Written by Madhumitha Janagaraja
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
This article was originally published in ‘Turning the Tide’, Bossy’s 2019 print edition.
CW: Mention of sexual assault and suicide.
This article was originally written in July of 2019, from my perspective as a Disabilities Department Officer. Since then, I’ve also come to reflect on the fact that my experience of the role was equally influenced by my identities – as a disabled, queer* woman of colour and migrant, but also as someone who was from a low SES background. These intersections affected the way people treated me, but also the nature of the administrative and emotional labour I consistently felt overwhelmed by. Handling the complexity of social and institutional change is something I am far better equipped to do now, but my perceptions of the accompanying individual strain remain the same – and I believe are important to acknowledge, because it is far more gruelling when the things you fight for are real life to you, rather than matters on a piece of paper. Ultimately, I will always believe that student unionism can and does win and is an integral part of making student experiences better.
Being an elected student representative has been a uniquely harrowing and rewarding experience, among many other things. At the very least, the reality of such a role is far different to what I suspect most people must expect – especially in the current climate of ‘disaster fatigue’ where advocacy has become even more prominent as we begin to once again raise questions around our expectations for student representatives. What does holding ANUSA accountable for its responsibilities look like, with that accountability also fostering genuine empathy and appreciation for the work our representatives do? To what extent do we underestimate the burden placed on these individuals, or hold uncharitable perceptions of them?
I possess the faintest recall of my aspirations and expectations before commencing my duties – grand, lofty goals for structural change and the burning determination to achieve each of them. What I could have never imagined was the weariness and frustration that comes to accompany this passion, the financial and personal sacrifices, the tenuous interpersonal relationships that need careful navigation, or the weight of personal responsibility that ends up resting on your shoulders.
It is far too easy to forget how strained ANUSA’s resources actually are – I, too, am a university student. I struggle with my courses, I fight with my parents, I worry about making rent, and I deal with my suffering health. The stipend I receive is enough for perhaps 9 hours per week – I can’t remember the last time I worked less than 30.
Student representatives have continued to take more and more on over the years – the amount of responsibility, emotional labour, and time commitment required steadily increasing but our resources, funding, and level of training stagnant. Universities are but a drop in the ocean of damaging structures that affect student welfare – student associations have to prioritise both the provision of pastoral care and support services for students adversely affected by them, but also the advocacy necessary to dismantle or change these structures so they no longer exist in the first place. Moreover, the most powerful way to do this is as an institution – and institutions require a staggering amount of administration to function.
The association has a platform which allows it to respond to these issues in a way that individuals would struggle to – because it is an institution that is respected as an important stakeholder by other bureaucratic structures, but also because it is an organised force that can mobilise more effectively, capitalising on its resources. It has designated professional staff that can be consulted for integral knowledge, methods to easily and quickly communicate with the wider community, and the necessary connections with other stakeholders. However, in that capacity ANUSA is no different to any other company – possessing and using these resources means the same legal and financial obligations to its staff, the students, and the government. This administration is a full-time job in itself – like any other CEO of a charity or activist organisation, so too is our own President.
This may be more tangible in context – for instance, a sudden slash in funding towards a specific student service often involves various overlapping issues and ramifications. This cut is likely the result of government reluctance to invest funding in education – where the university is then forced to find different ways to make profit. In this situation, I would not only be responsible for relentlessly lobbying the university while communicating updates on the situation to the student body, but also for developing strategy and a long-term vision for mobilising students to protest the situation at a federal level – all while bearing the increased load of pastoral care cases and my regular administrative duties.
I’m likely also subject to the frustration of an asymmetry of information, which is simply a weakness of bureaucracy than it is one of student associations – where I’m bound by confidentiality and can’t justify my actions well enough to a student body that is missing that crucial context. This isolation is often heavily disheartening – my personal failings are publicly scrutinised and my words and actions unfortunately made representative of an entire group of people. In an effort to defend the autonomy and best interests of the students I represent; I repeatedly forsake my individual right to either.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times this year that I’ve broken down and simply sobbed in a bathroom stall after a meeting – whether in the face of institutional betrayal, the criticism I can’t defend myself against due to confidentiality, or simple exhaustion from missing meals and sleep. These are tears that no one will ever see. I have been on the receiving end of infrequent harassment. I have had drunk people vomit on me. I have handled disclosures at all times of the day and night. When my close friend passed from suicide, I couldn’t even take time to grieve – because a new issue had appeared, and there was no one else who could appropriately handle it. I’ve always tried to be the representative that people needed me to be – even at the cost of my own health, mental wellbeing, and academics. I do it because I genuinely love this association, and I do it because the people I fight for mean the world to me.
I don’t say these things to boast or martyr myself – and I certainly don’t think this should be the experience of a student representative. I say them because I’ve seen my experience mirrored in other representatives who are in a similar position to me. I see it in the tired eyes, the shaky hands after that fourth cup of coffee and vicarious trauma. These people are working far harder than any human should be and handling situations they do not have the training to manage – only to be criticised for ‘not caring’, depicted as ‘not doing anything’, or to be on the receiving end of jokes about being a ‘political hack’.
Are there some individuals who enter these roles for purely egocentric reasons; to pad a resume or for a power trip? Perhaps. The vast majority, however, genuinely possess a desire for change – and work extremely hard for it. Complete altruism is an erroneous concept – in an environment as arduous as the one we occupy, it is not enough to want things to be better, but to also visualise yourself at the centre of that change. Thatform of ‘egocentrism’ manifests as the determination necessary to actually fulfil your role – it would be impossible to hold on without it. Nevertheless, I fail to understand the integrity being questioned – of course we get something out of it, otherwise we would never do it. Isn’t that the same for anyone, doing anything? If you believe that self-sacrifice and effort that come with any form of conditions or self-gratification are somehow inherently worthless, or any less respectable, I would strongly beg you to reconsider that perception.
I also don’t say any of these things as a dismissal of constructive criticism or feedback – we all have our roles to play in our fight to have our views represented and our effort to create change. I’ve certainly had endless criticism for most of my colleagues, and numerous disagreements – criticism and feedback are a necessary part of the process. However, it’s even more important to refrain from conflating professional frustrations with your personal regard for a person, and it’s important to be highly conscious of how unreasonable and overburdened some of these positions are.
We can continue to develop new accountability measures like KPIs for ANUSA and more communication channels with the student body, but as important and irreplaceable as those will be, it doesn’t change the fact that there are only so many hours in a day and a limit to human capacity. Potential solutions and remedies to this situation have been discussed for years – and I like to think that conversely, we’re slowly moving towards better support systems for representatives and making these positions more sustainable and safe for these individuals.
At the end of the day, these are just words you are reading as an external observer. Nothing could possibly communicate the actual experience of living it, but I ask that you make the effort to take a moment and appreciate the ANUSA services you directly interact with, as well as the invisible labour of generations and generations of SRC we all unconsciously benefit from.
Believe in the integrity of your representatives even as you continue to challenge them – they fight harder for you than you realise.