365 days to make a difference

Three alumni from three different decades reflect on their time as Sabbatical Officers shaping Students’ Union UCL and the student experience

Illustration of a orange building with people in the windows - 2 people are holding placards to stop the war, and in the other window, 1 person is working, whilst the other is playing table tennis

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

What is a Sabbatical Officer?

Elected Sabbatical Officers are hired by Students’ Union UCL to improve students’ day-to-day lives. They attend important meetings with senior university leaders to make sure students’ voices are heard, and are drivers of big changes on campus.

What is a Sabbatical Officer?

Elected Sabbatical Officers are hired by Students’ Union UCL to improve students’ day-to-day lives. They attend important meetings with senior university leaders to make sure students’ voices are heard, and are drivers of big changes on campus.

What is a Sabbatical Officer?

Elected Sabbatical Officers are hired by Students’ Union UCL to improve students’ day-to-day lives. They attend important meetings with senior university leaders to make sure students’ voices are heard, and are drivers of big changes on campus.

Photograph of Lord McNally wearing a smart suit and tie and smiling at the camera

Lord Tom McNally
(UCL Economics 1966)

Following a divisive election campaign the previous year, I ran for President on a platform of ‘Let’s unite the Union’. I’d already been President of the Debating Society and Chairman of the Central Athletics Board, so I knew my way around the place. Old politicians like me remember their votes. I won by a margin of 965 to 640. The outgoing President said, “Tom’s just a sportsman. He’s not political at all.” How wrong he was.

UCL was in the grip of the swinging 60s and had an atmosphere of great tolerance, freedom of ideas and anti-war protests. We used to host Saturday-night hops featuring fantastic bands such as The Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. I will never forget facing off an angry mob of teenagers who were desperate to get in. Another highlight was persuading former Prime Minister Clement Atlee to come and speak to around 800 students, who packed into the Upper Refectory.

Becoming President was life transforming. Just before getting elected, I’d been interviewed for a management training course at ICI and things could have turned out very differently. What I valued about the Union was that it’s run by the students. You had to make decisions and even stand up to the Provost, as I did on several occasions in support of students who had been disciplined by their departments. I reminded him that we were a union and we had rights. Being President gave me a range of experiences and responsibilities that I have been able to draw on throughout my political career.

Lord McNally is a former Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a vice-president of the Debating Group.

Lord Tom McNally
(UCL Economics 1966)

Following a divisive election campaign the previous year, I ran for President on a platform of ‘Let’s unite the Union’. I’d already been President of the Debating Society and Chairman of the Central Athletics Board, so I knew my way around the place. Old politicians like me remember their votes. I won by a margin of 965 to 640. The outgoing President said, “Tom’s just a sportsman. He’s not political at all.” How wrong he was.

UCL was in the grip of the swinging 60s and had an atmosphere of great tolerance, freedom of ideas and anti-war protests. We used to host Saturday-night hops featuring fantastic bands such as The Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. I will never forget facing off an angry mob of teenagers who were desperate to get in. Another highlight was persuading former Prime Minister Clement Atlee to come and speak to around 800 students, who packed into the Upper Refectory.

Becoming President was life transforming. Just before getting elected, I’d been interviewed for a management training course at ICI and things could have turned out very differently. What I valued about the Union was that it’s run by the students. You had to make decisions and even stand up to the Provost, as I did on several occasions in support of students who had been disciplined by their departments. I reminded him that we were a union and we had rights. Being President gave me a range of experiences and responsibilities that I have been able to draw on throughout my political career.

Lord McNally is a former Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a vice-president of the Debating Group.

Lord Tom McNally
(UCL Economics 1966)

Following a divisive election campaign the previous year, I ran for President on a platform of ‘Let’s unite the Union’. I’d already been President of the Debating Society and Chairman of the Central Athletics Board, so I knew my way around the place. Old politicians like me remember their votes. I won by a margin of 965 to 640. The outgoing President said, “Tom’s just a sportsman. He’s not political at all.” How wrong he was.

UCL was in the grip of the swinging 60s and had an atmosphere of great tolerance, freedom of ideas and anti-war protests. We used to host Saturday-night hops featuring fantastic bands such as The Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. I will never forget facing off an angry mob of teenagers who were desperate to get in. Another highlight was persuading former Prime Minister Clement Atlee to come and speak to around 800 students, who packed into the Upper Refectory.

