Queen's Access Podcast Episode 5: Student Leadership
Below is a transcript of the episode.
Kyla: Hello and welcome to the Queen's Access Podcast. It's so lovely to have you here and I hope you find this a useful resource in learning more about life at Oxford, but more specifically about life at The Queen's College. My guest this week is Isabelle Gibbons, who's just finished her second year studying history and who is the outgoing JCR Vice-President. We'll have a chat about how the JCR works and generally what opportunities are available if you're interested in getting involved in student leadership. My apologies for any poor audio, these interview have all been conducted over Zoom and the internet connection isn't always completely reliable. For a transcript of this episode, please visit the Queen's website. I hope you enjoy!
Kyla: Hi Isabelle, how are you?
Isabelle: I'm great thanks! How've you been?
Kyla: I've been good thank you. Thank you so much for agreeing to record, this is really helpful and I know you'll be a really interesting guest.
Isabelle: Thank you, I hope so!
Kyla: Okay so, to get us started, can you tell me a little bit about your Queen's journey, so how did you end up at college?
Isabelle: So my Queen's journey is probably a bit more of a roundabout journey than a lot of people and I think it's probably best to start from GCSEs. So, in 2016, after two years of working myself quite frankly to the grave a bit, I came out with 7A* and 3As, along with top UMS points in several subjects, grades which were way above the average for my state school in Merseyside. I chose to stay on at my sixth form for the familiarity of the teachers, because I thought that this would be the right thing to do for me. By AS results day had decided History was 100% what I wanted to do. Whilst browsing unis I had decided Leeds was where I wanted to go along with two insurance unis, but as you'll all know, you get to pick up to five places to study unless you're studying medicine. So whilst I was browsing, I saw that the 3As at Oxford was a possibility for me to achieve. Unfortunately though, I remember when I told school that I wanted to apply and to say they were concerned was probably an understatement. I got asked if I knew how elitist and difficult it would be to get an interview, let alone get in, and once I was there would possibly feel isolated and struggle. But to me it was worth a shot, it was like 'I know I'd like to go Leeds and I have this spare spot on my UCAS application, why not give it a go?' So, my Dad and I went down to Oxford and did a whistle stop tour of nearly every college judging them on access, libraries, state school percentage and obviously the quality of the freebies! The first place I visited was Queen’s, because when you walk straight out of Exam Schools, it's right there. So we went in and we fell in love with the architecture and the libraries and I decided 'right I would kind of like to study here.' But I didn't let my heart fully invest in it, because I knew it would be quite difficult. So I revised, and I mean revised, for the entrance exam and got one of the highest marks in the HAT that year and was invited to interview. Rather unexpectedly however, I was reallocated to Mansfield college for interview, as what happens at interview is that they'll often move people about before interviews happen to balance the field, so that'll include what score you got in your entrance exam, where you are, just to make sure that there's an even spread of applicants. So I was reallocated to Mansfield and knew nothing about the place, but for me, it was a win-win, as I was worried about state school representation and Mansfield had one of the highest representations. I got there and actually loved it. The interview was difficult of course, but come January, I was offered a place and I was absolutely shell-shocked. Fast-forward to August 2018 however, and I had a gut feeling my second biology exam had let me down, and it did. I came out with A*AB and the 3 marks I dropped in biology meant that Mansfield College rejected me. What many people are unaware of is that Oxford have a policy of clemency and I was selected by a tutor at Queen’s who didn’t care about my B in Biology but rather saw the potential I had through my other grades and my application process. I was awarded a place at Queen’s College and became the first student at my school to stay on at sixth form and go to Oxford for a considerable period. You could say my Queen’s journey went full circle. Fast-forward to the start of 3rd year and I have loved every minute at Queen’s, from being the Vice President of the JCR, playing football and wearing the Queen's jersey, to the privilege of getting to read and talk about the subject I love week in week out at the best institution in the world. As a first gen state school student who missed their offer and was given limited encouragement to apply, I defied the odds and tackled Oxford. All I can say is I am not ready for this journey to end and if you want to see if Oxford is right for you, like I did, all I can say is back yourself to the hill!. So that's my Queen's journey, it was a bit full-circle, but I got there in the end and now I don't want to leave!
