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In Conversation with… Hillary Gyebi-Ababio

21 June 2022

Jenny Shaw speaks to Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, outgoing Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), about students, community and her time at NUS.

Accommodation Matters: In Conversation’ is a 3-episode podcast mini-series, showcasing in-depth discussions with 3 Higher Education sector experts about their experiences, sector insights, and what they anticipate for the future.

Hear Hillary’s thoughts on community-building, student accommodation, student-led initiatives, and reflections on her two years at the NUS in this thoughtful and insightful conversation.

Listen through your preferred podcast platform, or below through our Podbean channel:


Conversation transcript

Jenny Shaw: Hello, and welcome to Accommodation Matters: In Conversation – an opportunity to take a wider view of our sector and to learn more about those who influence it. I’m Jenny Shaw, Higher Education External Engagement Director for Unite Students.

With me today is someone who just over two years ago promised to bring energy, drive, and vision to the role of Vice President of Higher Education for the NUS, and she has absolutely delivered on that promise! Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, welcome to the show.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio: Thank you so much for having me on, and it’s great to be here. It’s funny that you talked about the energy and the passion and the drive, because I definitely still have the passion and the drive, but I think I’m at the time of my term where I’m just a bit like, “Where was sleep in the past two years?” I’m excited to get some rest soon and have somebody else bring some more energy, passion and drive – but it’s really, really lovely to be on the podcast today.

Jenny: So, tell me about students themselves. I think a lot of us talk about students, think about students, write about students, in my case. In your words, talk about what a student looks like, who they are, what they want.

Hillary: I really do love students, and I think they’re some of the most inspirational and powerful people that I have the privilege of working with and for. How would I describe students?

The first thing to say about who students are and what they’re like is they’re some of the most visionary, inspirational forward-thinking people that I’ve ever come across. I often meet really great people that have been doing work for years and years and years and I think that’s fantastic, but sometimes when you sit around the table or sit on a Zoom call in the past two years, most students, you often hear about things and ideas and approaches that sometimes just blow you away. They’re some of the most impactful and visionary people that I meet and they often inspire me in all sorts of ways. More than just the work that I’m doing.

I would also say that students are a really diverse group, and I think that’s perhaps why I enjoy them so much. You never meet two students that are the same. You meet the traditional student who’s an 18-year-old, leaving, sixth form or college, going to uni and carrying on their educational journey in a linear way, but you also meet mature students who are some of my favourite, because they have life stories to tell. You meet care leavers and estranged students, and sometimes they have really, really difficult stories about how they’ve had to navigate the challenges that have come across their lives. I find that so interesting.

I have the privilege of being able to be paid to listen to students talk about things that they’re interested in and things that they are passionate about. When I hear students speak about alternatives to supporting students with mental health or what it might look like to create communities and belonging in their communities, it’s such a wonderful space to be in, where you see such a diverse group be able to come together and collaborate and create friendships and communities.

I think in a nutshell, students are probably some of the greatest people you’ll get to meet. People can look in the mirror and see that in themselves. I think everyone’s a student, as long as you are learning formally or informally – you’re a student. That puts you into the group of incredible people, who have lots to think about, and lots to say, and lots of change to make.

Jenny: That’s a lovely way of looking at it. I was really struck by what you said about that sense of community and belonging and students being able to articulate what that looks like to them, because I know that that’s something that’s of great interest to people within the student accommodation sector.

Are you able to share some thoughts or some ideas maybe that have come to you from students, how are students articulating what they need and what they would like to see?

Hillary: I think the sense of belonging and student communities has probably been the defining thing of the space that we’re in the student university education sector. Lots of students have spoken about difficulties of the traditional experience of going to university, and that change of pace, change of environment sometimes, but also how that environment needs to change from what it was traditionally built to look like.

Recently, the Living Black at University report – which you know better than I do – that brought out lots of things around things that even I was saying as a student. I think about my experience as a Black woman who went to university and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into entirely, but had a mixture of experiences that really shaped my time to get me where I am today. I didn’t really intend to become a national student rep. I went to university thinking that I would do my course, because I was interested in it and then convert to law and be a lawyer.