Becoming President was life transforming. Just before getting elected, I’d been interviewed for a management training course at ICI and things could have turned out very differently. What I valued about the Union was that it’s run by the students. You had to make decisions and even stand up to the Provost, as I did on several occasions in support of students who had been disciplined by their departments. I reminded him that we were a union and we had rights. Being President gave me a range of experiences and responsibilities that I have been able to draw on throughout my political career.

Lord McNally is a former Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a vice-president of the Debating Group.

Illustration of a orange building with people in the windows - A group of people are recording a talk with microphones and a desk and two people are working in a bar, pouring drinks and working the tills
Photograph of Sharon Robinson. She is wearing a black and white printed shirt

Sharon Robinson
(BSc Genetics and Botany 1983; PhD Plant Biochemistry 1990)

By the time I was elected President in 1983, I had already been heavily involved in Students’ Union activities, including campaigning against the UK government’s recent introduction of full fees for overseas students. When I look back now, it’s astonishing the confidence that you have as a young person. Not only did I speak in front of academic boards and panels, but a group of us even went to parliament to talk to MPs. As President, I would also have tea with the Provost every few weeks to discuss problems that needed addressing across the university. It was there that I learned what you can achieve by influencing behind the scenes in a way that you can’t by just protesting.

I felt a real sense of responsibility for the students. During my time as President, I was also the Academic Liaison and Welfare Officer, and students would come to my door asking for help. Once, I had to go to an immigration centre near Heathrow to assist a student who was being deported. Meanwhile, as part of the Union Executive, I was also overseeing the Union building and its two bars, which is where I met my partner, who was then the bar manager. We also organised a packed schedule of events, a highlight of which was inviting Germaine Greer to speak to a full house at Bloomsbury Theatre.

After a hectic year as President, I was elected to the National Union of Students as an Executive Officer, where the campaigning against racism and Apartheid and on women’s issues vigorously continued.

Sharon is an Antarctic researcher, executive director of the University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program and a science facilitator for Homeward Bound, a leadership programme for women in STEMM.

Sharon Robinson
(BSc Genetics and Botany 1983; PhD Plant Biochemistry 1990)

By the time I was elected President in 1983, I had already been heavily involved in Students’ Union activities, including campaigning against the UK government’s recent introduction of full fees for overseas students. When I look back now, it’s astonishing the confidence that you have as a young person. Not only did I speak in front of academic boards and panels, but a group of us even went to parliament to talk to MPs. As President, I would also have tea with the Provost every few weeks to discuss problems that needed addressing across the university. It was there that I learned what you can achieve by influencing behind the scenes in a way that you can’t by just protesting.

I felt a real sense of responsibility for the students. During my time as President, I was also the Academic Liaison and Welfare Officer, and students would come to my door asking for help. Once, I had to go to an immigration centre near Heathrow to assist a student who was being deported. Meanwhile, as part of the Union Executive, I was also overseeing the Union building and its two bars, which is where I met my partner, who was then the bar manager. We also organised a packed schedule of events, a highlight of which was inviting Germaine Greer to speak to a full house at Bloomsbury Theatre.

After a hectic year as President, I was elected to the National Union of Students as an Executive Officer, where the campaigning against racism and Apartheid and on women’s issues vigorously continued.

Sharon is an Antarctic researcher, executive director of the University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program and a science facilitator for Homeward Bound, a leadership programme for women in STEMM.

Sharon Robinson
(BSc Genetics and Botany 1983; PhD Plant Biochemistry 1990)

By the time I was elected President in 1983, I had already been heavily involved in Students’ Union activities, including campaigning against the UK government’s recent introduction of full fees for overseas students. When I look back now, it’s astonishing the confidence that you have as a young person. Not only did I speak in front of academic boards and panels, but a group of us even went to parliament to talk to MPs. As President, I would also have tea with the Provost every few weeks to discuss problems that needed addressing across the university. It was there that I learned what you can achieve by influencing behind the scenes in a way that you can’t by just protesting.