Kyla: Isabelle that's amazing and I think it's so important to talk about people who've had completely different routes! Seren and I talked about open offers, we've had people talking about being pooled at interviews and I just think that sometimes people can see the process as being very linear. In that I applied to Queen's, got an interview at Queen's, interviewed only at Queen's, then got an offer and then got in on results day, I am in the minority in that my Queen's journey was that linear. I think that's important to point out- people have loads of different routes in. That's fantastic and thank you so much for sharing that! So, in general, what does a week look like at Oxford for you?
Isabelle: Well, everyone jokes that History students are infamous for having nothing on, and in part that is true! Our degree is fairly unstructured and driven by personal study- history is a degree of discipline and yeah, I basically don't do a lot in my week. Now at finals, I typically have two lectures a week, 3 tutorials every 2 weeks, and possibly a class depending on the paper I am currently undertaking. All in all, that averages at around 5 hours per week, but that also means I could be writing 3 essays every 2 weeks and preparing source material for a class discussion, so the hours do quickly add up! My typical week will have football games, I go to yoga on a Monday, I might go to the pub or beer cellar at college, I go to walks and talks and that's scheduled alongside any admin roles I might have. When I was Vice-President, I'd always do all of my admin on a Sunday, so that was quite nice for a routine. All in all, my days probably start at about half eight or nine o'clock and I stop studying at about half five or six o'clock, but of course that's got a lot of breaks, where I nip into college for lunch, because it's got such a great atmosphere. You could say it is a healthy balance of work and play, but you have to be disciplined- I think one of the major things about being a history student is the lack of contact means you need to make sure you create a nice timetable for yourself, which is quite enjoyable, because I like structuring my day.
Kyla: Yeah I definitely agree! I've always looked at historians with some level of amazement, because I'm somebody who needs that intense structure and trust me, with a chemistry degree, you find that with the 25+ contact hours per week sometime! I think that's really good and having a lot of self-discipline is so important, I imagine. So we've talked a little bit about Isabelle personally, but now I want to get on to the main topic of this episode, which is to do with student leadership. So I think a key thing to clear up, which a lot of people find very confusing before they start at Oxford, myself included: What is a JCR? What does it actually mean?
Isabelle: Okay this is a really good question! A JCR is both a body of people and a physical place! JCR stands for Junior Common Room and thus describes both the body of undergraduates at a college as well as their physical space. At our college, we have three types of common room: we have Junior, Middle and Senior. Each of these has a physical space within the building to call theirs. Ours has a kitchen, coffee machine, sofas and beanbags, a telly and PlayStation, art supplies, Christmas decorations. Rather randomly, we have a boar's head mounted on the wall! It's a physical space for undergraduate peers at a college to meet and attend meetings and chill. So, I would say, if you're confused about what a JCR is, it's both the undergraduate peers you'll have within your college, but also the place where you'll meet them.
Kyla: That's a fantastic description, thank you! So, again, something that I find very confusing, or I definitely did before I started: How is the JCR at Queen's different from the Oxford Student Union and what kind of power does the JCR have within college and within the university as a whole?
I: In all honesty this confused me (and sometimes still does) until I became Vice President, where you really understand the workings of a JCR within college itself, but also how that relates to the Student Union. The best way to imagine it is that each college has their own JCR which deals with their individual student body, yet also has representation in the wider student body, which is the SU. The SU is thus the extended student body of the university (so it encompasses undergraduates and postgraduates etc), whereas a JCR is solely the college’s undergraduates. The JCR, like all students within the university, does have voting power at the SU, but most things are liaised between the president of the JCR and each college's SU rep. The JCR votes on college-wide issues, whereas the SU votes on university wide-issues. In terms of powers, the best way to see it is that the JCR and SU are more like pressure groups and mouthpieces for student concerns within college or the university. For example, on the college-level, this might include rent negotiations. The power to enact change sort of depends on the flexibility of the college. Yeah, so that's the difference between a JCR and Student Union and the powers we have.
K: That's perfect thank you! I think that probably cleared up any misunderstandings I still had, so I really appreciate that! A key point to talk about as well, which I'm going to point out now, is that the Oxford Union and the Oxford Student Union are not the same thing, which can be quite confusing when you go in in Freshers Week. So the Oxford Union is an independent society, which you can pay to be a part of. It has its own library, it runs some events for members and primarily it's used as a debating society and a speaking society. They have a lot of different speakers come in, so when you see pictures of people like Theresa May or Stephen Fry speaking, usually that's taking place within the Oxford Union. The Oxford Union is something that you have to pay for and is something that you can choose to do or choose not to do, whereas the Student Union is where you actually have power as students and that's related to the JCRs and the whole student body. I think that's probably a good thing to clear up at this point!