You go into accommodation and that’s where you meet your first friends or the first people that give you a taste of what it’s going to be like being at your university, and you often start to build up what it’s like to be in a space of people from different backgrounds and understanding what it looks like to navigate those spaces.

Some of the things that I’ve heard from students have been negative experiences and you’ll hear about that more if I’m being completely honest, around what it’s like to experience microaggressions, what it’s like to not feel like you’ve got an accessible space or a place where you can really feel like you can be comfortable and belong. What it looks like to be in an environment where you might be able to have the things available that make you feel like you can settle in and call that place home, even if it’s temporary.

Some of the things that I think have been most powerful coming out of that is that the discourse around mental health and how it’s linked to accommodation and the student experience has been really impactful. I’ve seen lots of student groups really harness what it looks like to have those conversations in a way that brings communities together and really gets them to speak candidly about what their experiences are like, but also figure out ways about navigating what it looks like to tackle those challenges and then create communities that are cross-cultural and mixed and powerful, because they’re an amalgamation of people from lots of different backgrounds.

This has really shaped up initiatives that you see at universities now that look at culturally competent care and how you do mental health support in a way that isn’t just about access to services, but embedding that within the university experience. What do we do that goes beyond punishing people that cause harm – but how do you educate people to understand how harm can be caused and how harm can be reduced and, even more so, prevented and overcome? Students are shaping what spaces look like to be inclusive, accessible, diverse. I see this in how universities do their capital projects and thinking about how we actually build physical spaces that students feel at home in.

When I was in Bristol we built a student living room, and so students could go there and literally they could just relax and chill and do whatever they wanted to do in that space and really feel at home. It’s simple things most of the time, some of the biggest things that you see students influencing or shaping. I think it’s had an incredible impact on their lives.

Jenny: Yes, absolutely. As you’re talking, I’m thinking it just all comes down to that psychological safety and that feeling of being at home which is what I think all of us in the accommodation sector really want to deliver.

As I’m going around talking about the Living Black at University research I’m getting asked, “So, how do we create that? What does that look like?” You’ve talked about the living room, which is a really lovely example of creating those spaces. You’ve also talked about bringing communities together to have those conversations. You’ve talked about harm reduction, educating people. Are there any examples that you can give that would give a flavour of what ‘good’ looks like or some promising examples that you’re seeing across the country?

Hillary: I think there’s a few to go around and I would preface this by saying that a lot of the time these good examples are happening in ways that are non-formalised. You don’t see students necessarily put a name to a project that they’re doing; they just do it.

I think one of the really great ways that that’s happening sits with some of the work that I’ve seen happen when I was at Bristol. I saw students come together to create spaces that were dedicated for students from certain communities. As I was leaving Bristol, there was a group of students that started this project called Black People Talk: they now work with Student Minds really closely and it’s a great project that, everywhere I go, I have to talk about it. I think it’s just an incredible piece of work that has now turned into a community interest company.

It’s a great thing that people can get involved in. What it was created for was so that Black people from different backgrounds could come together and start talking about their experiences in a way that wasn’t about relaying trauma. They’re just leaving a space feeling really emotionally burdened and emotionally exhausted, but they could come together have those conversations and then choose what it looks like to be able to articulate that outside of that space having a dedicated safe space where they could have their space to talk, but then being able to articulate that in ways that really enabled other communities to understand their experiences.

You always hear me talk about Black People Talk, because I think it’s a great project that’s being run by great people and definitely something that people should get engaged with.

I also think that this is happening in ways that are connected to activism, but I think it’s been great to see how people have come together over things like climate justice for example and people have come together to recognise that climate justice goes beyond those individual actions and actually looks at how you do community. You see lots of students talking about, “How do we do global work? How do we connect to students not only in our universities, but also internationally to create communities to come together to tackle some of the big issues that are going on in our world?”

When you have those times where students come together in societies or come together to do this activist work, they often become friends, and then what you see is in a really lovely wholesome way people would have pot lucks and dinners together. I know that faith communities have done this really well in bringing people together. Jewish Societies have always been really open – they often opened their Friday night dinners up for people to come and learn about Judaism and the Jewish community. I think that’s been wonderful! The Muslim community have lots of activities that they run during Ramadan or even outside of that, to bring people into those communities.

