My interview with Samara Jones appears to fluctuate between the informative, light, friendly chat, and partial therapy.
She acted as YUSU President between 2019-20, with her term finishing as the pandemic settled the nation into its chokehold, spearheading the Student Union fighting for student rights online. Before she left, her team secured The Forest, worked with the University to implement measures to support student studies, and extra funding for struggling students, both through £6 million of saved rents, and over £500,000 a year in mental health support.
“I have to say I’m in a happier and calmer place six months out of it,” she laughs to me as our call ends. “You get to grow, and get space. I’m a better person because of it, but I’m happier now that I’m out of it, because it’s very intense.”
Jones started her career with more experience than most could hope for – she tells me her ability to get “fingers in every pot” had its drawbacks. She joked that her work in so many areas can’t be done “with your degree; you’ve kind of got to pick. And it was clear, I didn’t pick the degree.”
Rolling through the list, she acted as Alcuin President, Alcuin Sports Officer, was on College Sport committee, alongside being a part of Alcuin Netball, hockey, University swimming and waterpolo (for whom she played in nationals), and York Ballroom and Latin Society in her final year.
And yet she says that none of these could prepare her for her time as President:
“Coming from the college background, you kind of think it will be some element of that. With the other roles it is a little bit more prescriptive, like Activities: any student group that’s not a sports team, that’s you.
“President’s a little bit more fluid, in such that it can sometimes be: ‘this is something that’s a personal passion of you, you can take that,’ but also, anything that’s not directly related to somebody else you might have to deal with.
“And I don’t think I necessarily quite fully understood that element, because whilst I knew that all the other stuff might come to me, you don’t quite know what all the other stuff might end up being. It is one of those you do somewhat have to learn on the job.”
Speaking to her, the role of President is certainly remembered as a hectic time, in which she did “5% of 200% of stuff in the University”. This was the case when having to balance and represent the student voice, particularly when students were hit by another round of lecturer strikes in February 2020.
“It’s balancing your views, your team views, and then working out what the students want. And it’s always great fun when you’re like: half of the students want that and half of the students want that. With strikes and stuff that we dealt with last year, it was how do you balance the political element of that with students, where you’ve got to have half them wanting it, half not wanting it and then half them in the middle kind of going: ‘Well, I kind of get why they’re striking, but also, I don’t really want them to strike, but I don’t really have too much of an opinion on it’.”
“It’s all those elements where it’s not just as simple as: this is the problem, this is what we can do. It’s: this is the problem, here’s a range of solutions, and here’s the different people that think that that’s the only possible solution you could possibly do, and if you do anything else, you’re not doing it, or you’re not working hard enough.”
Her role consequently developed into something of a mediatory style but she was keen to show that this was not the case for all YUSU Presidents – “it depends on what happens in your year”.
The universal quality, one that is perhaps underrated, instead seems to be acting as a coordinator to the other officers, as each are “pulled all the different ways” by their hugely varying roles – less of a “dictatorship” role, Jones says, more “right guys, please just be there at 2pm”.
“We used to joke we were playing Sabb Bingo,” Jones tells me. “It was that if someone came to the office, when all five of us were in there, it was like, Wow, you’ve hit jackpot. This does not happen.”
She has taken this experience through to her new job, where she still has not managed to escape the world of Student Unions. Jones now works three days a week at Winchester University as a Student Life Advisor, enjoying now doing “100% in one area”.
“I escaped higher education for six months, and now I’m right back in it”, she jokes, but she seems glad to be able to focus on the parts that she appears to most value:
“I’m glad to be on the non political side of it all, particularly, given the extra difficult time. I’m kind of quite glad to be like: ‘I’m here to look after you.’ I don’t have to agree with anything, or have any opinion on what’s happening. I just have to vaguely understand them and support you through them.”
This was something that marked her time in the role – Jones was often seen to be one of the less outspoken sabbs: more of a steadying influence on the firebrands of Steph (Effy) Hayle and Ollie Martin. This is something she appears proud of – while she may have not been the most vocal (“Effy was just incredible [on] social media – try and stop that woman on Twitter!”) she recalls that at times, a steady hand can be the most effective.
“Some people couldn’t stand [Steph],” Samara says, “because she would shout and kick and scream about things. She had that method and she got that reputation. But she did get stuff done.
“She needed support of the president figure, be that me or James [Durcan, President 2018-19] before me having that kind of: ‘this is what she said. And here I am saying a similar thing in a slightly different way.’ And it’s coming from a different emotive point. It’s a different method, and that joint up approach of things really worked.”
Jones is amazingly magnanimous in this – her calm approach may have got results, but, as an outsider you could see that a lot of the time it resulted in passing on credit to her more outspoken colleagues.
This has particularly been evident over this campaign period since I talked to Jones – in his campaign bio, incumbent YUSU President Patrick O’Donnell claims to have created “The Forest from scratch, and secur[ed] £2 million in funding for Open Door and support services”.
In reality, after lobbying from her and Ollie Martin, the then Activities Officer, one of her final Facebook posts appeared to reference it, saying: “the University needs to get it approved and signed off but there is something coming!”.
The team also “secured one of the largest ever Mental Health investments at York – over £500,000 a year”, according to a post on Steph Hayle’s YUSU Facebook – lobbying which may be considered to contribute to the priority placed on student mental health in these new policies.
