Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) conference in Boston alongside our CEO, Alison Chambers. We were part of an international delegation and were hosted by Aiden, Leeds Student Union CEO (who is also on the planning committee for the next ACUI conference). The conference brought together senior leaders from student unions and student support services from universities across the globe.
I attended this conference with two core objectives in mind. Firstly, I wanted to learn more about how student engagement and student leadership works in different institutions across the globe and what we can learn from this. Secondly, I was keen to be inspired by approaches to designing and creating student-focused spaces. These two objectives have come from two core pieces of work I am involved with in my final few months as Guild President:
- The beginning of re-imagining what student representation looks like and how it works
- The refurbishment of Devonshire House whilst also putting together a longer-term strategy for the future physical space and location of the Students’ Guild.
The conference had a lot of seminars and workshops focused on these areas, and there was even an exhibition of architects and designer companies which specialized in creating student spaces and student union buildings. I learned a lot from this conference (too much for a LinkedIn post / article!) and all of this will be influential in the work I continue to do this year. Here are some key learnings and questions I have asked myself from attending this conference:
1. Is the ‘UK Sabbatical Officer’ model the best format for student representation? US universities manage without any formal full time employed student representatives. Can we learn from this by creating more organic ways for students to lead their union and university experience without making them run in an election?
2. Should we have designated physical locations for our student communities? For example, many US union buildings have designated spaces just for international students, LGBTQ+ students, commuting students, students of colour (and many more communities). This could be beneficial for some groups, but it might create unnecessary separation for others. Nonetheless, students we spoke to at the conference seemed to really liked the idea of owning space and making that space really represent their community, so this is something we need to speak to our student communities about.
3. Safe space vs Brave space. I learnt the difference between spaces where we can protect people from triggering content (safe space) and spaces where people might be triggered by difficult, but important, conversations (brave space). How should we design spaces and events to ensure we have appropriate safe and brave spaces, and students are equipped to feel empowered and comfortable in both settings.
4. Not all spaces are created equally. One of the best seminars I went to was around the implicit bias in the creation and design of spaces. For example, spaces that are narrow with bright lights and no soft furnishings might seem ‘edgy’, but actually these spaces don’t consider the needs of disabled or neurodivergent students. This session provided us with a toolkit to ensure we ask ourselves important questions so that our design process considers how we can have a vision for a Students’ Guild building that is built for all students.
There are so many more things I could speak about, but these are the top few! This was an incredible experience, and for anyone thinking of attending any ACUI conferences or events, I would really recommend it. It opened my eyes to a completely new way of doing things.
In conclusion, attending the ACUI conference in Boston was an enriching experience. I was able to learn from other universities' experiences and reflect on how we can apply these learnings to Exeter Students' Guild. The ideas and concepts discussed at the conference, and the spaces we visited have given me and the Guild team a lot of food for thought. I am really excited to utilise everything I have taken from this trip in the next few months of steering some key strategic priorities for the future of the Students’ Guild.