What I Learnt Leading a Campaign Against My University – With Natalie Campbell

I had no interest in politics – student or otherwise – until I fell headfirst into leading a campaign against my university. We were called Student for a No Detriment Policy. Fun and flirty title? Not really, but it told people what we were there to do. Mainly, get a No Detriment Policy (a policy that would provide a safety net to students whose studies were impacted by the ongoing pandemic) implemented at the university after the senate voted, overwhelmingly, against it.   

In a day, I went from a voice in the very angry crowd to the chairperson of a campaign to support 15,000 students. I was scared pants less.   

Believing in yourself is hard, instead, believe you can do just one thing.

I’m not going to lie; I had no clue what I was doing, and it kept me up at night. I pulled sixteen-hour days, I became a ghost to my flatmates, and I filled two notepads with scribblings, all to keep on top of the campaign. Every message I received I responded to, every meeting I was invited to I attended. All because I was scared that if I missed one thing the whole campaign would come crashing down around me. I found it difficult to put faith in myself as a leader, an organiser, or an authority on the policy we were fighting for.

So instead of trying to reach for some unattainable belief in myself, I believed I could do the one small task in front of me. I would tell myself ‘I’ve written an email before, I can write this one as well’, and then I would write it. And send it to whichever imposing figure I needed to send it to before I could second guess myself. I did it with everything, even down to ‘I’ve spoken to people before, I can speak to this person’.

You can’t do everything yourself, get a good team around you and keep them close.

Your campaign team matters. These are the people who are with you through every speed bump, hurdle, and forest fire you encounter – and believe me there will be many! Some days I felt like all I was doing was putting out one fire just for another one to crop up elsewhere. At those moments I turn to my team for support, encouragement and to remind myself why we were doing this. Each of them brought something invaluable to the campaign, whether that was skills, connections, knowledge, or a great sense of humour! They were there to bounce ideas off, commiserate with when things didn’t go our way, and celebrate with when we finally pulled it off. I made lifelong friends and I’m indescribably grateful for each one of them.

Speak to everyone – and I mean everyone – about your campaign.

Friends, family, the old guy with the dog who hangs out on the corner of your street. Okay, maybe not him, but everyone else. Get used to public speaking, fast, because there’s a lot of it. I spoke with tonnes of students, people from our student union, student council, the National Union of Students, MSPs, MPs, journalists. I even appeared on the six o’clock evening news. One thing I learnt quickly was the need to prepare, even for a five-minute chat. I had key lines rehearsed and ready, pages upon pages of questions, answers, rebuttals, facts and figures loaded up and easily accessible on my laptop at any moment. I rehearsed each speech with my team until I could do them with my eyes closed. Was it overkill? Perhaps. But it gave me a sense of clarity and calm knowing that I had whatever I needed at my fingertips, and it meant I was never fumbling for an answer to a question.  

Plan for two futures, utopia, and dystopia.

It was so easy to become bogged down in what if questions, especially during campaign team meetings. Sometimes I thought we were never going to reach a satisfactory answer, our discussions circling the houses. To manage this – and make sure our meetings weren’t three hours long – I made sure that we planned for what we desperately wanted to happen, our utopia, and what would be the absolute worst thing to happen, our dystopia. And nothing else. We didn’t have the luxury of time, our campaign needed to fall one way or the other before exam season hit, so we had three months to find a resolution. We had to spend our time wisely, or else we were going to fail.

See the plan through.

We had a very simple plan for the campaign. It was twofold. Firstly, show exactly who is being affected by the pandemic and exactly how it is affecting them. We put out a call for students’ experiences studying during the pandemic. Their stories were heart-wrenching. People who were stuck halfway across the world waking up at 1 am to attend mandatory tutorials, people who were working frontline jobs to make ends meet, who were disabled and couldn’t fully access course materials, who hadn’t been able to leave the UK for over a year to see their families, who were suffering from long COVID, who were caring for family members who had caught COVID-19, who were grieving for friends and family they had lost. All trying to keep on top of their studies and at their wit’s end. I cried, more than I would like to admit, reading their stories. We put them all up on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter so that everyone could see what students’ were dealing with.

And secondly, we targeted the people responsible for the situation. The Senate. Every time I spoke, I was never upset at the university or senior management or lecturers. I was upset at the Senate. They could have chosen to support us and didn’t. I mentioned them every chance I got. They weren’t happy. They had never been under such close public scrutiny before. Some threatened to quit.

I was in my living room, hunched over my desk, when we heard we had won. It was nerve-wracking, I was allowed to watch the senate meeting, held over MS Teams, but I couldn’t participate as I wasn’t a member. Our student reps spoke on our behalf. The vote had been split into three sections, for a different part of the policy. Each section was overwhelmingly voted through. When the outcome of the third vote was announced I sprung up out of my chair, yelling and cheering so loud my flatmate came running through. I cried and hugged her and cried some more. Immediately, I got a call from the campaign team, and I popped a bottle of prosecco, celebrating with them. I was elated and overcome with so much emotion I couldn’t pick one to hold on to. It had all been worth it.  

Thank you so much for reading my story and I really hope this helps you! You can follow me over on Instagram @nat_cat_reads   

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