O’Donnell told Vision that:
“I think all students will understand that change clearly doesn’t happen overnight! Projects like the The Forest have been a huge team effort, drawing on the experiences and ideas of various staff, sabbatical officers, part-time officers and College Chairs and Presidents. Indeed, we wouldn’t be able to open any venues on campus without our fantastic 150+ student staff members! Ultimately, The Forest’s overwhelming success is down to the creativity of our student body and the huge range of events we held there last term.
“The same goes for lobbying for more funding into student support. The voices of all students across our University are vital in securing change, and the role of any SU President is to draw together a huge range of inputs and share the outputs! Every single success we have is a success for all of our students, our staff and the wider community in York – that’s how I look back and how I intend to look forward!”
Samara, however, felt that within her team credit had been distributed fairly, saying that: “I think with my whole team, we were able to publicise quite a bit about what we did, and just sharing the who gets to see the news, or who gets to be the one that gets to post the rubbish news.”
She does acknowledge, however, that a lot of the work you do inevitably does not really come to light, but is done because it is necessary.
“Ollie and I spent the last two months, it was after Easter in lockdown, trying to keep that Student Union Building and those outdoor spaces on the agenda, because we’re going: ‘even though we know that they’re not going to happen right now, you’re not going to build us a new building, if we don’t keep talking about it now, the five year plan is going to keep being a five year plan for another five years’.”
“It’s been on the agenda for so long, but no one’s actually got it past ‘Go’. It’s just been there. It’s the: ‘yes, in five years time’. Well, if you’d actually started that when you first started talking about it, we’d be opening the building by now.”
The last time I spoke to Jones, it was because the Union was rather getting too much attention. At the start of the pandemic, for the first time the University and Student Union were making official statements condemning the abuse, and attacks students were receiving from anonymous social media pages.
“It was that level of actually initially wanting the University to take it seriously, and it genuinely took when we actually got that first case of COVID in York. They finally started seeing things and going, ‘oh, this is bad.’ And we were there going, ‘this has been going on for a long time’. We’ve had our PTOs, we’ve had students come in really upset, we’ve seen groups get targeted. And I think that’s the most disheartening thing, where you see student groups that you interact with, that then suddenly are getting torn down on these sites, or just horrible stuff.
“I think there was that level, there was that level of fear as individuals, because as a sabb your name’s everywhere. Everyone knows how to contact you. Your personal life is somewhat entangled within the role. If we do something are we going to become the victims of this – it was that level of fear around that.
“Somebody in the University trying to do something in haste, and I found out about it through an email chain, got very upset and angry, and me Ollie and Maddie marching down to Heslington Hall, saying that we will not be leaving until someone speaks to us, and having a very difficult conversation while we got quite upset, pointing out how bad this is, and that we’ve seen sabbs get effected by it, but more importantly, we’ve seen so many students, and student groups, and just groups of people be victimised. We’re going: it’s not just the xenophobia, there’s been all other forms of discrimination that’s been put out there.
“So it was that difficult one of balancing all of that – as an individual, of course, you want to try and protect yourself and you want to try and protect your friends from any possible further victimisation.”
There is a further level of misunderstanding between students and YUSU, that Jones credits to making the role much more difficult. Students often appear to be more frustrated with what they conceive to be the problems, when in reality these are unavoidable.
“One of my favourite things people always go on about is the unelected CEO and charities, and then you actually look at how all charities, not just student unions, but all charities have to run. You have to have an unelected CEO.
“But it was just one of the great things where people were going ‘how dare you’, and you were going: that’s legally how they have to run.
“It’s difficult, and you just need remember, there’s a real person on the other end of it, and that they’re trying their best, but they’ve probably got another bureaucracy and ten layers of committees and procedures that they’re struggling to fight through.”
However, when I ask Jones about the happy memories she left with, I receive a string of her proud achievements.
It ranges from the overwhelming pace of Freshers week, when she found her sabb team “really into that flow, we were all in sync”, to “that final ‘Yes’” after the “long, long haul” to approve the old Unity Health centre as extra storage space for societies, and the “second hand pride” of watching students achieve.
“That’s my student from my university; all other universities – you don’t have this! We’ve got them, they’ve done brilliantly.”
However, eventually she settles on a perhaps more telling response – one that clearly remains a constant, even now she has moved home.
“I think just the team. I didn’t expect to go in and be such good friends with them all. And still, I mean, Effy and I both have Switches, we play Animal Crossing together every now and then because we can’t see friends any other way, so we just regularly have our Animal Crossing catch ups.
“You could come into the office and you could have had the worst day, and someone would be there just give you a hug, or be there to hide under your desk.
“You think we joke – genuinely the amount of times we just went and sat under a desk, I think I gave Ollie a couple of heart attacks where he just didn’t see me because I was hidden there.
“And just getting through the hard times – because there were a few hard times – we thought they were hard times – and then it got worse. It’s picking each other up from that, it is seeing the things the others achieve as well. That was always really nice.”
Throughout the interview, Jones’ recurring theme is as she talks about her team with devoted fondness.
“We all had a good relationship, we all got on really well, and we all kind of knew that we might disagree inside that office, but outside, we’re gonna do our best to defend each other to the end of the earth, because we can see how hard each other’s working on things.
“You turn into a little family, and you don’t think you’re going to. I say family in the best way because you’re siblings where you love each other, but you can shout at each other, and you can argue, and you can disagree about things.”