Build a Students’ Union of Collectivism and Individualism

(Image: York Vision)

I write this as a person who has various aspects to my identity. I was a YUSU Sabbatical officer – the Academic Officer, one of the two international students, three BAME students and two post-graduates in the Sabb team. I used to be a part-time officer with the Graduate Student Association. I’m a postgraduate student and graduated with a Masters of Science in Cyber Security in 2023. 

I am a person of colour, a proud international student (Indian) and a practising Hindu. Whenever my Mum rings, she always checks whether I have been going to temple and always rings on Holy days to confirm that I am wearing the right clothes or eating the right food. 

I am a lover of music- both Bhangra or Punjabi dance – and have enjoyed listening to British music, such as learning Sweet Caroline while watching football.

I am an explorer and an adventurer. A favourite adventure was seeing Ullswater in the Lake District. The lake was huge and the snow coming down around the mountains made for a beautiful view. I love cricket and enjoyed watching the Women’s Rugby World Cup and football for the first time.

All of these aspects, and many more, are important to me. They are part of my identity and who I am.

I distinctly remember first arriving at York. I was excited about the adventure I was undertaking, exploring a new country 4,000 miles from home. I was also nervous. My first night here another student approached me and sparked up a conversation with me just as I was wondering how I would make friends. 

Jannat was of Pakistan origin. Back home in India there is a history of border tension between the countries but here, in York, the geopolitics of home seemed irrelevant. We were looking for friendship and adventure as well as a little bit of home comfort. That first night Jannat cooked a biryani, beef-free but packed with interesting spices. I was so reassured by her friendship and warmth, her cooking and the fact that I wasn’t the only person who felt different. That first evening gave me the confidence that my study in York could offer me both elements of home and respect for my own individual identity, as well as a chance to discover new things and great adventures.

In many ways that experience has led to many more. While I reassure my Mum that I still respect the Hindu holidays, I have also tried a Christmas turkey with Shauna and her Christian family, and made lots of international friends who are now family to me. I joined cricket teams and watched the T20 game between Pakistan and India with a room of people from many countries. I danced Bhangra just as I danced to pop in Flares!

Some of the richest learning came from exploring other cities, from trying different food – fish and chips, chicken pie with strange green leaves and no masalas! I learned from attending various new events – including Wicked, the musical. 

But I also needed the comfort of home, the safety of a community that looked like me, spoke my language, shared my religion and food. Many of my closest friends are Asian. During Sabbs Come Dancing I chose to perform my beloved Bhangra. My favourite food is still my mum’s incredible fish curry with spices that instantly take me home to West Bengal. 

Through my time in York, I learned to blend my faith, my course, my nationality, and my colour with the realms of university-wide differences and celebrations of diversity. In this way, the new student’s union faces a similar challenge, to create something that has the benefits of collectivism and diversity while enabling the differences and individualism we all bring to York.

As a postgraduate and an international student, I enjoyed the benefits of both GSA and YUSU, but also felt a little confused by how to navigate it all. I am determined that students should have their own place that understands their identity as well as doors opening into interactions with others. A single union can explore differences as well as spaces to be reminded of home and feel the warmth of people with shared backgrounds. 

Creating a single students’ union should be exciting. They preserve the power of collectivism – that students can feel part of something bigger, can experience both new things and find comfort. It should make students’ voices more powerful because of its cohesion and size and diversity. A single union should be cost effective because of its cohesive buying power, therefore savings can be passed onto students. If a single union is stronger, has more variety, and is more responsive this helps all students. 

No more wondering whether a post-grad can attend a YUSU event, or whether an international undergraduate can go on a GSA trip. No more uncertainty over whether you should turn to YUSU or GSA for advice. All students can pick and choose which events to attend, which societies to join, which campaigns to participate in, where to get advice, what sport they want to play depending on their own personal interest and identity or simply how they feel that day!

Some of this evolution has been happening for a while. The growth in postgraduate, international and BAME students in YUSU is overdue and is important. The range of combined YUSU and GSA events and activities or campaigns is improving with joint work on accommodation and self-certification campaigns, joint events like the Holi festival, or the collaboration of the Student Expert Panel and the Middle Ground projects.

If we can all build a union that takes the best of the GSA, the best of YUSU, brings them together and also creates new endeavours – such as non-alcoholic venues, an International Officer and further pushes for equality, diversity and inclusion – this will prove to be a very exciting time for the University of York and it’s students.

I want to reassure anyone anxious that change might narrow the breadth of opportunities or create a mono-culture, that I, and you, will not allow that. Students have always worked hard to create new societies, run campaigns, showcase BAME talent, celebrate holidays, diversify menus and make the collective power and diversity of our unions. 

As long as they continue bringing their passionate uniqueness and different worlds of backgrounds, the student community that makes up and votes for the elected representatives of UoY will ensure a wonderfully collective union and a secured space for diversity and individualism.