be a growing concern for all of us involved in student support. Jamie emphasised that SUs must be able to create physical and emotional spaces in which students feel able to be safe, care for each other and get the professional and peer support they need. Importantly he emphasised that workers need training to be able to work with the honest conversations and to be able to access the support they may also need. 

It was great to experience mental health, storytelling and self-care so central to the conference agenda. You can find out more by following @TWLOHA or 

I have bought Jamie’s book ‘If you feel too much’, so I’ll be sure to update you with any key points from it. 

Peter Robertson attended a session on the theoretical and academic models for collaboration that gave practical tips for brokering collective endeavours. Reflecting on the session and his day more broadly Peter said “this will help me deliver some of the P100 emerging themes on collaboration. I also assisted in a presentation on the UK model of democratic student engagement and independent unions. It gave me an opportunity to see the system through the eyes of others and to be reminded how empowering and wonderful our system of student leadership and engagement is. We also met with US colleagues interested in sustainability to discuss the work NUS does with its members in this area.”

Meanwhile Aidan attended an education session on ‘synergy and collaboration'. He said that they were “Two great buzzwords for any conference”, adding: “The presenters were from a university in Texas and went into some detail, describing the planning and effort they must go to in order to create collaborative working with internal colleagues. My reflections:

  • Where is their leader? the individual senior person who can unlock the barriers and spot the opportunity for their teams to excel - through partnership not competition.
  • Don't take collaborative working for granted; it is always likely to be far easier to maintain existing partnerships, than initiate new ones.”
  • Later on Tuesday, I visited Tulane University, a very ornate and classic American campus and I imagine the inspiration for 'Monsters' University'."

Tuesday 22 March 

The main event yesterday was a key note speech from Bree Newsome, an activist from South Carolina. Bree provided a powerful overview about the importance of activism; of understanding and empathising with people who have experiences that are beyond your own and to 'grow your own consciousness' to understand what your own contribution to social justice will be. Much of what she said had particular importance in the context of the USA where everyday activism and protest are less an everyday norm than on UK campuses. It was an excellent, inspiring and motivating speech with deep insight into her personal story and I would recommend looking her up on google. 

Bree made three particularly important points. First, that sometimes it seems that people believe everyone has to believe exactly the same thing in order to be able to work together. She reminded conference that to you do not need uniformity to unite and that just because people do not want to use the same tactics as you it does not make them the opposition. She emphasised that social movements have always had ‘creative tensions' and these creative tensions must be harnessed within the student movement to achieve big goals. 

She also reminded conference that social media is a new tool we have in activism but it cannot not replace community organising. Bree also emphasised the importance of self-care and being mindful and respectful of others. 

Aidan spent time learning about how policy and planning works in Louisiana with a visit to the University of New Orleans to meet the Director of Auxiliary Services which includes the students' union. 'He described the challenges of leading the student experience as the University continues to recover from the impact of Hurricane Katrina; it took over seven years for the SU building to be ready for service again. Louisiana is a State struggling with federal cuts and higher education bears the brunt of cost reduction and student numbers have reduced from 17,000 to just over 8,000 since Katrina. We have some major challenges in our policy environment in the UK, but it was enlightening to spend time with a senior leader handling the tension between resource management and meeting students expectations.''

Meanwhile, Davina Keen has been sitting on her hands in an effort to resist directing delegates or asking “how can I help you!” How else has conference been for Davina? “So far conference has been about listening to excellent keynotes and attending workshop sessions. I have spent some time talking sustainability, been learning about working with social media and understanding good governance within students unions which has been really useful given NUS governance currently falls within my remit. I have also learnt that I can take in 50 key facts in a one hour workshop. The learning doesn't stop - even in the informal networking events I have been learning about the US education system.”

Tuesday brought with it an early morning fun run around the city, a meeting with John Taylor, CEO of ACUI, a key note from Jamie Tworkowski, founder of TWLOHA, talking about mental health, numerous workshops and communities of practice meetings. 

