From the moment that nominations closed for Association President at last month’s student elections, it was clear there would only be one winner. Combining a mix of sensible and aspiring policies with a compassionate and caring personality, fourth year English student Jamie Rodney from Glasgow swept all before him. He beat the incumbent Paloma Paige and fellow challenger Josh Stevens in the first round of voting, securing over 50 per cent of the total vote. As President, he will have to tackle issues such as the closure of Out of Hours services in St Andrews, the Universal Credit campaign, and the HMO ban. But before he takes on these tasks, he still has to finish his last ever undergraduate essays. Taking a break from the library crush, Rodney sat down with The Saint to discuss his path to presidency and plans for next year.
It speaks volumes about Rodney that when asked to give an overview of his extra-curricular activities as an undergrad, he only details the ones he is “proudest of”. He played a prominent role in the team that got Srdja Popovic elected as Rector. He has also been highly involved with Amnesty International’s St Andrews student branch. Perhaps his proudest achievement is setting up and running St Candrews, which collects for Storehouse North East Fife, the main food bank in town. He said, “We’ve collected a couple thousand items, mainly food, but also other household goods over the past few months. We’ve actually just chosen our new committee this week, it’s a little bit emotional handing over.”
However, Rodney is cautious to paint himself as an activist. He said “I’m slightly wary of the term, it’s got connotations of handcuffing yourself to barriers or hurling abuse at politicians through a megaphone, which isn’t really me.
“I prefer campaigner because it implies being part of something bigger than yourself which I think is one of the big things students at St Andrews have going for them, this kind of collective identity, this idea that we have each other’s backs. Obviously, there are barriers to that, due to some of the elitism here and due to some of the unique challenges folk with chronic mental and physical health conditions have. That idea that we’ve got each other’s back is really important and if I achieve one thing as president, I hope it’s entrenching that.
“Because we’ve got such a small student population, it’s much more difficult to ignore these problems that are going on. Obviously, some folk get more involved than others. Unless you and your entire social circle are really, really lucky, it’s very difficult to be here and not know anyone who’s dealing with some kind of problem. I guess natural human empathy is that we want to help out of friends. Once people start standing up and speaking about their problems, generally speaking, folk start to buy into that.”
All this campaigning has shaped how Rodney views St Andrews. “On the one hand, it’s made me angry about a lot of things which I guess is important. On the other hand, I think it’s given me more of an appreciation of what people-power can achieve. While obviously there are and have been ongoing problems with how the Union and the University work, some of the stuff I’ve seen fellow students here achieve has been absolutely inspiring. That’s right up from a friend of mine who set up a group chat for folk having mental health issues which helped out a lot of people in tough circumstances, right to the great work Paloma [the current Association President] has done on the Universal Credit Campaign or Nick [Farrer, the current Director of Wellbeing] with the Out of Hours GP service campaign.”
However, this image of Rodney as a prominent campaigner helping out those in need has not always been a feature of his time at university. He said: “While I’m quite involved now, when I was in first year and for the first part of second year, I couldn’t have told you who most of the sabbatical officers were. I didn’t leave my room a lot, I didn’t really involve myself in a lot of things. Partly because I am a type-one diabetic, partly because of things going on with my mental health.
“I was in this really weird place of on the one hand being pretty miserable – I thought about dropping out quite a lot – and on the other hand being really, really annoyed at the way things go on. The third part of it is me being completely ignorant about why things were the way they were. That sort of motivated me to get involved in stuff. Looking back, it wasn’t necessarily the healthiest reasoning but mid-way through second year I was like ‘right I’ve screwed up my time in St Andrews, I’m not going get anything out of this, I may as well try and help other people’. Looking back this is a) extremely unhealthy and b) extremely arrogant statement to make in second year.”
When asked if there was any one moment when he decided to change his approach to University, Rodney replied, “When I was in first semester of second year, I was at my lowest point: I was thinking pretty hard about dropping out, I had been actively and passively self-harming; I was peripherally involved in a few things; I had sabotaged a lot of the relationships I had been in. On the morning of the EN2003 exam, I threw up on the way there and obviously had to defer. I started talking to other people who had had similar problems and realised a) problems were quite widespread here and b) people had problems that were much more severe than mine but, like me, hadn’t given up and hadn’t retreated into things. So more out of shame than anything else I started involving myself in different projects and speaking to people who were having problems with how the University worked.”
