The side door of the SU corridor opens. It’s 10am on the dot and Rachel Breslin appears before me carrying several bags. Today is the day that I aim to find out what the president of UCDSU does on an average day and what drives her to do it.
In her office she works on a rather dated Dell computer that seems to have a more than dodgy internet connection. The office is bestrewn with documents, diagnosis a copy of the latest College Tribune, a strange glass trophy and a pink care bear that seems to survey the room from its vantage point before a poster of inspirational quotations. It’s all rather less glamorous than you might think.
The life of the president seems a strangely lonely one. As you sit in her office listening to the conversations going on outside the door you can’t help but feel slightly detached from the rest of campus.
“You definitely lose friends because you don’t see them as much and you can’t and that’s a really horrible part of it,” comments Breslin.
“I do enjoy being president. Not everyday, but overall, like some of the difficulties that you have and the worries and stress that you’re under are worth it. I know that I’ll never have an opportunity like this again in my whole life.”
She holds a slightly muttered dialogue to herself as she works. I wonder if it’s for my benefit as I sit typing my observations. Looming deadlines for e-mails, reports and the various other activities that she constantly checks on her calendar seem to cry out demanding her attention.
“I have to work to my schedule,” comments Breslin. “You do live it for the year, but there are loads of laughs as well. It’s certainly a lot of time, like; you don’t really get time for anything else… I think that’s why I play tag every Wednesday -that routine- I know that I’m not going to be working then and I try to set aside time at weekends and stuff, but I haven’t been home since I started the job.”
Although many see the SU as a breeding ground for future politicians, Breslin says that this is not the path for her: “I think this year particularly has just taught me that it’s not for me. I feel kind of liberated by that, because it means that I’m not worried about anything I do this year being something that’ll come back on me in the future… there are moments of realisation that I’ve had throughout the year where the personal toll of being in a political position has been so not worth it that it has completely put me off that whole sphere.”
Sitting in her office while various people ring and call in looking for things, I consider how this former Welfare Officer feels about the weight that lies on her shoulders.
“I was happiest in college when I was in the welfare crew, because I loved the bond that I had with other people when we were volunteering whereas when you’re getting paid…in terms of expectations people have, and that no matter how hard you work it’s always falls under those expectations, because you’re getting paid.”
As she prepares for the first council I begin to get some notion of the pressure involved in representing so many students with such different views. She seems to feel that difficulty intensely. “Different students want different things…you have to make sure that you are representing a majority of students and not just the most vocal minority, as can happen a lot in student politics, it’s the vocal minority who get heard,” she says.
She speaks rather candidly about the difficulty of balancing the demands of students with what the university are willing allow.
“It’s very difficult, because you’re constantly, almost daily, faced with these questions of ‘students want this’, ‘college want or have this’ and thinking who’s right in this scenario, like, how much is too much to expect. That’s definitely a really difficult part of the role… what is genuinely unfeasible or what is something that seems unfeasible, but is actually very possible. In the past the Students’ Union have achieved things that everybody thought was unfeasible, but if you try to achieve something that genuinely is unfeasible then you look silly to both the students and the college. You’re constantly trying to do this, but I’ve only been in the job for four months and before that I was in welfare and before that I was just a student and you’re dealing with people in the college who’ve been there twenty, thirty, years and have seen thirty past presidents…I think there’s this kind of way that they’re sussing us out and our team out as much as the students are. It’s a fine line between being a pushover and being really aggressive and overly aggressive and ruining your relationship with the college and not getting anything done.”
“Continuity is a huge problem,” she continues. “That’s why we’re trying to get a general manager who we know will be here for five, ten years who’s someone that can go back and say well five years ago you did promise this. It’s a massive problem, I frequently go into meetings and am told, ‘but X president or X officer agreed to this’ and that’s something that is actually very difficult to come back on, because you can’t say ‘well I’m a different person’ because then they’re going to say, ‘well in two years time there’ll be another different person’. It’s something we really struggle with –continuity- and that’s why mandates are important from council so that everyone knows where the SU stands…if I have a bad relationship with someone in the college that’s going to pass onto my predecessor and they won’t like the SU, and that can happen.”
When she finally finishes what needs to be done for Council, she begins to prepare for the L&H debate on the worthlessness of a degree in which she is taking part. Scribbling down notes on a whiteboard while listening to Aaron Sorkin’s commencement speech on Youtube for inspiration, she readies herself just in time to get to the Fitzgerald chamber.
Some have commented that Breslin has a cold aloof manner. When I ask her about this she seems acutely aware that certain people might have this perception.
“I think I can come across as quite cold, but I think that’s just a defensive thing that I picked up in college because I didn’t know anyone at the start. It’s also a thing where, like, huge numbers of people around the SU know me for this year and I know that so many of them, because I’ve seen it happen to people, just drop off the face of the earth next year and don’t want to be your friend. So I’m hugely sceptical of some of the interactions that I have…it’s a horrible feeling, and I really worry about coming across as cold, because I hate doing that and I’m not… You’re constantly worried about saying the wrong thing or, and to be honest at the back of my mind at all times, even right now I have ‘I should be doing this, I should be doing this, I should be doing this’ that’s why I come across as cold because I know that these same people who are talking to me are going to question me if I haven’t got something done.”
Following the debate her work for the day is over. It’s past 9pm and she seems suddenly more light-hearted and jovial. She leaves the Student Centre to head to her tag rugby match. “I love it,” she comments, “because it’s so amateur; there’s nobody you’re intimidated by at tag and my team are really nice and none of them are in the SU. So it’s amazing to have a completely different group of people.” Her team won 27-0.