Monday 21 March

I arrived in New Orleans on Saturday in a small plane. Nothing more to say about the small plane except that I don't like them very much when it gets rocky. On Saturday night I met up with a friend who I worked with at Falcon Camp when I was a student and who I hadn't seen for 22 years. We spent the night talking, exploring the French quarter, people watching and listening to some fantastic jazz. 

On Sunday #ACUI16 Conference opened with a key note from Frank Warren founder of a fantastic arts project called Post Secret ( /@postsecret). His address emphasised the power of telling your story in healing, personal development and growth both for yourself and for those around you. We know mental health and emotional wellbeing is a top concern for students and this was a powerful reminder that we all have a story, and that students' unions are often a catalyst for enabling that story to be told and healing to take place if necessary as part of student journeys.

On Sunday afternoon Aidan Grills, CEO, Leeds University Union and trustee of NUS Charity were part of a panel with Canadian, American and Australian colleagues about our international associations. Essentially, whatever we call it, our activity falls into the same three categories; student voice, representation and influence, enterprise and services and capacity building. Across the four countries this activity is done differently, by different organisations and is at different states of health, but clearly so much we can learn from each other. 

I asked Aidan what his take homes were from the session, to which he replied: "My key learning was about the national organising model in Canada and Australia. Similar to the US and UK, we are all developing student leadership, professional development and purchasing or commercial support. The lesson is to maintain a way of us sharing our challenges, solutions and experiments in order to be stronger. The agenda for international partnership working is probably strongest for the staff/professional practice perspective within the NUS Charity to develop"

I am meeting John Taylor, CEO of ACUI for breakfast on Tuesday to discuss how we can continue to collaborate effectively across our two organisations. 

I am looking forward to hearing Monday's keynote speaker Bree Newsome's (@breenewsome). Bree is a phenomenal activist and she made big time news in June 2015 when she removed the confederate flag from the state house grounds in South Carolina. You can find out more about Bree here or wait until tomorrow’s diary entry where I’ll update you on her talk.

p.s. since meeting Cooper on Saturday, he has sent me this helpful infographic which summarises how elections for the Executive work at the University of Michigan.


Saturday 19 March

I spent yesterday in a series of meetings with colleagues at the University of Michigan Unions (@UMichUnions). I’ve summarised these as neatly as I can in four areas; student leadershipstudent opportunities, liberation and student finance, and if you want to find out more email me 

The Unions are part of the University of Michigan. Their mission is to be 'at the heart of the campus we foster an inclusive community by providing iconic spaces, engaging programs and needed services that enrich students’ lives.' There are three buildings across the campus. Each is seen as a separate union rather than one union with three buildings. 

The Unions are part of the Student Life department in the university which also includes Michigan dining and Michigan Housing. I spent my day in one of the three Unions and met with the Directors of each Union. It had much the same as you would expect to see in many students’ unions in the UK – a book shop, university sweat shirts, food halls, a snooker hall, meeting rooms of various sizes, a bank and a number of study spaces. 

The legal drinking age in the USA is 21. Consequently like many university unions in the USA, there is no bar. 

How does Student Leadership work at University of Michigan?

Unions in the USA operate with a different model to those in the UK. They do not have sabbatical officers elected to lead the union. The Central Student Government is the cross campus body that represents students and as such the President meets with the University President (equivalent of our Vice Chancellor). Cooper Charlton, President of the Central Student Government explained how student voice is represented within the university. 

In summary it looks something like this; 

  • there are 19 different schools and faculties each with their own student government
  • there is a Council with all the Presidents of each of the student governments
  • there is a University Assembly which has representation from each of the schools and faculties. 
  • there is a Central Student Government (CSG) with eight part time officers led by the President. All the posts within CSG currently unpaid although Cooper is keen for there to be an opportunity for a needs based stipend which would mean that candidates would not be limited only to those who are able to afford the time to undertake the role.
  • Each of the three Unions with makes up University Michigan Unions has an advisory board which includes student representation. 

Cooper told me that student voice is valued at school and faculty level and cam make change. The CSG is seen as a key partner in the university, but that doesn't always mean they get what they want. He gave a number of examples where the CSG has identified an issue and created real change. He concluded saying that it can always get better, be more inclusive, be more open and engage more people.