I felt a real sense of responsibility for the students. During my time as President, I was also the Academic Liaison and Welfare Officer, and students would come to my door asking for help. Once, I had to go to an immigration centre near Heathrow to assist a student who was being deported. Meanwhile, as part of the Union Executive, I was also overseeing the Union building and its two bars, which is where I met my partner, who was then the bar manager. We also organised a packed schedule of events, a highlight of which was inviting Germaine Greer to speak to a full house at Bloomsbury Theatre.

After a hectic year as President, I was elected to the National Union of Students as an Executive Officer, where the campaigning against racism and Apartheid and on women’s issues vigorously continued.

Sharon is an Antarctic researcher, executive director of the University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program and a science facilitator for Homeward Bound, a leadership programme for women in STEMM.

Illustration of a orange building with people in the windows - 2 people are shooting a programme with lights and a video recorder and another person is working at a desk on their computer, with a Black History Month poster behind them
Photography of Shanell Johnson. She wears a purple scarf and a grey hat

Shanell Johnson
(MSc Project and Enterprise Management 2017)

When I saw the job specification for the Union’s (and the UK’s) first Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Officer, it felt like it was written for me. I would have done it unpaid. Using my campaigning experience as a founding member of the National Black Youth Forum, I began the new role with a five-point plan around increasing the number of Black students and professors. I had 365 days to make big changes and I marked them out on the calendar, because every day was a day that I couldn’t waste.

I managed to push boundaries by posing difficult questions, most crucially with the campaign ‘Why isn’t my professor Black?’ During my tenure, I made a music video called Just 85 Professors, referring to the then-total number of Black professors in the UK. Actions like these sparked a discourse within UCL, not just around race but also women and class. We conducted a huge research project with the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education (then known as the UCL Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching) around these issues, and I am proud to say that all the recommendations that came from the report are still implemented at UCL today. I’m also proud of the work I did on getting the university to rethink the way that it teaches about eugenics.

So many of my actions still have a legacy now. You can’t change the culture overnight, but you can plant some seeds.

Shanell is a management consultant specialising in government projects and stakeholder engagement.

Shanell Johnson
(MSc Project and Enterprise Management 2017)

When I saw the job specification for the Union’s (and the UK’s) first Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Officer, it felt like it was written for me. I would have done it unpaid. Using my campaigning experience as a founding member of the National Black Youth Forum, I began the new role with a five-point plan around increasing the number of Black students and professors. I had 365 days to make big changes and I marked them out on the calendar, because every day was a day that I couldn’t waste.

I managed to push boundaries by posing difficult questions, most crucially with the campaign ‘Why isn’t my professor Black?’ During my tenure, I made a music video called Just 85 Professors, referring to the then-total number of Black professors in the UK. Actions like these sparked a discourse within UCL, not just around race but also women and class. We conducted a huge research project with the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education (then known as the UCL Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching) around these issues, and I am proud to say that all the recommendations that came from the report are still implemented at UCL today. I’m also proud of the work I did on getting the university to rethink the way that it teaches about eugenics.

So many of my actions still have a legacy now. You can’t change the culture overnight, but you can plant some seeds.

Shanell is a management consultant specialising in government projects and stakeholder engagement.

Shanell Johnson
(MSc Project and Enterprise Management 2017)

When I saw the job specification for the Union’s (and the UK’s) first Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Officer, it felt like it was written for me. I would have done it unpaid. Using my campaigning experience as a founding member of the National Black Youth Forum, I began the new role with a five-point plan around increasing the number of Black students and professors. I had 365 days to make big changes and I marked them out on the calendar, because every day was a day that I couldn’t waste.

I managed to push boundaries by posing difficult questions, most crucially with the campaign ‘Why isn’t my professor Black?’ During my tenure, I made a music video called Just 85 Professors, referring to the then-total number of Black professors in the UK. Actions like these sparked a discourse within UCL, not just around race but also women and class. We conducted a huge research project with the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education (then known as the UCL Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching) around these issues, and I am proud to say that all the recommendations that came from the report are still implemented at UCL today. I’m also proud of the work I did on getting the university to rethink the way that it teaches about eugenics.

So many of my actions still have a legacy now. You can’t change the culture overnight, but you can plant some seeds.

Shanell is a management consultant specialising in government projects and stakeholder engagement.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.