I: I think that's a good thing to add in, yeah.
K: So, Isabelle, as you've mentioned, you've been the JCR Vice-President, so you have been to your fair share of JCR meetings! So, what happens in a standard JCR meeting?
I: So, JCR meetings can be quite variable to be honest! Every JCR meeting starts with pizza, that is one constant! How many slices you get depends on how many people are there, but Queen's always start off meetings with pizza. But each meeting is different, from the issues we discuss to the outcomes. In general, students submit motions either requesting action, raising questions, or asking for money from our monthly budget to contribute to activities. All of these motions are then debated and we cross reference them with our constitution, but that too can be edited. Then, as a whole, we vote on the motions put forwards. At Queen’s, the recurring theme in our meetings is voting to request another copy of FIFA or item for the JCR common room (a lot of things like to go walkies), or likewise discussing food options in Hall and voting on plays. But we also discuss really serious issues, like discussing the college's efforts in divestment and representation and holding people accountable. It's really good that we can discuss diverse matters and it is a great way for the student body to come together once a fortnight and discuss things amongst themselves, but also plan action to change what college is like and hopefully enact long-term change. An agenda is headed by the JCR Chair and the meeting is presided by the VP, who takes minutes as well as raising any constitutional concerns with the president. Likewise, the treasurer is there to provide a rolling update on our budget, providing an all-round informed and engaging debate. So that's sort of what happens at a JCR meeting, they can be anywhere between half an hour to, unfortunately I've been to a two hour meeting once!
Isabelle: Yeah, that was interesting. But yeah, they're great opportunities to see the diverse concerns of the different types of students that we have at college.
Kyla: Yeah definitely. I think I've been to JCR meetings where things have been raised that I hadn't even thought about before. What's nice as well is that, one of the jobs of the chair is to send out an agenda for the meeting, so you can have a look at what motions are going to be raised before you actually go into the meeting, so that can be really helpful to think upon what you believe about these issues and then go and be able to debate that and listen to other people's opinions.
Isabelle: A good thing about that as well is, because we produce minutes, we have students who are on their years abroad, so after a meeting, the VP will email out the minutes, so students who cannot attend the meeting are still up to date with everything that's going on in their community. It's really important that we all stay together, despite students being dotted across the world whilst on their years out.
Kyla: I've actually never thought about that before, because I've always used the minutes as a way of refreshing what happened in the meeting, but yeah, 100%, if you're on a year abroad, you still would want to know what's going on in college. Okay, brilliant! So, one of your roles as vice-president was to run the elections process. So, how does this work?
Isabelle: So the elections process seems daunting at first, because it's standing up in front of loads of people that you might not know that well in your first year and you're very exposed. The other side to the elections process is this wonderful online platform that the SU use for voting, which I always forget how to plug-in the results for! But the elections process is actually quite interesting itself. Each term, different roles come up for re-election and these roles are a part of the JCR Exec. These are the people who help run Freshers Week, who do different things throughout each term, such as organising photographs, ordering stash, helping with welfare events etc. Every election is ran by the Returning Officer and at Queen's, the vice-president is the Returning Officer. Once all the positions up for election have received applications and supporting seconders, applicants are given the chance to produce manifestos which the Returning Officer then circulates to the JCR. At Queen's, we place quite a big importance on monitoring applicants' activities to make sure that there's a fair chance for everyone. If anyone has concerns about an applicant's behaviour, they can come forward anonymously and raise those concerns to the Returning Officer, so we take that stuff quite seriously. This is one of the ways we hold people accountable in positions of elected authority here at Queen’s. There's also the option for people to be RONed and for nominations to be re-opened. Thankfully I've never had to deal with one of those yet and it won't happen soon! The main event of the election is Husts Night in the JCR, which is either really well-attended, like at the President's Husts or not very well-attended, depending on what people have got on. Here, each applicant has to give a short speech on why they are applying for the role, what they would bring to the position and what they'd do differently, so it's sort of selling themselves but elaborating a bit more on that manifesto that we allow them to circulate. This gives the JCR a great chance to further get to know the applicants on top of a manifesto and it creates quite an enjoyable atmosphere, because we have a variety of years in attendance and very good questions come out of it, but also some very silly ones! The applicants then face questions from an audience and it helps inform our voters on who they want to represent them and who they want to carry out all of these responsibilities. Voting then commences on an online platform (once the VP has worked out how to use it) and within 24 hours, the results are circulated. Yeah, that's basically an election! I'd say the major thing about a JCR election in comparison to maybe an SU election or a society election, is that because the JCR, especially the Queen's JCR, is so close knit (because we have fairly small year groups), it's more about people getting to know each other and it's a very family environment, I'd say.
