Hillary Gyebi-Ababio (BSc 2019) was elected Vice-President (Higher Education) for the National Union of Students last summer. She is the former Undergraduate Education Officer for the University of Bristol’s Students’ Union and a passionate advocate for education. Here, Hillary reflects on how students have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and how the national student body are responding to these major global issues.
I come from a family of teachers. My Grandad and my Mum were both teachers in Ghana. For my Grandad, education is a fundamental human right and one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and others. When my parents first moved to this country, my Grandad was insistent on us getting a good education. I don’t come from a privileged background, but my parents put a lot of work into making sure my education allowed me to be free, seek opportunities and inspire me to go for what I was really passionate about. When I think about my career, I think about my family and these foundational principles.
My family always taught me to work hard and strive for what I believe in, so when I was elected as Vice-President (Higher Education) for the National Union of Students (NUS) in June 2020 they were very proud. The NUS supports over seven million students from across the UK. It has been both exciting and challenging starting this job in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is difficult starting a new job from home, particularly such a personal one as this one where I give a lot of talks to students and government figures. Ultimately, though, it has been so inspiring and hopeful to be surrounded by such an empowered student body. By working in the student movement, you are at the forefront of some of the world’s major issues. Students are passionate about and deeply aware of what is going on in their society. Students bring about change in really powerful ways and it is truly inspiring to be a part of that.
When I first came to the University of Bristol, I thought of everything in absolutes. Learning from the syllabus and suddenly having access to the most amazing resources, I started to explore so many different perspectives from different sources of information. I was able to learn and unlearn in a way that was really important to the person I am today, and the person I am becoming. Higher education gives people the opportunity to gather all their knowledge and experience and begin to wrestle with it. It is important because it gives you the space to form who you are and what you believe in. It teaches you not what to think, but how to think, which is so powerful.
I have felt a strong sense of grief for young people who have been so impacted by the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. My job connects me with a lot of students who are feeling uncertain about their futures. Work experience opportunities have been postponed or cancelled and their longer-term job prospects have been jeopardised. Black students have felt the deeply traumatic reopening of the wounds of racism. Responding to the Black Lives Matter resurgence as a Black woman, I have been speaking on behalf of students and on behalf of myself and that can be challenging. When speaking to national and government figures, my own experience does add a personal element to my speeches and that humanity is really important when we are trying to figure out things that sometimes feel bigger than us or beyond our comprehension.
The student movement has responded very quickly to some of the major issues happening in the world today. There is a lot of social change happening and students are galvanised. In its uncertainty and obscurity, COVID-19 obliges us to look and dig deeper, to seek the information that is out there but easy to ignore. The student movement, and education more broadly, is talking about decolonisation, racism, dismantling barriers and structures that have stopped people from being able to thrive. This is meaningful and important work. Higher education can be hugely transformative to the way society operates.
Higher education does, however, still have a long way to go in terms of making everybody feel empowered. Coming to Bristol, I started to become more aware of my race and my identity. I was a Black woman in a space where there weren’t many other Black women. There weren’t many people who looked like me, or who were teaching me. Having to grapple with that is a very confronting experience but it’s something that many students experience at university. You are made to look at yourself in a way you haven’t had to before. This hyper-awareness that came about during my time at university pushed me to educate myself more on the implications of race in everyday life and to better understand structural and interpersonal racism. It gave me the push to educate younger students about the implications of race and the more I understood about it myself, the more I enabled myself to dismantle those structures.
Gaining insight and advice from Bristol alumni was a turning point for me that galvanised me to proactively seek change and develop my career. Chanté Joseph (BSc 2018 and Winner of the Vice-Chancellor’s Alumni Award in 2019), for example, was in the year above me doing the same degree in Social Policy. I saw another Black woman pushing the boundaries so fearlessly. Izzy Obeng (BSc 2014), Managing Director of Foundervine, who like me sits on the Alumni Association Committee, was very inspirational. Seeing another Ghanaian woman being so innovative in her field was empowering.
Alumni are informed, experienced and validated by the institutions they come from. They have a deep awareness of what has come before them and they have the hindsight to reflect on their own experience and share their insight. Alumni can be a beacon of light for students. They advise, mentor and welcome a new generation of students. Students are going through an incredibly difficult time right now, but as alumni we have the agency to create change for them through our support and guidance.