What does Student Opportunities look like at UM?

As in the UK, student opportunities are understood to play a key part in the overall university experience at Michigan and to be intrinsically linked to participation, retention and attainment. 

I did not meet colleagues responsible for sport, but I did meet the team from the Centre for Campus Inclusion (CCI). Their overall aim will sound pretty familiar to most of you; 'to provide transformative experiences, a vibrant campus community and create lifelong memories' (I love naming the creation of lifelong memories as a goal). 

The team focus on proactive programming opportunities and have approximately 1,500 student societies and associations each year. Approximately 1,200 have voluntary status and between 200 and 300 have sponsored status meaning they get support, the type of which varies, from the university. About 65 of the student organisations are part of the fraternity and sorority Greek Life chapters, who have a long tradition of providing social and academic support for students on American campuses.

Last year CCI introduced a mandatory requirement for at least one authorised signatory from the society to undergo training which will help them lead the society well and fulfil their responsibilities.

Given our focus on alcohol impact and efforts to increase the number of alternative to alcohol options I was interested to learn about the work UM in this area. Eight times a year they put on UMix sessions on Friday nights. UMix provides activities and entertainment without alcohol. The scheduling of these is increasingly tied to times and events that are high risk periods for excessive alcohol use. UMix was happening on Friday night to tie in with St Patrick's Day and food was also provided.

Like in the UK, student volunteering features heavily in campus life with students leading their clubs and societies and volunteering in the wider community. The contribution that volunteering makes to personal and leadership development is absolutely explicit in the narrative and the literature, with an unapologetic link to future employment opportunities. My sense is that it is perhaps more explicit than it is in the UK, but I could be wrong.

All students are required to take four compulsory course on joining UM. These are Bystander interventions, alcohol misuse, sexual misconduct and healthy relationships. 

What does liberation look like at UM?

I met with the Director for Multi Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) and the Director of the Spectrum LGBT Centre. 

MESA (@MESAUofM) has a mission 'to promote student development and to empower the campus community around issues of diversity and social justice through the lens of race and ethnicity.' They work on leadership development, social justice education and community engagement.

The Spectrum Centre (@UMSpectrumCtr) states that 'with sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as our framework, the Spectrum Centre is committed to enriching the campus experience and developing students as individuals and as members of our communities. Our work is accomplished through a student centred, intersectional lens.' They have a resource library, create communities through volunteering opportunities, have an education programme and provide support in a number of ways including through peer education.

Free speech is a live issue in the USA, too. There is an ongoing discussion and debate about how you ensure freedom of speech at the same time protect the rights, freedoms and sensibilities of all students whatever their identities. There was lots of interest in our No Platform Policy. 

Like in the UK, universities are not always adequately equipped to manage incidences of sexual assault, and there is a blurred boundary about the role of the universities and the police. In the USA the Office for Civil Rights is investigating over 150 Universities for the way they manage incidents of sexual assault. 

Both MESA and Spectrum work proactively to try and remove structural barriers on campus, and reactively to address incidents that may impact on individuals and groups of students. I wasn't able to meet with the service that provides support for disabled students but they too work within a framework of social justice aiming to remove structural barriers. 

This work is connected to the counselling and pastoral support provided through the Dean of Students Office. There was a very moving suicide prevention project where students were invited to provide messages of support to other students. 

What did I learn about Student Finance at UM?

I worked at American summer camps in 1993, 1994 and 1995 when I was at university. I remember talking to the student staff from USA about the fee regime and I was absolutely flabbergasted and outraged at the extortionate tuition costs. University education was, of course, free at that time across the UK. 

Whilst the full cost of tuition remains expensive there are a number of ways that the Federal government, the university and the union provide support or facilitate employment. 

1. There is a work study programme which is underwritten by the Federal Government. If students qualify for work study status the union provides employment as student staff, and the government pays 60 per cent of their costs. 

2. A number of scholarships are available for students through both the university and the union. Some are contributions to tuition fees, some to living costs. Some are related to academic or sporting excellence, other times to commitment to work. 