Kyla: Yeah, thankfully, when I ran for Access and Outreach rep, I was uncontested, so my Husts had slightly less riding on them than some other people's! But yeah, I would definitely say that, when I've been to watch Husts where multiple people have been going forward for a role, even then, there's still not a super competitive environment. Everyone is very supportive of each other and I think people are very respectful generally and everyone is always very congratulatory and I think it's a nice environment. I found it significantly less stressful than going for head girl in school...
Isabelle: Oh my goodness, yes, completely!
Kyla: I think that includes the presidential elections and everything, I'd say it's nowhere near as stressful as running for positions in school!
Isabelle: I think also, the job of the VP is to make everyone feel a bit at ease. I always emailed the applicants saying 'if you want to meet beforehand and go through your speech, don't worry.' It's not a place where people are trying to catch each other out, we're genuinely thankful for anyone who's going to order in our food for JCRT each week!
Kyla: Yeah, definitely. Okay, so if somebody is interested in being a member of the JCR Exec (obviously they've got to go through the Husts process), what kind of roles are available to them?
Isabelle: So we have a variety of roles within the JCR Exec, representing different groups and concerns. As there are well over 20 different positions, I’ll just give a brief overview, because a lot of these people you'll either meet on open days or you'll hear about them on our website and of course they'll be organising Freshers Week. Notably we have an Equalities team, which specifically works with LGBTQ+, international, BAME, those who identify as women, disabled, and students of low socioeconomic backgrounds, to help ensure they feel represented within college and to address any concerns that arise. I feel like this a really, really important group of people we have on the Exec and they also have their own mini-team, with an Equalities rep attached to them. Other positions include the president; VP; treasurer; welfare reps; social secs and Entz (entertainment); sports and stash rep; arts; food; webmasters; charities; A&O; academic and careers; webmasters; chair; environment and ethics; and SU. These individuals deal with anything from organising our termly end of term events, which are almost like big parties, and fortnightly college parities called BOPs, to ordering stash (anything that has Queen's written over it that you can wear), and organising feedback sessions with our tutors and college and welfare events. It's a really great thing that they almost bring the community together. The JCR Exec follow up relevant concerns and motions raised at JCR meetings, like before when I mentioned that we vote on what food is in Hall, the food reps would go away and talk to the catering staff. It's a great way of channelling communication. They club together and put on Freshers Week, helping students move in, find their feet, and run some important workshops. This is where we run things like sexual consent workshops and balancing your time. What's really interesting is that the Exec will be trained by workshops held at the SU, so that's where that link between the JCR and the SU is, so then we can come in and deliver these workshops. We do work behind the scenes to make sure Queen’s is the most welcoming place to current, future and past members! These people are elected on a variety of termly cycles, ranging from one to three terms and they each start at different points, which allows loads of people to try different Exec responsibilities, no matter what year group they're in. We could have a third year who's on a four year degree and they apply to do Entz in their third year, because they really want to get back into college life. I think that's a really nice way that we've framed everything. So they're the different Exec roles. I'd say, if you're ever interested in applying for one, or you're a bit confused, just pop the person who has the position a message, or go to the VP, because their role is advertising the roles and running the elections, so they know quite a lot about what the people get up to.
Kyla: Thank you Isabelle, that was a brilliant whistle-stop tour of the Exec, that was absolutely perfect! Something that has especially become relevant recently, is that, even if you aren't a member of the JCR Exec, you can take part in specific working groups within college. So, we have one to do with the ethnic diversity at Queen's, we have one to do with developing the way in which sexual harassment is reported within college. There are a variety of different working groups, but you don't have to sit on the Exec, so even if you don't think you'd like an Exec position, you still have plenty of power and there are plenty of avenues to voice any concerns that you might have within college, either through those working groups or through speaking to the rep who deals with the issues that you're concerned with. I think the JCR is something that definitely brings everyone together and I found that it was such a bigger aspect of my college life than I thought it was going to be before I applied.
