The Student sat down with Kai O’Doherty, Edinburgh University’s Students’ Association’s VP Activities and Services (VPAS) to discuss their position and their goals for the year.
Previously the LGBT+ officer on campus, what made you choose to run for the VPAS?
“I wanted to run for the role because I have a lot of faith and interest in what societies do. It’s always where I found most community and helped to figure out what I wanted to do outside of school. I was impressed by how much we do here at the Students’ Association with over 280 societies at the university. I was interested to see what I could bring to help bring societies together and to really take advantage of inter-society collaboration.
“I saw how useful it was to get together a bunch of groups as LGBT+ officer that didn’t necessarily work together before, and how much of a better experience we were able to have by bringing together different groups to work on events we had. Seeing how great that was, I was able to use my skills to bring people together. I really wanted to do that as a full-time officer.
“And I also have a lot of experience in activism in Montreal and here. I really see a lot of potential in what societies do to change bigger systems. I kind of wanted to be able to elevate the campaigns that societies are working on, as well, to be able to better connect them to the resources and opportunities of the Students’ Association but also to elevate them to university lobbying as well.”
How do you plan to implement what you learned in your previous position as a VP?
“Really, in the LGBT+ officer position, being able to see the multitude of societies that have existed and how we could work together is something that I’m definitely bringing to this role. I worked with specific societies but also, moving beyond those, and I worked with the LGBT+ society, BLOGS. But there are so many LGBT+ people across societies that I think it’s important to realize that we don’t need to only organize based on LGBT+ issues, but also based on how those issues intersect with so many things people are working on.
“Specifically, what I brought from that role is working on the issue of gender neutral toilets and whether they’re available, in our venues or in the university.
“I also think it’s really important to have visibility of queer people and trans people like myself. So from what we know, I’m the first sabbatical officer at this university to be a trans person. Across the country, across the UK, there are not many sabbatical officers who are trans people. It’s about that kind of visibility of work we do that goes beyond our circles as well, which is really cool.”
How do you plan on achieving your goals as VP?
“My three main objectives this year are inter-society collaboration, reducing barriers to access for activities for students—there are a diversity of reasons for why people may not be able to access activities—and generally improving services.
“We have a new activities representative system this year so each of our categories of societies has a rep. I’m working closely with all of them to try and elevate what their objectives are and what they’re working through. It’s a really great team. It’s really exciting to see people being super engaged and trying to get their societies to work together. We’re also working on a “skill-swap platform.”
Can you tell me more about the “skill-swap platform”?
“For years, students have said that they within their own societies might lack a skill or that they were really good at a skill and they’d want to share between societies. The platform, which is being piloted this semester, allows for people to show whether they have skills such as first-aid training, the ability to drive larger vehicles, website making or coding, and to ask for the same.
“If anyone wants to use it, they can get in contact with me, since it’s in its pilot stage right now. Connected to that ethos is making a few how-to guides. Creating guides in collaboration with the university Students’ Association and societies will help people who are starting initiatives.
“In terms of reducing barriers to access, I think that being able to be involved in activities is crucial for student experience whether that be finding new friends, getting peer support, getting ideas for interests outside of their degrees. It can be costly to be a part of a society. And that’s not necessarily membership fees. That’s also people going on trips, needing a certain kit, and the cost can really rack up.
“We have a participation grant, started last year and we’re continuing it this year. The grant is ten thousand pounds for folks in activities and sports. However, that is currently limited to undergrad participating students from the UK. But what I ran on was also looking at how to help international students, parents and caretakers, and post-graduate students who traditionally don’t feel that they can access activities.
“For improving services, we’re working on gender neutral toilets in our facilities and food waste at the university.”
How does this position align with your academic, job-related, or personal interests?
“I mean policy sounds really boring but I find it really interesting. It’s this idea that in order to change issues that have systemic roots, we need a combination of grass-roots activism and solutions for bigger change, which I think policy is good for.
“Looking at this example of food waste, we could think about how implementing a program requires a long-term strategic look. Policy accounts for legal liabilities with health and safety, and can be discontinued if ineffective. I think my combination of academic policy interests and personal activist roots really come to a great combination in this role because I work with student groups who have interests in whatever topic I’m working on.”
With everything in mind, what do you foresee will be the greatest challenge of your role as VPAS?
“We do a lot of work over the summer, setting up a lot of what our goals are. One of the challenges is having a narrower scope. I’m working on a lot of projects all at once, and I think I can handle it. But there is a risk with anyone who has this kind of job of trying to do too much at once. As someone who has been involved in the past, it’s like, suddenly I’m being paid full-time to do it, so there’s so much more.
“I think the biggest challenge is that it’s only a year. Systemic change is slow when trying to get enough grassroots support when students only come in September and take a while to get started. Being able to do that in one year is difficult. Looking at how we can make this change sustainable through policy [is] what I think is the key solution.”
“If I were to emphasize one thing for students who want to get involved, I would really love support on working on gender neutral toilets. We are going to be launching bigger campaigns around that, within the university, but also looking at national legislation around it. So, anyone who’s interested in working with me on that, I would love to have their support.
And on this food waste thing, it’s a big campaign, so any societies and individuals who are interested in food sustainability, please come on board.
As an aside, if you’re in a society and you feel the Students’ Association hasn’t represented you or helped you in what you need, get in touch because I’m happy to see what I can do.”
There’s an obligatory question I have to ask you. In your time here, what would you say is your best night out?
“What I would recommend is an event that is happening in two weeks. One of my manifesto points from my campaign for VPAS was to create, along with the current LGBT+ officer, an LGBT+ club night at the university. On Friday, October 27, at the Teviot Underground, we’re launching CRUSH, which is the LGBT+ club night. The Big Cheese has existed for ages but some students don’t feel that’s the space for them. CRUSH will be happening as a monthly event, so I’m really excited to see that come into fruition and for it to expand to include various performances and maybe Drag Night as well, so I’m really excited for that.”
Image: Edinburgh University Students’ Association