The people power of Populus

The Saint speaks to Sam Ross about the founding values and success of Populus this academic year.

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Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf
Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf

Populus is one of St Andrews’ newest societies and has made a big splash in its inaugural year. The society was founded in June 2016 and gained considerable momentum at Freshers’ Week in September.

Populus is unique in that it counts all matriculated students as members. This was a deliberate decision made with the aims of showcasing the inclusive nature of the society and boosting its name recognition, and the decision seems to have paid off.
You have probably seen the countless Facebook posts advertising events, signs outside the Mansfield building welcoming you in for a chat or even made new friends over conversation cards and coffee at one of the society’s events.
The Saint sat down with director and founder Sam Ross to discuss the inspiration, relevance and future of Populus.
Populus began as an organisation that aimed to combat loneliness at the University. Ms Ross recalled feeling quite isolated in her first year at St Andrews. Overwhelmed by the wide variety of events and unsure of what her niche was she decided in Spring 2016 to do something about it, and Populus was born.
Populus’s executive committee consists of seven original members who helped get the society up and running. What began as a group committed to the idea of combatting loneliness at the University has evolved into a committee filled with specific roles.
Further to this executive committee, Populus also boasts a Volunteer Force and a Hall Panel. For students looking to get more involved in Populus these are a great place to start.
The Volunteer Force is very accessible as anyone wishing to join it can simply turn up at a Populous event and seek out a committee member. Moreover, there are a vast range of duties that include everything from making hot chocolate to facilitating conversations.
Ms Ross remarked that the volunteer force is integral to the success of Populus and makes a significant contribution to the society. Students looking to take on more responsibility can seek out a position on the Hall Panel. Each hall of residence has one or two representatives who act as a liaison between the society and their residence.
The Hall Panel is responsible for organising Populus events within their hall, further increasing Populus’s accessibility to students and helping at Populus events alongside the volunteer force.
Ms Ross urges any student wishing to get more involved in the society to simply message the Populus Facebook page or her directly to learn about ways in which they can meaningfully contribute to the society.
“Sheer Simplicity” has been the foundation of the society’s success, according to Ms Ross.

“There are no strings attached to what [they] do, no hidden costs, and nothing to be afraid of,” she added, stating that when she plans an event she first asks herself if it something she would like to go to herself. As long as the answer to that question is yes then there are bound to be students who would get something valuable out of the event.

Ms Ross also noted that both she and other members of the society’s committee understand what it is like to seek professional help simply because they did not find their niche at university right away. One of the greatest motivations for her and the committee is to eliminate that feeling among students year after year.
For anyone who is yet to attend a Populus event, they can expect a warm greeting outside the Mansfield Building, usually by Ms Ross herself, followed by conversation with new friends and copious amounts of hot drinks.
The famous conversation cards act as icebreakers spurring thought-provoking discussion on topics ranging from what meal you would prepare for President Obama to an individual’s greatest achievement. Ms Ross stated that there are “over 6,000 of them. Some are themed, some are just plain random conversation starters.”
One of her main ideas, which motivates the work that the society does, is that student loneliness at St Andrews can be combatted, to put it simply, with kindness.
Ms Ross remarked that, “through collaboration and just being nice, listening and having a conversation we might make someone’s day just a little bit better.
It’s important to remember the small things in St Andrews — it is so easy to write off a day as bad just because of small things, but we foster meaningful and fun conversations which can brighten someone’s mood, and that’s what I live for.”
When asked what the most satisfying moment of her involvement in Populus is, Ms Ross, said that it is bringing happiness to others.
However, she could not choose just one singular moment, stating that every time an event is successful, a new person joins the mailing list, she recognises a regular attendee or when a student says an event made their week a smile lights up her face.
In our discussion both the future of Populus in St Andrews and Ms Ross’ vision for the society as a whole came up, and her ideas were both enlightening and in some cases unexpected.
Ms Ross believes that Populous will continue to pick up momentum in St Andrews and that each year fewer and fewer students will feel lonely or isolated as a result of the services Populus provides.
Moreover, following on from the enthusiasm that the students of St Andrews have shown for Populus, Ms Ross hopes to broaden the work of the society. She said, “loneliness isn’t just for Christmas and it equally isn’t just students who have felt this way. We’re opening up to the community, and are looking to expand into other Universities too so that we can reach out to more people.”
She added, “Through a lot of research and a little bit of elbow grease I could see this occupying much of my life.”
Loneliness is a universal problem, and students all over the country struggle with it. It would be ideal if Populus’ successes in the St Andrews community could spread to other campuses.
There is no doubt that Populous’ presence at the University has had an enormous impact on student life. However, when asked to pinpoint the way in which the society has had the most profound impact on students, Ms Ross pointed to the mere presence of the society.
Expanding on her point, Ms Ross remarked that Populus provides a safety net of sorts for those in need of it.“It is everything I needed in my first year,” she remarked.
Populus provides a place to go, a set of friends, and a chance to find your niche for students from all walks of life within the St Andrews community. Its inclusive and flexible nature means that nobody is too intimidated to get involved and that students can use its services as and when it suits them. Whether you are a regular attendee well versed in conversation cards and coffee or had never heard of the society before this article, the Populus team will welcome you with open arms.
If you are eager to check out a Populusevent they will be hosting a give it a go with Taekwondo. For up-to-date information on event times and locations, check out their Facebook page.

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