Nowhere does the transformative potential of further education resonate more powerfully than with two of the sector’s most passionate young voices.
Shakira Martin, national president of the NUS students’ union (pictured below, right), and Emily Chapman, its vice-president for FE (pictured below, left), have both skilfully manoeuvred the highly factional, and often messy, world of student politics.
Martin – only the NUS’s second president to be educated through college rather than university – was re-elected as president in March for a second term, gaining more than twice the number of votes of her nearest rival. Chapman, who succeeded Martin as the student voice of FE, also secured a second term.
Now that the exhausting elections are out of the way, for both, the all-important question of legacy is firmly on the agenda.
“I don’t want it to be another 100 years before a black working-class single mother is president [again],” says Martin. “I want to shut down those barriers.”
What is clear is that paving the way for people from underrepresented backgrounds is one of the top priorities for her final year as the official leader of the students movement.
Doors started to open for Martin when she returned to college after having a baby. “When I had my first daughter in 2011, I decided to go back to college to do a leadership and management course. That’s when I was like, ‘Rahhh, this is what it feels like,’” she says, along with her trademark husky laugh.
“It was the eureka moment when I was like, ‘Oh, this is what education feels like when you enjoy something and you’re understanding what you’re doing and wanting.’”
FE has given Martin “10 years’ worth of chances” that she never had at school, she says. “I left school at 16 with one GCSE in short-course RE. I am proud of that; it was the only B I’ve ever had.”
'My union gave me my voice'
It was while studying at what is now Lewisham Southwark College in South London that Martin discovered activism and became president of its students’ union. “That’s where I found my students’ union and found my voice,” she says. “I wasn’t political before, but I always – as you can probably tell – spoke out when things didn’t sound right. But maybe not always in the right way.
“My students’ union gave me my voice to be able to make change in the world. Being president of my students’ union gave me the foundation for where I am today.”
Chapman concurs that it was her college and students’ union that helped transform her life. Her own journey into student politics began in higher education, when she started a degree at the University of Stirling in 2008. This, however, came to an abrupt end. Owing to the high cost of living and a lack of jobs in the Scottish city, she was unable to pay her rent.
“The week before Christmas, I ended up being kicked out of my flat. The whole scenario just broke me quite badly,” she recalls.
For the next five years, Chapman suffered from a “heavy depression” and struggled with anxiety. It was a comment from her uncle that led to her getting back onto the right track. Before he died, Chapman says her uncle told her something that has stuck with her ever since. “He told me, ‘This is your year, my girl.’ When he died, I felt that I didn’t make it my year, so I had let him down. In retrospect, that was a horrible thing to feel at the time, but it got me back to college to do my foundation degree in law.”
Chapman quickly got involved with Leeds City College’s students’ union. “They helped me with my diagnosis of dyslexia and dyspraxia,” she says, “and they actually started giving me belief in myself.” She was elected president, before deciding to run to succeed her mentor, Martin, as the NUS vicepresident for FE. And the pair now have ambitious plans for the year ahead. Martin will continue her work with a poverty commission she launched, and Chapman hopes to get education secretary Damian Hinds to make good on his party’s manifesto pledge to offer travel bursaries to apprentices.
“I won’t stop fighting for the sector that changed my life and the sector that is a life-changer,” says Chapman.
Meanwhile, Martin still harbours a long-held ambition to become a college principal. “Or I’d like to run for Parliament,” she adds, “but I don’t think they’re ready for me yet.” Chapman laughs.
Despite the close relationship between the two, Chapman admits that she actually voted for another candidate when Martin first stood to be vice-president for FE.
“I think that is a good start to our stories,” says Chapman. “We didn’t really know or understand each other, but we’ve had this journey together.”
“I think that just sums up why further education is so great,” chips in Martin. “It brings you into situations with people who you might not necessarily mix with in your home life, and then you [realise] there is more that brings us together than divides us.”
When Chapman was first running for election, she explains, Martin told her to get a tattoo if she won. She did; Chapman points at the word “Believe” inked on her arm.
“I’ve got a lot of tattoos myself, so I’m glad I’ve got some influence,” says Martin, grinning mischievously. “I wonder if I can get [education secretary] Damian Hinds to get a tattoo with a promise to give us travel bursaries…”