Studying for a PhD in French Literature, whilst it may seem a time-consuming business, has not deterred Dani Berrow from also becoming Postgraduate President, a role she describes as a “kind of Freddie-Amanda-Jules all rolled into one.” As the highest representative of the some 2,000 postgraduate students here in St Andrews, she caters for everything from teaching to entertainment and accommodation, a position involving numerous meetings of student councils that full-time Sabbatical Officers would normally attend.
Our interview, held in the Union, hopes to illuminate the woman who has now spent nearly six years in our seaside town: her PhD specialisation, a French author who worked so hard she “must have had her quill glued to her hand,” reflects the impression of her own dedication to the cause, though belied by the relaxed and open demeanour with which she welcomes me.
I ask her about the greatest challenge she has faced so far in her year: “The nature of my role has changed from what Holly [Patrick] was doing last year – it’s become quite an expanded role.” The University is on a drive to “bring more emphasis to the research that postgraduates are doing,” mirrored by efforts to increase postgraduate student numbers, as well as the re-launch of St Leonard’s College as a research graduate school.
A lack of postgraduate attention was what originally drove her to take up the role: the “shocking” lack of an official induction for postgraduates reflected her “feeling that there wasn’t the same support available compared with undergraduates”.
She is passionate about putting on more social events for postgraduates, listing an extensive array of balls, trips, cocktail parties and Bops: she enthuses about the St Andrew’s Day Ball, a “complete sell-out”, as well as the “fab” Summer Ball. However, it is no walk in the park organising postgraduate entertainment: the St Andrew’s Day Ball in November, despite some people treating it as their Graduation Ball, was not organised by the Association, and she received barely enough money to cover the venue alone, which could only fit 300 people. “I think some people felt almost cheated out of the chance to go, and we had to point out that it wasn’t an official Graduation Ball.”
We move to her thoughts on the interaction between postgraduate and undergraduate students: “I’d say they’re healthy. The thing with postgrads is that they can be such a cross-section: you have some people who are maybe Master’s students who see their course as a continuation of the undergraduate studies and are not sure what to do next, while others are maybe mature people with kids, and it can be really difficult to bring them all out and get them together in one place.”
She talks of the “weird limbo” as a PhD student who teaches first-year modules: “you’re not necessarily comfortable running into students in the Union – not in a negative way, you just don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.” One example, she laughs, is of an intoxicated French student who came across her one night and felt mortified at not appearing to be doing any work – “I think sometimes people forget that you’re just another person!”
She is keen to base more events in the Union, as part of a need to make postgraduates aware of the variety of activities available to them: “When I was in my first year, I spent a lot of time explaining to postgraduate students, particularly Master’s students, that it’s really great here, when they were saying ‘Well, there is not that much happening’, and I was like ‘No, there is! There is stuff happening all the time!’”
Her role as President, whilst “intense”, she appears to take great pleasure in, since it allows her the “feeling of being really involved” which she did not have during her undergraduate years here. Her enthusiasm for the seaside town, a world away from her native Cardiff, is boundless, as is her commitment to her Presidential role: her declaration that “I know it sounds corny, but I just really love St Andrews!” speaks volumes. Her ability to cope with this demanding, varied and time-consuming role is impressive, even if she light-heartedly adds that: “I should probably start my PhD soon!”