"When I first went into the role, I went with nothing but my heart on my sleeve. I didn’t come in to be this local celebrity, this local politician, it was just Shakira,” Shakira Martin tells Tes.
“I am Shakira, who is the NUS president. Not the NUS president who is Shakira.”
Or was. This week, Martin starts a new role after four years at the NUS, a double-term as vice-president, and a double as president. Yesterday, she began her life at Rose Bruford College as head of student experience.
The college, based in Sidcup, is an international drama school and hosts students from 40 different countries on 15 vocational and degree courses.
Background: Tes people of the year 2018: Shakira Martin
Quick read: Zamzam Ibrahim elected NUS national president
End of a 'Shak-era'
Martin’s time at the helm of the NUS – the "Shak-era", as she puts it – will go down in the history books. She didn’t go to university, she’s young, female, black and working-class. Those things alone make her an anomaly. But she’s come with her fair share of controversy, too: she told her critics to "fuck off" on Facebook after receiving votes of no confidence, and faced allegations of bullying from a now-ex NUS women's officer Hareem Ghani.
Martin admits that she’s made mistakes. She says that this job wasn’t built for her, and she wasn’t built for it.
“I’ve been learning as I’ve gone along, which means that sometimes I might have made comments that maybe haven’t been the best thing to say, or the best place to say it. But because I’m passionate, you know my job is personal to me, this isn’t a 9 to 5, I’m in it,” she says.
“Very often when I’m talking about the students, I’m talking about myself, I just have this fancy platform to be able to bring that to the surface. I’m very much talking about my community and what I’ve experienced.”
And perhaps that’s what makes her such a force. She’s embedded into her community, she understands what her members are going through – she’s been there herself.
Forgotten corners of society
So, is that what we should want from our union presidents? To be, "one of the people"? Yes – but it’s easier said than done, says Martin.
“Trade unions, universities, colleges, charities, NGOs. They need – and there are some excellent examples of it happening – it’s about going to those corners of society that are often forgotten and not expect those people to come and find you. You need to go, and intentionally find them, because they are here.
“Ten years ago, no one would have looked and me and said 'Shakira, one day you’re going to make us so proud!' There are millions of Shakiras, but they just haven’t got the opportunity through access in education because of the multiple other rubbish they have to deal with just to survive."
Millions? But surely, there’s no one quite like Shakira?
“No, there won’t be anyone like me,” she laughs. “I don’t think there will be anyone else who can say they went from visiting a friend in prison in the morning to then giving a talk in Parliament in the afternoon. That’s the reality of my lifestyle.
“I’m proud that I’m still in touch with the ground, and the people on the ground, and use this platform to bring those kinds of stories to the agenda. No, I don’t think there will be anyone like me. There’s millions of Shakiras but there’s only one Shakira."
'I let the haters get to me'
Martin says that her time in office hasn’t granted her much thanks or rewards – in fact, it’s the opposite. “Because this job is really personal to me, I take on all that negative rubbish, even if it’s one or two people and the rest love me, even those two people, I’m like, 'What do you want from me? What more can I do? Tell me!'
“Sometimes it knocked me off track and wasted time of me being able to visit a students’ union, go to an event or just be there for one of my members. The biggest regret is letting these haters get to me,” she says.
And what about her biggest wins for the NUS? She cites the NUS Poverty Commission, which aims to address the barriers working-class students face in accessing and succeeding in post-16 education, and the publication of the Augar Review.
“It [the review] is still not perfect, it doesn’t put enough investment in education, so there’s still a long way to go, but I’m really pleased that it was under my presidency that we were able to shape that.
“There some really good recommendations there that will really allow FE students to flourish IF they are implemented…If the government wants something other than Brexit to talk about they might as well just do it now, and not wait for a general election where the students will come out, not just as snowflakes but as an avalanche.”
'Politics doesn’t deserve me'
And could they come out as an avalanche to vote for her? Martin been reported widely as saying that she sees herself as an MP.
“Politics doesn’t deserve me right now," she says. "For me, with these types of jobs, the minute you feel you have to play the game you need to step back and my whole mission was that the game stays the same, it’s the players that change. I say, let’s fuck up the whole game and change all the players and bring new fresh ideas.
“Even if there was a general election tomorrow, in the next year or so, I wouldn't be ready to run those positions, because to be a true MP you need to understand your membership and I have so much more to learn about this country. I need to really have a better understanding so I can make decisive decisions." She pauses. "Give me a few years.”