Over six years of studying, working and living at Leeds Trinity, it's difficult to put into words the impact that being there had on me.
What made you choose to attend Leeds Trinity University and what are your best memories from your time as a student here?
I had a lot of friends studying in Leeds already and having visited, was keen to move to the city. My second gap year had been in Kent, and I wanted to move somewhere that was closer to Manchester so it was easier to get home. The course content looked interesting and I was set on studying a degree in theology.
What do you remember most about your two year terms as President of the SU and what were your biggest challenges?The key achievement over two years was taking the SU to a strong and sustainable financial position, having had no business or management training. After losing money in the two years prior to my election, I managed to steer the ship around and the SU achieved a year-end profit of £45,000 at the end of my first year. We increased investment in the second year and still managed to get a £30,000 surplus. We did loads of entrepreneurial activities which brought in revenue and transferred costs to suppliers. It was good fun seeing the savings build back up. It was very rewarding to leave it in a strong condition, as when I'd started we didn't even know if we'd be able to pay our wages at the end of the month!
The journey to this achievement involved recruiting a Financial Administrator, appointing a new team of auditors, analysing the SU's internal financial infrastructure and implementing new effective systems of control, generating sustainable revenue streams through corporate sponsorships, and key to all of this - building up a strained relationship between the SU and the University management and Board of Governors.
In addition to this, I enjoyed watching new societies spring up (e.g. boxing club) and new partnerships were developed to improve the entertainments and activities schedules. In the financial context, our Sports teams were encouraged to develop more proactive approaches to generating their own funding, which was a challenge in itself as different clubs were used to getting different amounts and we standardised the quantity, putting in place an Additional Money Request procedure.
The highlights when I look back are certainly the Freshers' and Graduation balls, the big Wednesday nights out with the Sports clubs, the nerves and relief of winning on the election nights and implementing a new forum and campus-wide ballot system for course representatives. But the rewarding factor was the change in building a sustainable SU.
John Joe (third from the left) attended the 50th Anniversary Celebrations at The House of Commons in 2016.
How do you feel your time at Leeds Trinity has supported you in your career and life more generally?
Over six years of studying, working and living at Leeds Trinity, it's difficult to put into words the impact that being there had on me. I've got so many incredible memories and learned so many things it makes it hard to know where to start. I guess the most significant thing I took from my degree was the ability to think; to always approach new ideas in a critical way and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. From sport, I took a wealth of experiences and memories of punching well above our weight in a strong Rugby League Club, with representational honours for Ireland Students, plus lots of fun in the annual Staff and Students' Charity Netball Competition – I also learned a lot about leadership as I did a poor job in the role of Chairman of the Rugby Club.
Socially, I made some amazing friends in halls, in the canteen, at the Chaplaincy's Tea on the Landing, on retreat, on sports tour in Italy, and amidst the countless nights out and hungover days! Most significantly of all, I met my fiancé, who I'll be marrying in August 2016!
For my career, I'd say studying a degree which opened my mind and taught me to think, combined with the opportunity to manage a small charity for two years as President (with genuine support of Freda Bridge and Jenny Share), has left me with a brilliant understanding of how organisational governance/management/finance works. That foundation has enabled me to progress quickly to a mid-level management job within four years of leaving Leeds Trinity.
Did you study abroad or undertake a placement?I didn't study abroad but did undertake two placements whilst studying. At one stage, I had been considering a career in teaching, but a six-week placement at a secondary school left me knowing that would not be my path. I didn't enjoy it and actually ended up failing the placement. But I don't regret that at all, as it has shaped what followed and I'm very grateful to have had that opportunity to learn and fail and grow. My next placement was in the Students' Union, which ignited my aspirations to run for President and has had a direct bearing on the shape of my career since that time.
What three words would you use to describe Leeds Trinity?
Very tough to do! I'll have a stab. Ethical, empowering and caring.
Can you tell us more about your current job?I'm Student Experience Manager at the University of East London (UEL). I'm responsible for identifying trends in student feedback and implementing responsive innovative projects where positive developments are possible. With a focus on non-teaching and learning activities, my team exists to help create a sense of belonging and community amongst our students; to support extra-curricular engagement in activities that will develop their cultural capital.
I have direct line management responsibility for a team of Student Experience Officers, with a clear overall objective to ensure UEL is providing an outstanding student experience. Key projects include the management of UEL's Start of Year group which focuses on first impressions and induction, but we also co-ordinate other things like the National Student Survey campaign, planning and marketing of community events, plus provision of arts and cultural activities. I also work closely with our Students' Union to promote and support their work.
In terms of how my role came about, I played a significant role in the creation of my current post by writing a proposal for the creation of the team I now manage. I identified that there was a significant gap in how the University was responding to student feedback and believed a team with the remit to respond and deliver enhancement projects would be of great benefit. This paper was approved and after interviews I was appointed as team manager. This change saw me move from a graduate-level job as a Student Liaison Officer, to a mid-management level position.
What advice would you give current students and recent graduates embarking on a similar career path?
My area of work is a growth area, as universities increasingly look to enhance their offer to encourage prospective students to join. Student satisfaction surveys have transformed the way in which people regard universities. More and more is being done to increase satisfaction. For students who are currently leading societies or sports clubs, enjoy co-ordinating social activities, have participated in Students' Union democracy, have teamed up with student support to promote various campaigns or worked as Senior Residents in halls of residence, this line of work is a graduate job waiting to be applied for.
How did your course benefit you?I'm a strong advocate and recognise the huge benefits I took from the BA (Hons) Theology course.
The broad mix of history, ethics, philosophy, politics, psychology and religion that get covered over the duration of a theology degree make it a fascinating subject to study. Anyone interested in understanding where things have come from should really enjoy it. You learn to see the world in a different way, recognising that rifts in civilisations have ancient contexts that are entrenched in tradition and rituals that have evolved over time. You're introduced to influential figures and events that stretch from 3000 B.C. to the present day; covering the Greek and Roman Empires, the formation of Europe, the Reformation of the Church, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars of the 20th Century; and all the political, religious and ethical ramifications of all those monumental changes in our world history.
Theology is packed with plenty to debate in seminars, so you get the opportunity to polish your ability to speak publicly and master the art of persuasive argument. Without the constant need for rigid logic that can be found in the realm of philosophy, theology empowers a freedom to express creativity and explore non-conventional themes that sit outside the empirical world. You consider questions such as: what impact has divine revelation had on Earth? What level of credence should be given to historical interventions from prophets, saints and gods? How was Earth created? And what is the origin of all things? What is divine grace or virtue? You get to consider whether or not we experience the influence of a supreme deity in the shaping of our conscience, and ask if there is such a thing as fate. All these ideas are explored and can have your mind racing to find your own personal perspective on it all (something I can guarantee will change more than once throughout the duration of a three year degree)!
Exploring all these ideas with support of excellent academics and as a peer group of contemporary theologians, you'll have the opportunity to shape and question one another's beliefs about the world we live in. Taking all your learning, you'll become proficient in the expression of well-formed ideas through the written word. As you develop into a proficient writer, you'll be able to express objective and informed arguments which have been shaped by your experiences. You'll probably finish with more questions than you started with, as your appetite for knowledge about our vast human history expands, but that's what it's all about! It's an environment for questioning everything – the very foundations of society and our existence – and I found that entirely interesting.
The speaking, debating, and writing skills I developed as a student have all been applied to good effect in my working life since graduation. Theology is a degree which equips its graduates with the skills to tackle unfamiliar problems with confidence. It's not a subject with a direct career path, but it's a subject that will leave you ready to take on any career.