Recently elected as Vice President (Higher Education) for the National Union of Students (NUS), Hillary Gyebi-Ababio (BSc 2019) has taken remarkable steps since running as Undergraduate Education Officer for Bristol’s Student Union.
Empowered by her new role and inspired by an increasingly vocal national student body, Hillary shares unique insight into her experience at Bristol, the importance of her role on the Alumni Association Committee, and the integral role she believes alumni have in shaping the University and student experience.
Congratulations on your new role at the NUS. How is it going?
If I was to describe the experience so far, I would say it has been exciting, emotional and hopeful. It has been exciting because we have been able to respond so quickly to major global issues, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a lot of social change happening and in my new role, where I give a lot of talks to national and government figures, I have been given the platform to respond quickly.
Over the past few months I have felt a strong sense of grief for students and young people who are really impacted by the pandemic, and for this reason it has been emotional. For Black students, the wounds of racism have been opened up in traumatic and painful ways. As a Black woman, it has been empowering for me to speak to these issues but it has also been challenging.
It has been so hopeful too. If it wasn’t for this role, I would feel powerless to be able to effect change in the ways I am most passionate about. I’ve come into the role and I do not feel alone, which is amazing. I am surrounded by an amazing team. Even more so, the students are getting involved and speaking up and that is so inspiring for me.
You’re a member of the University of Bristol’s Alumni Association Committee. Can you tell me how you got involved with the Committee?
I joined the Alumni Association Committee through curiosity! When I started at the University of Bristol, I wasn’t really aware of its alumni. I knew Bristol was a good university, but I didn’t realise we had so many influential figures and people I was able to resonate with. It was when I started as Undergraduate Education Officer for the Students’ Union, that I got an inkling for some of the amazing alumni-led initiatives, such as the Bristol Mentors programme. I really wanted to be involved and learn about this community of people that help shape the University.
As a student, it was really valuable for me to learn that Bristol’s alumni community is made up of a diverse mix of people. Seeing recent graduates especially, such as Izzy Obeng (BSc 2014) for example, who also sits on the Alumni Association Committee, was so inspiring. Like Izzy, I come from a Ghanaian background and seeing a Ghanaian woman being so innovative in her field was just amazing. It was so empowering to know she exists in the alumni space. Other students can really benefit from this too, knowing that there are alumni that look like them and come from similar backgrounds. As someone who didn’t see many other people that came from my background or my circumstances, it was important for me to get involved with the alumni.
I want students to know that there are possibilities open to them, that they can be ambitious, actively participate and strive for positions.
How can, and how do, our alumni community support the University?
The more students can meet alumni from all sorts of different backgrounds, career paths and interests, the more students will feel empowered and like they are part of their university community. Coming to Bristol on the Open Days, Bristol struck me as a place where a lot of great social change was happening. It really made me feel like there were people here already, and people who have come before them, who have paved the way for me to be able to come into this space. It made me feel like I can actually play a part in shaping the University to be my own. That is what alumni can do – and do already – welcome students and encourage them to believe in themselves.
In terms of progression and future, there can be a lot of support for students to get through university. Sometimes it can be harder when you graduate and you are out in the big wide world. Alumni provide that stepping stone. People from the alumni community can connect you to the places you want to be in, the spaces you want to exist in and work in and that is incredibly important. Career support and mentoring is invaluable to students going into the world of work.
How did your time as a student at the University of Bristol shape you?
I find myself mentioning Bristol a lot in the talks I’m invited to give! When I left my role as Undergraduate Education Officer at Bristol’s Students’ Union, I felt like I was leaving Bristol in a place that was ready to make real and meaningful change. The Students’ Union was my home and I have to champion it everywhere I go!
As a Black student, however, there were times during my studies when I felt excluded, unheard and unseen. For me, as a Black woman, I used to be worried about talking about race and its intersections with my gender. I was worried that if I rubbed someone up the wrong way, for example, it would be awkward seeing them again. Seeing people in the years above me and those who had already graduated gave me the fuel to keep going with my degree. Chanté Joseph (BSc 2018 and Winner of the Vice-Chancellor’s Award in 2019) was in the year above me and the work she was doing was so inspiring. I saw somebody who was also a Black woman doing the same degree as me pushing the boundaries constantly and doing it so fearlessly. Seeing her and people around her do such amazing things gave me the confidence to keep going. It demonstrated to me that I can be in this space and generate change. Alumni were really important in paving the way for me to feel more confident and empowered.
There’s something freeing about being part of the alumni community. You’ve got your degree, you’ve got the proof that you were there and you got through. As alumni you have the authority to reflect back to your university in a meaningful way because you are a part of the community. Being able to come with new and fresh perspectives on what’s going on in our world and how change can be meaningfully implemented is an amazing privilege of being alumni. Being part of the Alumni Association Committee allows me to do this.
The Black Bristol Scholarship is a new £1 million commitment from the University of Bristol to support Black and mixed-Black Heritage backgrounds at every level of study at Bristol. Why do you think extra support for Black students is important?
Finances are a big part of the barrier for Black students accessing Higher Education. This Scholarship is hugely empowering and gives students the opportunity to continue their education without having to worry about the financial burden of study. It is really important Black students know that the University is fully committed to supporting them, not just to get through university, but to enjoy the full and rich experience of it.
The moment you empower and enable students, you give them agency and ability to bring change, feel included and feel valued in their communities and safe in the knowledge that they can enjoy university in its fullness. This Scholarship tells Black students they are supported and recognised.