Jenny: They’re all such interesting examples as well and very much touch on something that I’ve been picking up over the last maybe six months or more – about the interface between a place where students can feel safe and maybe where it’s a bit more homogenous, and a place where everyone can feel safe in their difference and be respectful and understanding and inclusive. I think that’s something that pops up quite a lot, particularly in accommodation. It comes up in conversations about how we should allocate people, the events we should put on, whether we should be trying to teach students when they first come into accommodation about respectful behaviours and so on.

I really like what you were saying about that having a safe space so you can work things through, but then opening that up and looking at how then you’re creating an inclusive community. I’m just wondering if you’ve got any thoughts about what that might look like to accommodation professionals. Is there something that’s helpful to do to help that process?

Hillary: I think it all starts with thinking about, “How do we start off by making it accessible?” I only say this because often you’ll find that student communities start to become siloed when you think about accommodation, allocation and affordability.

I went to a Russell Group university so I have a very distinct example of this: you had the halls that people that had much more income or much more privilege were able to afford or go to, because there was a historical traditional background to it, but also there was an affordability complex. There was a real divide are people that will stay in the more expensive, more traditional halls and people that will stay in the cheaper more affordable ones. I think for accommodation professionals there’s something about affordability and how that has an impact on what student choices are when it comes to accommodation.

I think that’s a really big deal when understanding students aren’t choosing accommodations just because they think it’s the fanciest one or the coolest one. They’re doing it, because they’re thinking about where can they live knowing that they can afford food and energy and activities and stuff like that. I would always start on that point: accessibility, through things like affordability and cost of living.

Those are very central, but I also think that there’s something around how we use accommodations to really be hubs of community building. How are we making sure that that mix is in more than just in flats? I feel like we overcomplicate it for ourselves. Sometimes thinking that we need to put on these big events and slap a logo on it and be like, “This is for a sense of belonging. Come and meet all of these diverse people.”

I really enjoyed at my accommodation that at one point in the year we had this festival, you could just have fun with other people. You weren’t being bogged down by the heavy stuff as your initial point of meeting, you could just bond over having fun. I think sports is a really good way of doing that as well. Those are some of the ways that I think are really important and impactful.

I definitely see it happening, and for accommodation providers, I think what you are doing now by learning and understanding experiences is always the best place to start and then equipping and resources students to build those solutions with you are probably the best ways that you start to build those community hubs and build that sense of belonging in a really holistic way.

Jenny: That’s a really good, clear message. You touched on mental health earlier on, and I have to say that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen over the last 10 years in terms of both students and the awareness within accommodation. Have you got any thoughts on that? What work have you been doing on that?

Hillary: I started university probably when the mental health crisis was at its peak. Back in 2016, I remember coming to university and just hearing really visceral stories of what it looks like for mental illness to become very pronounced and prevalent. I had my own experiences in university and student communities.

I think those are really difficult areas to navigate, especially when often people don’t have the literacy or the vocabulary to be able to speak about mental health in a really simple way. You don’t really speak about it at school, you don’t really speak about it outside of those spaces. I think perhaps universities are places where that becomes very overt. People start speaking about it exactly as it is.

Mental health is addressed in lots of different ways. I think there’s some of the important things that need to be there as a standard: access to services, and being able to have support in and around accommodation. I was one of the last cohorts in Bristol to have wardens alongside Residential Life staff, and I knew I could trust in that space and that access to services – ResLife staff on hand that are properly trained in mental health first aid, but also understand how to approach it for different communities.

I also think that, when we think about mental health in regards to accommodation, all of it is built up into a picture of lots of different dynamics. It’s around our students being able to live and thrive whilst they’re in their accommodation. If they’re struggling to pay rent, I don’t think students are doing many student activities. A lot of the time they’re working part-time jobs trying to afford to live at universities. I think that needs to be addressed to really think about mental health.

