Dr Barrie Shannon is a past NUPSA Vice-President and LGBTI Representative, a researcher in the field of education, and a newly-minted PhD!
For most of my PhD candidature, I was involved with NUPSA in one way or another. It all began when I answered an email in 2015 advertising the vacancy of the LGBTI Representative, and after meeting the Executive and the staff, I signed on for the role. I didn’t really know what I was in for.
Most of the positions on the NUPSA Executive are what you make of them; there were not really any concrete requirements beside showing up to Executive meetings and submitting a monthly report on your activities. To this end, I watched many students come and go – some who committed all of themselves to their role on the Executive, and others who committed very little.
In most cases, it wasn’t fair to pass judgment too harshly on those who could not manage very much. After all, except for the President, none of the Executive got paid. Also, as postgraduates, we all know the deal. If you are reading this at all, you are probably a PhD or Masters student who is putting off something much more important.
I like to think of myself as one of those who gave a lot to NUPSA, and I am proud of the role I played in in helping shape the organisation. I joined NUPSA at a crucial time, when the leadership was actively trying to move away from being a messy clique of petty undergraduate-style student politics toward what it ultimately stands as now: a well-functioning student advocacy body that speaks up, that works constructively with the University, and that runs dozens, if not hundreds of events a year for postgraduate students who are frequently overlooked. At the risk of looking like I am stirring the pot, I truly believe that at the end of the day, out of all of the student associations, NUPSA was by far the most successful in providing its services to students.
It’s difficult to boil down my four-or-so years with NUPSA to a set of reflections, but I think I have settled on a few experiences I feel resonated with me the most. First, I wanted to share one of the things I am most proud of. Though I can’t claim sole credit, I feel I played a central role in developing the size and scope of Pride Week, the University’s annual celebration of queer culture.
When I started my role with NUPSA, Pride Week was a small park fair and some gatherings planned by and for an exclusive group of students who regularly inhabited the NUSA Queer Space. Working with a series of competent and imaginative NUSA Queer Conveners and the Equity and Diversity Coordinators, Pride Week has become an institutionally recognised celebration with a crowded calendar of events variously hosted by NUSA, NUPSA and the University. Over the past few years, the University has agreed to fly the rainbow flag following a full year of pushing from myself and the then-Equity and Diversity Coordinator. I think that this symbolic gesture demonstrates that the University takes queer issues much more seriously now than they perhaps used to. At the very least, the size and visibility of Pride Week demands accountability.
The second major benefit of being involved with NUPSA were the friendships I was able to develop. I would not have been able to do achieve anything in my role on the Executive, or as a PhD candidate, without the support of my friends. I’ve become close to the NUPSA staff and members of the executive I served alongside, one of whom I consider among my very best friends. Doing a PhD can be very lonely. Most of the students I met were, like myself, the first in their family to pursue postgraduate education, lived away from their families and did not have a network of friends who knew the unique stresses and challenges associated with PhD candidature. Being involved with NUPSA made the process much less lonely, and a lot more fun. I can’t recommend getting involved with your student associations highly enough for this reason alone.
The last thing I wanted to write about concerns the personal growth and skills I developed through my association with NUPSA. I matured a lot by connecting with other postgraduate students, both on the Executive and in the broader membership. Though our candidatures and degrees are all personal journeys in some ways, getting to know others pulled me out of my insular focus on my own trajectory. I bore witness to others’ successes and joys, but also their failures and pitfalls, which most of the time were not the personal fault of any student. Being involved with NUPSA required being attuned to the broader national conversations about the value of postgraduate degrees, the dire mental health statistics for PhD students, the exploitation of research students and about the soulless extraction of economic value from international students. Having been involved with both the major student associations, I think that this is what sets NUPSA apart: their solid, foundational commitment to understanding and improving student issues, rather than carving out fiefdoms and playing parliament in the sandpit.
Developing responses to these issues required research, planning and action. My involvement with NUPSA allowed me to have input into how the organisation would try to improve student lives, and I was able to sit on working groups, plan projects and present research findings at national and international conferences. The brightest memory I have of my time at NUPSA was presenting collaborative research on improving campus climate for queer students at the 2019 ANZSSA Conference in Dunedin, New Zealand, and watching the President and the SRSO present a separate NUPSA initiative as well.
As fun as it was belting out ABBA on the drive between Dunedin and Te Anau, where we took some time to practice, I remember feeling immense pride that NUPSA was doing so much and doing it so well. I was also grateful, as without NUPSA I never would have had these kinds of opportunities at all. The skills required to do my job at NUPSA sharpened my own research and writing skills, and this was to the benefit of my PhD thesis, despite the scolding I copped from my supervisors for spending too much time preoccupied with NUPSA business. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
It’s bittersweet watching NUPSA, as we know it, wind up. But I believe we have set a strong standard as to how student representation is supposed to be done: with focus, discipline and purpose.
I wish all future student representatives the best of luck.