In this interview, we talk to Heloisa Fyfe, Vice-President (Representation and Volunteers) at Edinburgh Napier Students’ Association (ENSA). Previously, she was a Festival and Event Management student and a Programme Rep at Edinburgh Napier University.
1. Can you tell us about the path that brought you to your current role? How did you get interested in the idea of representation?
I’ve always wanted to have a say and try and make things fairer and more just for everyone, so when I was a student I decided to become a Programme Rep. I felt that I needed to become more involved to get the most out of the University experience. Through this role I came to discover more about ENSA and how the representation systems work within the University. I remember seeing the ENSA sabbaticals on campus and was intrigued about their roles and responsibilities. In my last year of University I decided to run for elections as ‘VP Reps & Volunteers’ as the idea of making change and representing students was really appealing to me. It was all about curiosity and seizing the chance to create meaningful change, really.
2. What does your current role involve, and what have been your priorities this year?
My current role has different aspects attached to it. Firstly, I am here to support and work with the Programme Reps at Napier, by being in regular contact with them and making sure to take their feedback and concerns to the University when necessary. Currently, I am putting effort into my social media presence as this is one of the main ways to communicate with students at the moment.
Secondly, I am working on completing the targets promised in my officer manifesto. These are improving communication with the Programme Reps, setting up a student peer-to-peer buddy system and supporting the University in becoming more sustainable. I’ve been fortunate to have a manifesto that is easily adaptable to the current online situation - I know that some officers weren’t so lucky and promised things which are now impossible to deliver during the pandemic. Thirdly, a big part of my role is also to support students experiencing Covid-19 related issues - that wasn’t the original plan when I applied for this role!
Interestingly all of these different facets of my job are interlinked, it all seems to flow quite naturally. I would say that one of my priorities this year has been to improve transparency and communication to students. It’s very frustrating when things aren’t communicated in a clear and timely manner, so I do all I can to make sure that students are kept up to date with what is going on at ENSA and the University, particularly in the current climate.
3. How much has your role been impacted by the pandemic? How do you keep up effective communication with programme reps, your colleagues and university staff?
I’m privileged because I was quite comfortable online before the pandemic (I haven’t gone as far as TikTok yet though!) so I’ve been able to take advantage of the situation by using social media as the main tool for my communication with students. However, student screen fatigue and information overload hasn’t made it easy to reach students which has forced me to get more creative with the way I share information. What has worked well is Facebook polls as well as videos - these receive more engagement than regular posts because there is an interactive element to them. I also use our Programme Rep Facebook group as much as possible to share relevant information with Reps and gather feedback. This group has helped me create a Rep community and open a more frequent and informal dialog between different types of Reps. The move to online has actually improved communication with Reps and boosted attendance at forums - I hope that we can learn something from this for the future.
It’s been important for me to regularly post on this group and engage the Reps through questions, polls and sharing of opportunities because this helped me create an atmosphere of trust. I’m also leading two student groups (one about protecting hedgehogs and another about consent - very different!) and feel like this has been such a positive way to come together. I am extremely grateful to be in this job, and knowing that I have helped students makes the efforts worthwhile. I will really miss this once I step down from the role of VP.
4. And what’s your sense of what has happened with students’ learning experiences? What impact can students’ associations have on student engagement at this challenging time?
We are all aware of the negative aspects, but I would like to focus on the positives this situation has brought to the student learning experience. Although the social aspect of the student experience has been shattered, I think that the learning environment has become more flexible, adaptable and understanding. Because this fully online life is relatively new for everyone, there is much more acceptance for change and alternative ways of working. The status quo has been turned upside down and suddenly issues that were sometimes put to the side have been brought to the forefront of the student experience - such as inclusion and adjustments for disabled students. I would say, from what I’ve seen, that the move to online learning has made the student experience more efficient but less fun.
This is a challenging time for students’ associations, being in the past heavily events and campaigns based. We are now having to focus our efforts on other aspects of student life, at the same time as changing the perception that students have of us. If you ask students what ENSA do, they will mostly reply “freshers’ week, sports clubs and societies”. Now we are focusing our effort on supporting students during the pandemic with our ENSA advice service and specific campaigns - it echoes the more serious climate we are in. Students’ associations need to work harder to create a sense of community now. As said before, I do think that listening to students and providing timely and useful feedback is the key to keeping students engaged. It shows that we care, because we really do.
Thanks to Heloisa for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.