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Olimpia Burchiellaro



What is your background?

I’m Italian and I’m studying Anthropology and Politics. At SOAS I was captain of the Women’s Football Team, Secretary of the Italian Society, and have been involved with ADD and with the Student Reps. Before SOAS I was a rowdy teenager with too many ideas and too few tools to enact them.

What are the two most pressing issues facing students on campus today?

I think one of the most pressing issues today is the move to North Block. I think this is a time where the student union, AND the student body especially, need to keep their eyes open and be aware that this is a time when a lot of decisions are being made and we MUST have a say in them. Let’s not allow SOAS management to use the summer, exam period etc… as an excuse to cut us out of a crucial decision-making process which will affect our spaces; the JCR, the SU space, the shop etc…

The fact that in 2015 there will be a lifting of the cap on student intake for all universities in England is also a very pressing issue. This ban, which is part of the wider process of liberalising higher- education, could actually mean that courses may be over-subscribed deteriorating student-experience and course-quality. I think this issue is worthy of attention as we must keep on putting pressure on management not to see universities as merely a business but to actually keep up and improve the student experience not merely treating students as £9000 tokens.

What are your top priorities in this role?

One of my top priorities is to continue pushing for something resembling a 24-hour library. I am aware it is an aim that the SU has been trying to accomplish for a while now, yet I don’t think that makes it redundant. I think the introduction of the new class officer will put additional pressure on making sure that student who have full-time jobs during the day can access the library during the night. There are issues with funding, I’m sure, but issues with funding tend to be problems of prioritising, and if the student body believes that a more nocturnal library, perhaps just during exam period, perhaps only extending closing hours, is one of them, then we need to continue pushing.

Another priority is that of actually making our spaces safer. Ironically, with all this talk of ‘Safe Space’ we have forgotten that a policy is not what makes spaces safe. What makes spaces safe is us, as peers and as students. What makes spaces safe is respectful politics and thoughtful opinions. This goes in tandem with making student politics generally more approachable by a number of students who perhaps may feel apathetic and intimidated by the adversarial mood of UGMs. The democratic procedures are in place, but the partial participation of students is definitely a problem that must be tackled to democratise SOAS politics as a whole.

How can the union improve as an organisation representing such a diverse group of students?

The Union has done a lot this year in terms of representation, ‘Democratise SOAS’ being one of its main assets. I think the challenge now is to make the forum more intersectional, having a wider range of issues discussed (alongside Justice for Cleaners and staff pay and pension schemes). Bringing more issues to the table will definitely be more representative of the student body whilst also increasing participation in the forum (I’ve attended ‘Democratise SOAS’ and have always been a bit disappointed with the turnout given what a wonderful opportunity it provides to get involved).

Once again, another improvement to be made in representing the student body is to actually focus on making sure that we get rid of the adversarial mood of UGMs yet without shutting down debate. It is a well-known fact that the same people always show up at the UGMs, and a lot of things get decided during these meetings.

What is the most important quality for a member of the union executive to have?

As a union executive, my job is to be a shoulder to lean on for the whole student body. Yes, I have political views, yes I have opinions, and it would be naïve to claim that they can be transcended completely. Yet, I believe a union executive in capacity of representative must be diplomatic and open-minded. A union representative would be arrogant and delusional to think that they had all the answers. My job is to give students all the means they need to organise, to make their voices heard, and fight their battles.

Another important quality is persistence, or rather, be the most annoyingly motivated person ever in the eyes of management, be the last thing they think about before they go to sleep, be what they fear will come up to their desk every morning with more information as to what the student body wants and thinks and needs. (sorry I know this is more than one quality). If I could encapsulate it in a word: persistently (and as humanly possible) diplomatic.

How would you increase student participation in union proceedings? [i.e. UGMs, elections etc.]

The main problems with UGMs at the moment are a limited access for people with mental and physical disabilities, a limited attendance, and an adversarial mood during discussion. All these problems tie in with each other. The opening of the North Block will definitely provide openings for redressing them, especially in terms of space for people with physical disabilities. A working group was set up and i definitely think that creative and pragmatic suggestions will be brought to the table. Most importantly, I would address the implications of the pro-con speaking format for the ability to express more ‘nuanced’ opinions. Deconstructing motions, asking questions, as well as having pro and con speakers, would definitely reduce the adversarial mood. Online voting was proposed but i think, at least in terms of UGMs, it would reduce the great potential that debating brings to the democratic table.

If you could invite any three people (alive or dead) to a party, who would they be?

Noam Chomsky, Audre Lorde and Francesco Totti.

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