1 Corinthians 16:14: “Do everything in love’
I have tried for weeks to sit and write this as a forensic assessment of my time in office. I could sit here and list off my achievements – many of which I am incredibly proud of - but the profound change this period has had on me seems to eclipse all the policy I have changed, all the fights won for students, and cabinet members I’ve met and negotiated with. I don’t think I will truly understand the gravity of the past two years for some time yet, and in many ways that may be a good thing.
I make no secrets of myself, of my motives, or my reasoning. I know that I am ‘radically honest’ (or ‘uncomfortably direct’). I know that people have judged me on this before getting to know me. But the world feels safer this way. On such a small campus, there is often too much avoidance, too many whispers, too many rumour mills and not enough negotiations, conversations, and consensus-building. In an online world this has worsened. I have always believed in ‘saying what you mean and saying it with your chest.’ I believe in inviting those who speak ill of you in, sitting down, and talking. I believe in frank conversations. I believe in allowing students to be angry (and who can blame them right now?). I believe in taking that anger and holding it. I believe in finding the root cause and doing our best to fix it, even if the cause is yourself.
And I think that these beliefs, this absolute faith in honesty, in removing the filters of class, and hierarchy, and ceremony, I think they’ve worked. My colleagues at the Guild and even senior staff in the University have noted a culture change. And I really hope that this continues. We just need to talk. We need to be honest.
If we refuse to shine the light on something that is imperfect because we fear judgment and rejection, we can’t ever improve.
And often, we are so overwhelmed by the amount of work it would require, the attention needed to fix all the deep structural injustices, that we so often choose to run away, hide our organisational flaws and failings behind in shiny, but empty, metrics of success that we’ve designed, so we can easily meet. I hope, in some part, I’ve shown that we don’t have to do this. That we need approach our mission with love that no matter if things aren’t perfect or if we can’t win something. If we serve our students with love, and give them the opportunities to grow, to develop, and to change us, we all better for it.
Our students are so incredibly talented. Every day I am taken aback by their talent and compassion. Every single problem at Exeter: racism, sustainability, loneliness, gendered violence, rent, and many more I haven’t space to mention, is met with a tsunami of students who wish to help. And I am so grateful to have had an opportunity to love them so deeply. The students here make it easy to love them. I spoke in campaigns, all that time ago, about the love I felt when we reached out and spoke to students.
I know things haven’t always been easy, I know I’ve been on the receiving end of some abuse. Some people will always be cruel because the problem isn’t with you, it’s with them. One of the best things I have learnt from this role is to remove myself from mess. You do not have to tolerate disrespect. You do not have to engage. You do not have to explain yourself to people committed to not understanding you.
This doesn’t make me sad, though. We’re are all just trying to get through, using the tools we have to with what skills may accompany them, to muscle through this thing called life. Traumatised people lash out. An ex-Guild President once told me that ‘hurt people hurt people,’ and it’s important to remember that. People will shoot you down when they can’t find the strength to fly themselves. When you step back and see it like this, you cannot help but love them, even the people who try to hurt you.
And here’s the thing, if love is the constant then everything is stable. I have been open that oftentimes I crave stability and belonging. I know the empty space birth families leave and I have sought to fill this for others lest they, too, feel how heavy and cold it sits, as it has sat inside of me. And yet in all this instability of pandemics and bombs, lockdowns and industrial action, campus closures and bereavements, I have felt the most stability I have ever felt in my life. It is a stability that seems so delicate that I think if I touch it, it might crumble. And yet, always ever persevering.
I am a better person now. Better than I was two years ago, better than I was two weeks ago.
It takes darkness, and a long walk through shadows and the corners of our soul to realise that these things are a part of us as well. For the first time in my life I came somewhere as my full self. And I was loved for it. Sometimes we just find those special people – or in my case, entire cohort of students, - that can see the light beneath all darkness that’s been piled up, who understand that we are broken and imperfect and yet still accept us. I barged into this role an anti-establishment outsider with all my dropped Ts, tattoos and cussing. But how lucky am I to have found a home here, with people who love me in all my messy realness, who love me even when I find it hard to love myself.
I think, what I am trying to say is that you don’t have to achieve sector-leading results (although – we did haha), you just have to arrive every single day and do the best you can, for the most people, with the information in front of you. Be yourself, fully and without apology. You don’t have to do everything. But everything you do, you should do with love. And when you love, people will feel it.
I have thought, and researched, and interviewed belonging so much. It’s become somewhat of an obsession. How can we put this into metrics? How does someone rate how much they belong? Who decides who belongs? So many students I’ve spoken to – from every demographic – tell me that they don’t belong here. It is heart-breaking. Even when I have interviewed students who seem to fit the traditional Exeter student model, they tell me they don’t feel that they belong here. From my research, sense of belonging seems to rise when students give something back be it volunteering, or a society, or work with the local community. And I would encourage all to try and get involved. But, I cannot seem to pin down anyone who actually feels that they do belong automatically. I’m Guild President and I don’t even feel that I belong here! It’s lead me, in an exhausted state realising that I belong at Exeter because I am at Exeter. It is that simple. I can’t teach it because it’s a feeling. But I promise it is that simple.
You belong here because you are here. And we love you.