I do think there’s a thing around destigmatising what it looks like for people to have or struggle with mental illnesses and really breaking down the stigmas around that, especially in my community and for people of colour. I can speak about being a Black person and my mental health – the way that it’s spoken about when you first get to university isn’t the way that we speak about it in our communities.

Often when we try and talk about mental health in a way that only really speaks to one type of community, one that has spoken about it in one way for a very long time, people feel shut out of that process. Not everybody can speak about their mental health in ways that are linear or can be talked about in very exact ways. I grew up in a way where mental health was talked about very much through your experiences, you would speak about it and how it would make you feel through non-tangible interactions that you had.

How was it experienced in terms of your experiences of racism? How was it experienced in terms of how you access your learning and what it looks like to be involved in that? What does it look like when you are in a flat where you are the only one from group of people that you are part of?

I think when it comes to tackling mental health, especially through accommodation, there’s something around: what does it look like for staffing in that accommodation? What are the roles of people in those spaces? Are the staff members diverse in a really authentic way? What does it look like when we do allocations? When we have people from, for example, faith background, are we giving them spaces to be around people from similar backgrounds? They can really feel that sense of community on a faith perspective.

When we’re thinking about race, are we doing it in a way that is allowing people to know that there are people that look like them and have similar experiences to them that are in close proximity to them, no matter their income bracket that they’ve fall in, and therefore the halls that they’re in? Is there a way that we’re doing mental health initiatives? How do we do it from a place where we get them comfortable with speaking and talking about and accessing services, way before a crisis hits?

Jenny: It really opens it up a little bit, I think, certainly in terms of the way we think about how we might respond to student mental health issues, I think it has gone from something that was quite reactive, towards something that is a little bit more proactive. I think ‘culturally competent’ is something I’m taking as well from what you’re saying, because you have people from many different communities, different faith, different ways of thinking about mental health – I think you’ve illustrated that really beautifully.

Hillary: I think there’s a lot about communities as well. Because sometimes you’re not really able to draw out where people are starting from to really understand what it looks like to have preventative care right before it gets their crisis. That often when you get into communities, that’s when you start to draw out how people are really experiencing things.

When I joined my Afro-Caribbean society, I met people that looked like me and could validate my experiences that made me be able to be open about speaking about mental health. Communities are really vital in that. I am grateful to see that shift to proactive rather than reactive care, because I think that’s what needs to be at the heart of any initiative that we do around mental health.

Jenny: Absolutely. You’ve mentioned that you’re coming to the end of your time as a National Union of Students (NUS) officer. Can you say something about the work that you’ve been doing over the last two years? Is there something that you are most proud of?

Hillary: I would probably start off by saying that when I ran for this role – two years ago, now – I didn’t anticipate that this would be the environment I was doing this role in. I was very much like, “If I get elected, I’m going to be the travelling vice president. Nobody’s going to see me in one place. I’m going to be with students everywhere that they are.”

But obviously, all of us got interrupted by the pandemic and dealing with the really serious impact of that. My past two years has been filled with a bit of firefighting, which is usual for a student officer – but also, more firefighting than usual. I didn’t realise that I would have to clue myself up on public health and pandemics. It wasn’t in my mind that that would be my main focus, but then also, I came into an organisation that was freshly reformed. Me and the team that I’m in, we really had to build a new way forward about how we wanted to set this new foundation for the NUS.

The past few years, we’ve been campaigning on student support, mental health, sexual violence, and looking at a new vision for education. That was really about solidifying some of the core things at the heart of NUS around free education, about accessibility, about lifelong learning, about decolonisation, and really doing diversity properly. Then we did a whole decolonisation project and really focused on how we do anti-racism, and more specifically in liberation in a way that is intentional and embedded rather than tacked-on.

I probably think the thing that I’m most proud of in these past two years is the fact that I think there’s been a real vulnerability in humanness to the way that we’ve been working and responding to the needs of students. I’m proud of that fact that we’ve connected to students in a new way. We’ve reached out to not only to student officers, but after these two years, we’ve gone into areas that haven’t really been explored deeply. That’s something I think is well worth being proud of.