Whereas Rodney’s turn to campaigning can be neatly seen originating in this defining moment, his drive for presidency was a longer-term aspiration. He had been thinking about running since the end of third year, but had only started the necessary planning at the end of September. Nearly seven months later, Rodney is now in the handover process for the very job he sought. He said “I’ve been to Joint Council meetings, I’ve sat in on interviews for different subcommittees and stuff, I’ve had the opportunity to speak quite a lot to Paloma about the process so far and she has been incredibly professional and helpful about the whole thing and that’s made it much easier. It’s been really positive so far. I am really looking forward to it.”
Rodney’s time working on Srdja Popovic’s campaign team proved to be a vital experience in his own efforts. He said “Obviously the position of Rector is very different from the position of Association President and Srdja being a much, much bigger personality in every sense of the word than I am, we had a bit more freedom to run a more ‘memey’ campaign. I think the main thing I learned from Srdja’s campaign is that if you want to run a successful campaign, it can’t be about you; it has to be about the people whose problems you are trying to solve. That’s what I tried to achieve with the campaign.”
One particular facet of Rodney’s presidency campaign was his use of social media. At over 650 likes, his Facebook campaign page was by far the largest page of any person campaigning for an elected position. Creative infographics, manifestos, and small videos were all shared there. Supporters were photographed with the famous woollen hat that became a symbol of his campaign. Rodney even documented himself dumping a bucket of sea water on himself next to West Sands as part of a pledge to get more people to like the page. The only reason he did not go in the sea itself was because he was advised not to by his diabetes clinic in Glasgow.
Rodney said, “While I am quite confident in my ideas and can be reasonably persuasive at times, I knew it was quite likely that whoever it was I’d end up running against was going to have the edge in terms of public speaking. I am not a natural public speaker. I figured if we can’t communicate as well as the others will be able to in that way, we can communicate in other ways. Social media was a big part of that. Moving from tactical concerns, we figured that you can learn much more and read much more in-depth about ideas and policies online than you can get from a two-minute speech or a thirty-second answer. Even if we don’t win, getting those ideas and concerns out there would be helpful, so social media was a really important platform for that.”
Rodney was certainly at his most engaging when he was talking about his main passion: helping people. When asked what his realistic expectations were for next year, he said, “There’s only so much that can happen in one year. Problems with widening access are ongoing ones and people are going to have to keep pushing for it for as long as we have a university here.
“One thing I think we can realistically change is fix St Andrews’ image problem. That can happen in more practical terms. At the moment it’s unnecessarily unclear about where you can go to get bursaries, what you can do if you are having money problems. I complained quite a lot about during this campaign. For example, we have an orientation app for incoming freshers, [and] there’s a whole section there on student finance. Last year there was nothing about bursaries for that whole section. Given the price of accommodation here and given the high cost of living here, knowing there are bursaries here and how to access them is quite important for allaying concerns that students from less well-off backgrounds might have. Also, it would be great if we could increase the number and availability of bursaries, but that will be a longer-term project.
“As well as that, I think we need to find, again this is maybe a more long-term thing, we mentioned the idea of students having each other’s backs being a really powerful thing. I think if we — we being the Union — try and relay and promote that sort of idea. For example, the Universal Credit Campaign was set up by Sandra Mitchell and now it’s a proper national campaign. If it’s successful, it will remove one of the biggest barriers to education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds across the whole country. Putting aside the fact that that’s a really good thing in itself, being able to say that St Andrews was the place where that happened because we’ve got each other’s backs, because we as a students’ Union listen to students, I think that would go some of the way to getting rid of the elitist reputation we have.”
Finally, Rodney addressed some of the cynics who say that student politics does not matter. He said, “If you look at what Paloma has achieved this year, she has helped the Universal Credit Campaign happen, obviously Sandra’s the one who started it up, but it couldn’t have come to national prominence without Paloma. If you look at the GP Out of Hours campaign, that was largely led by the Students’ Association. Marks Out Of Tenancy, again a Student Association initiative. If that takes off next year, and I’m hoping I can make sure it will, then that means students will have much more power holding bad landlords to account. The problem with ‘Union hacks’ like myself is not that we don’t do anything, it’s that we are not as good as we could or should be at communicating to other students about why what we do is important and how they can get involved if they are not satisfied with it. Obviously fixing that is better said than done.”