Alumni networks are very well developed in the UK with graduates often becoming donors, and contributing to student scholarships. I am an alumni of three universities in the UK but it means little more than receiving a few emails, an occasional newsletter and being part of a LinkedIn group. The students I met were clear that from the start of your time at University of Michigan you start being connected to the alumni office, and real energy is put behind ensuring you expect to remain connected to University of Michigan and to give back if you can. 

I asked a bit about data at this point. As it becomes ever harder financially for students in the UK, this is an area I believe we need to learn more about this. During ACUI conference this week I will therefore be seeking out colleagues who will talk to me about student finance, scholarships and how both universities and unions are helping poorer students get financial support and aid packages that help them access education. 

What next?

Sunday, at ACUI, conference I am part of a panel with colleagues from Canada, USA, and Australia and we will be discussing possible areas for collaboration. I am clear form this whistle stop visit to University of Michigan that there is significant benefit to be gained from SUs across countries identifying key issues on campus and sharing experience, ideas and learning. So many of the issues we discussed, particularly those focused on liberation, student opportunities and student finance, had real resonance with the issues, opportunities and challenges in the UK. 

I was made to feel fantastically welcome, and I learnt an enormous amount. Thank you to everyone at University Michigan Unions for taking the time to meet with me and share their experiences.

Friday 18 March

After a fairly hairy taxi ride to Paddington Train Station which meant I made my flight to Michigan with a little less breathing space than I intended, I arrived in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan and about 45 minutes from Detroit.

Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxillary Services has organised a day of meetings with the team at the Union today including representatives from the Central Student Government, Community Relations, Multi Ethnic Student Affairs, Spectrum, the LGBT Centre and Campus Involvement.

Unlike Higher Education in the UK, the students' union is a department within the university. However Susan was clear that students have a real ownership of the union and that "it is a place where all the best parts of the student experience should be reflected. It is a place where students feel included, engaged, listened to and connected."

We talked about student representation and student voice, tuition fees, scholarships and federal aid, activism and protest on campus, sexual harassment on campus (150 campuses are currently being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights) the Black Lives Matter and the Being Black at the University of Michigan campaign, the rights and experiences of LGBT students, attainment gaps, support for disabled students, pastoral support, alumni and fundraising, alcohol on campus and the repayment requirements on federal loans. 

It was a far reaching conversation in an American diner with the service team wearing St Patrick's Day hats. We then had a quick scoot around campus. I was taken back to fun times on American campuses when I was a student working at summer camp in Ohio in 1993 and 1994 and it made me feel nostalgic.

Today I am looking forward to finding out more about the union. From our initial discussions there are lots of similar issues and certainly a lot we can learn from each other. Given the continual shift in our funding and fees regimes in the UK I am particularly keen to understand how their scholarship and aid packages help and support students from poorer backgrounds.

It is going to be an interesting day. I have been awake since 3.00am with jet lag so I am relying on curiosity and excitement to carry me through.

Thursday 17 March 

I am on my way to the Association of Colleges International (ACUI) Conference in New Orleans which takes place from Sunday 20 to Wednesday 23 March. On Sunday I am speaking as part of a panel with colleagues from Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK's very own Aidan Grills, CEO of Leeds University Union and NUS Charity Trustee. The panel is exploring the similarities and differences between the different student unions and student union bodies, and the potential for collaboration.

I am taking the opportunity to visit the Students' Union - Student Life - at the University of Michigan in Detroit on Friday before heading to the ACUI conference. There I will meet with the president of the student government and members of the student advisory group, as well as staff members with different responsibilities including the Dean of Students and the Community Relations Director.

The student movement globally is still very new to me and I am looking forward to both the visit to Student Life and meeting colleagues from around the world at ACUI. Davina Keen, NUS Events Manager and Peter Robertson, NUS Deputy Chief Executive are also attending the ACUI conference. We will give you a short update through this blog each day which summarises what the UK delegation have done and learnt.


Blogs, Features, International

Related Tags :

More NUS connect Articles

More Articles...