Jenny: Yes, very much sounds like that. Is there anything that you feel is left to do? Maybe things that had to be put on the back burner through the pandemic?

Hillary: Yes. I feel like I need to bring out a scroll. I do think there’s lots to be done, but I think the world’s our oyster, really. I think we’ve got some really, really impactful work done in talking about student support and really understanding different types of students. I know that there’s lots of work to be done with commuter students, care leaver and estranged students, part-time students, flexible learners, I would say. I think we have a lot of work to do in making higher education, let alone further education, somewhere that really fits into their lifestyles and the ways that they learn and work.

I also think that there’s much more to be done with anti-racist and liberation work. I think there’s lots to be done in really recognising that anti-racism work isn’t something that is a project that you task and finish. It’s an ongoing work that builds up and needs to be sustainable and continue. There’s lots to be done and I think it’s really exciting and the world is everybody’s oyster. I think everyone should go for it and see what they work out of this really fresh foundation.

Jenny: It sounds to me like there’s been a real focus on building up the capacity for that grassroots activism and students being able to advocate for themselves. That’s something you’ve been focusing on?

Hillary: Yes. That’s exactly what’s been our main driver in these past two years. I know that we have lots of students doing work, but often you see that there are a vast majority of students that either feel disengaged or don’t necessarily contribute in the ways that have now been embedded into systems. Students don’t always make change by sitting in committees or being part of formal processes.

Often you’ll see students doing things that are sometimes uncomfortable for organisations and institutions, and I think that’s fine. I think that’s within their gift and power to disrupt sometimes, but also I think there’s something about returning to students, being able to use their voices authentically in ways that feel true to them. I don’t know how you feel about this, Jenny, but I think there’s something really interesting about that.

In my term, we’ve had the largest wave of rent strikes, and the circumstances were not circumstances to be happy about. But it was nice to see students feel like they had the power and the ability to push for that change in the ways that felt authentic to them. We saw students standing side by side with staff members on strike. We just see them getting involved and feeling more passionate and outspoken than we have in a very long time.

I think that’s exciting and it’s a breath of fresh air to think that students are feeling empowered to make their voice heard. Every time people ask me what my advice is for students, and I say, “Make your voice heard in any way you can.” That’s what they’re doing.

Building up their capacity to support them in doing that has definitely been a main driver for me and I’m glad to hear that in some ways, reflecting back in how we’ve been doing here and our intentions around that.

Jenny: We’re coming towards the end of our time. There’s one thing I wanted to ask you, which is what’s next for you?

Hillary: That’s a really good question. This is the point where I start reading out my CV: “These are the things I’ve done!” One of the reasons why I didn’t run to stay on in this space was because I feel really accomplished in the sense that not everything is like full stop done, finished – like, “Pack it in a drawer, it’s done!” I do feel proud that I’ve been able to contribute what I could contribute to this space. Now I’m passing on the baton to somebody that’s incredible and really passionate about this work as well.

For me looking at what is next for me, I love to still do something that was people facing and supporting and advocating for people. I think advocacy’s always going to be at the heart of everything I do. If there’s any advocacy roles out there, hit me up! But also, I don’t think I’m done with Higher Education particularly. Neither do I think I’m done with engaging with students. Hopefully lots of exciting stuff, but I do not know, follow me on Twitter. You’ll see me do one of those cute little posts: “I’ve got a new job!”

Jenny: I’m sure you’re going to be highly in demand! Anything else that you wanted to say that we haven’t had time to cover?

Hillary: I think the only thing that I would say is that, whether you are a student or somebody that’s really working in organisations to deal with, universities or education, I think that the only thing for me to say is that there’s so much that is at stake. I think sometimes it’s really hard to get bogged down by the amount of work that is ahead of us and the things that we need to do.

But I think this is a time where we can all really embrace that. What it looks like for us to work together doesn’t mean overworking ourselves and trying to do everything, but really picking out the things that we feel most passionate about and working together in a vulnerable and a humble way to do that.

I probably think my last word on this is that everybody has the impact to make really great change and that looks different in different spaces, but please, please don’t discount yourself in being able to be part of what can be some of the most transformative and important things that students will experience.

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