Isabelle: I think that's something that people forget, but also find different about the Oxford collegiate experience. For a lot of my friends who go to other unis, there is a lot more emphasis placed on the SU, because they don't have colleges. Whereas, because we have colleges, the JCR has such a heavy focus- you can be as involved as you want and you don't have to be involved at all, but you know it's there, which is a really nice thing.
Kyla: I think there's such a variety of roles as well. So, I was Deputy Head Girl in sixth form and I had an absolute blast, but it was a massive time commitment, so I decided, before I went to uni, that I was not going to do my classic thing of signing myself up for everything. I thought 'I'm not going to get involved with student leadership, because I think that's going to put too much on my plate.' But then, what I found was that, what I actually thought of as student leadership was people standing up and doing speeches all of the time and constant emails back and forth. Yes, that is some of the roles, but equally, I was super passionate about access and with the role of A&O rep, you can do as much or as little as you want. I think that's something that people don't necessarily realise, that you don't have to be some uber confident future Prime Minister to be involved in student leadership within Oxford. You can run a super small sub-community that you just play a really active part in and I think that's really lovely.
Isabelle: Yeah, I think just don't ever be scared to put yourself out there. The cycle for VP was Trinity term to the end of the following Hilary term, so it's the end of first year to halfway through second year. I applied because I knew I liked doing admin, because I'd done some for some societies, but also I really wanted to get to know people better. I applied and did the Husts and, I was only up against one other person, but I wasn't that confident and the role actually brought me out of my shell and I feel made me more integrated into the Queen's community. I remember halfway through second term, when you have Halfway Hall (celebrates being halfway through your degree), I ran the Halfway Hall awards. I was there thinking of all these wonderful things my peers had done that I know I wouldn't have been in a position to have known if I hadn't put myself out there, taken that leap and signed up to be VP. Yeah, some things are tedious, like a lot of emails and stuff that people don't see behind the scenes, which is really unfortunate. I don't want all the praise for it though, because I love my job. You do little things that aren't on the job description, like people will come to me halfway through the day and say 'I can't find the newspaper' and I go and find all the newspapers for them, because people know that you can! It's a great way to get integrated. Also, a great way if you're not too confident. You don't have to dive straight in in your first term, wait a bit like I did until halfway through and think 'you know what, this is something I want to be a part of more.'
Kyla: Yeah definitely, I think that's fantastic. As a close, I'll ask you what I ask everyone on this, so what is your favourite thing about college and why?
Isabelle: This is probably the toughest question you've asked, because all the other questions are role descriptions and stuff that's factual. I'd probably go back to my first question where I said that, if you asked me 3 years ago when I was applying to uni, I would have said the libraries at Queen’s, because that made me want to apply, the library was gorgeous. It's still one of my favourite places to study, because we have great staff, they are always spotless and stocked with all the materials I need. It was the reason I applied to Queen’s and possibly features too often on my Instagram and BuzzFeed listed it as one of the top 10 libraries to see before you die and I see no lies there! Now entering my third and final year, it would have to be a toss-up between Oxmas celebrations and JCRT. I think a lot of people have probably said that, I'm not too sure. Oxmas, for those of you who don't know, is Christmas at Oxford. In our last week of Michaelmas term, we have a massive party and a Christmas dinner. In JCRT, at 4pm at Queen's, we have snacks on offer to buy that we all sit in the JCR and eat. Both of those exhibit the great sense of community and fun- everyone gets together and it's just nice. Then again, there is food at both events and that's a major contributing factor to why I love it! I don't know, it's a tough one, I'd say it's between those two, but I'll probably change my mind in five minutes, there's too much to love!
Kyla: Well, that's certainly not something that I'm going to complain about- 'there's too much to love at Queen's,' we can definitely have that as the tagline! Isabelle, thank you so so much for talking to me, this has been really interesting and I hope you have an absolutely fantastic day. Thank you so much for contributing!
Isabelle: Thank you too, Kyla and I will see you soon!
Kyla: Thank you so much to Isabelle for that fantastic conversation and a massive thank you to all of you who listened. There are loads more access resources on the Queen's college website at www.queens.ox.ac.uk/access-outreach and you can find out more about the college in general through its website, Twitter and Instagram, including on the access Twitter, @QueensOutreach. That's all from me, have a lovely week and hopefully I'll see you again soon!