Q&A with… David Gilani

David GilaniDavid Gilani is the current President of the University of Southampton Students Union for the academic year 2013/14. He has also been the Vice President of Communications and Station Manager for the Southampton student-run radio station, Surge. He also presented his own show on Surge. I’ve known David since secondary school.


Hi David! First of all, would you mind introducing yourself? What are your interests, hobbies and things you care most about?

Hello Richard. So let’s see… I’m currently working at the University of Southampton Students’ Union (SUSU) as their President for the 13/14 academic year… I still love a bit of piano here and there and I’m getting addicted to various Netflix shows (i.e. House of Cards is the best thing ever!)

Can you outline why you got involved with your university’s students union and how you’ve progressed through the ranks?

Well I started in my first year when I wanted to get a show at the student radio station. Out of the 23,000 students at Southampton, we know currently 19,500 are currently a member of some club or society. They probably don’t all realise how that connects them to SUSU, and I probably didn’t back then either. I absolutely loved (and still do) the radio station, Surge, so I ran for a committee position, and by 3rd year I was the station manager. Two years ago, I then ran in a further election to become the Vice President Communications, until running another election last year for the Presidency.

Did you have any previous experience or inclination to take part in this aspect of university? What inspired you to get involved and actually make things happen?

It was really just a love of music that made me first have a look at Surge… but honestly, the reason that I put so much time into it was because it was so easy to make friends there. I always had my friends from halls, and a few close ones on my course, but I knew that my degree wasn’t my real passion, so it was nice to make friends who shared a common interest in radio. After being treated so well and meeting so many people in my first year, I decided that I wanted to help give other people that opportunity as well, and I suppose that’s when I realised the benefit of taking up an elected position at University.

How would you describe the responsibilities of your current role as President? At what point did you decide you wanted to run for Union President?

President is a weird position… because you’re given so much power. The President is the chair of our organisation’s trustee board – with an overall budget of £7.2 million and over 400 staff; the President is the figurehead of the Union, and so I quickly make lots of connections around the city of Southampton; and most importantly, the President is the lead representative of students… so I get so many opportunities to work with University executives who actually listen to what we have to say. There is therefore a LOT of responsibility that comes with using all that power effectively, and being proactive at making the most of it in just the 12 months that you get. In terms of knowing when to run for the role, not until about 3 weeks before the elections, when some very good friends seriously suggested that I should.

How did it feel to take those initial steps toward a job you’ve clearly loved?

I can’t describe how much I love this job – I wouldn’t even call it a job. Sometimes, you can get bogged down in little details, but there are projects where you realise you’ve made a real difference.

What were the initiatives that made the main planks of your platform? Are you able to say you’ve achieved them in your term?

For me, the main goals that I’ve set have been about eradicating student poverty – ensuring that no student at Southampton faces financial barriers to their educational experience. This year, we’ve given out over £2.2 million in bursaries to students who specifically need that money; we’ve fixed tuition fees for international students, who previously had increases between each year of study; and we’ve just got approval to set up a job shop – to help students find part-time work.

What would you say are the most important qualities needed for effective student governance and why?

You’ve got to be REALLY pro-active and willing to take responsibility. If you don’t like how something is currently done, YOU can change it.

What’s been the most rewarding part of being a part of the student’s union? Any particular events or occasions you’re most proud of?

That’s a tough question because there are so many rewarding moments… probably the most rewarding moment and one that I’m most proud of was when we got the University to agree to having fixed tuition fees for international students. The reaction from international and UK students was incredible… I had so many nice personal messages following that.

Has there been any challenging aspects you weren’t expecting? How do you feel you dealt with those situations in which things didn’t go according to plan?

The most challenging thing has been to keep any sort of work-life balance… which I haven’t really dealt with at all. When you can literally pour 16 hours a day into this job, and just about keep 8 for sleep, it’s very easy to fall out of touch with friends, which can be quite isolating. Luckily, there are 7 of us on the Sabbatical team, so at least we always have each other… but yeah… that’s one thing I haven’t been great at.

Do you feel your Union Presidency has been memorable, and why?

I think it’s been entirely unmemorable, to be honest. Maybe that’s a good thing… people tend to remember scandal.

Looking back, are there any things you wish you’d done more of, issues you’d championed or experiences you’d been a part of?

There was one project around building developments on campus that I wish I’d given more time to at the start of the year. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and this particular project has just been so clumsy, potentially because I didn’t give it a strong enough steer from the very beginning.

What are the main things you feel you’re going to take away from your experience as Union President and the union in general? What do you hope to take away from this in the future, career-wise or otherwise?

I’ve learnt so much! I’ve now got so many more passions in terms of social change, access to education, etc, which open up a wide number of jobs that I’d love to do now. But overall, the main thing that I’ve taken away is that people love it when you take responsibility and act with a ‘can-do’ attitude. After having to please 23,000 people, I’m kinda looking forward to just having a single line manager – if I can ever find a job that is!

Finally, as you ascend the steps of the helicopter and wave goodbye to the Presidency, what would you write in a note to leave on your successor’s desk?

“Find a better successor than I did”! haha no just kidding… probably something like… “Praise others when good things happen… take responsibility when bad things happen – that’s the sign of a good leader.”

Massive thanks to David for taking the time to answer my questions. You can visit the SUSU website here to find out more about the organisation David has been championing for the last few years, and also check out his personal Twitter feed here!

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