By Linda Robertson
John Anthony Craig talks to Linda Robertson about his first term as RCS Student President, a term that will go down in history as one of the most complex and challenging terms of any higher education institution.
“As challenging as this year has been, I can’t describe how fulfilling this job is, to be in a position where I feel like I’m helping to make change.”
When John Anthony Craig tossed his hat into the ring for the role of RCS student president, he never could have imagined the year that was to unfold. Elected just weeks after the nationwide lockdown in March, he knew he was in for an eventful first term in office.
“This year has been about adapting quickly,” says John, who took up position on 1 August 2020. “I knew I couldn’t look at the pandemic as being a barrier. Instead, I had to see it as an opportunity to be more creative.”
John and his executive team – Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos (Vice-President Drama, Dance, Production and Film) and Ken Fairbrother (Vice-President Music) — have steered the Students’ Union through an ever-changing Covid landscape.
They’ve been a visible presence, from fronting videos for social media to developing the SU’s digital profile in a major online rebrand (one of John’s campaign pledges) to make sure students have a dedicated hub of information, for now, and the future.
“We want students to always be informed of our rationale to ensure we bring them with us in the decision-making,” says John.
John Anthony Craig, RCS Student President (left) on the stage of the New Athenaeum Theatre with Vice-Presidents Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos and Ken Fairbrother
Global pandemic aside, it has been a busy few months for the SU executive team. The SU, and the RCS Black Union, played a key part in the introduction of the institution’s Anti-Racism Action Plan, which was published this summer.
“We’ve worked closely with students of colour, the RCS Black Union and the RCS senior management team in the formulation of the plan, which is continually being developed by current and past students.”
The SU was also at the heart of the institution’s Welcome Home initiative in September, to offer practical and social support to new and returning students.
Working in partnership with RCS’s front of house and the Academic Administration Support departments, it included delivering starter grocery packs for students who were required to self-isolate or quarantine, handing out more than 200 welcome bags of essential items and Scottish treats for new students, and curating a series of online social events to combat isolation.
Student welfare, naturally, is a top priority for the SU this year and it also offered a month of free sports and wellbeing activities at the start of the new term and discounts on sports club memberships.
“The Welcome Home campaign was a huge success and a real team effort,” says John. “There was a commitment from everyone across RCS to ensure students felt supported for the new term.
“The feedback was amazing, it was so nice to hear from students who were thankful for the service. So many were going through a heightened time of stress and anxiety and they appreciated the help. Everyone involved in Welcome Home was so invested in making it the best it could be.”
John, a saxophonist, graduated in October with a 2:1 Bachelor of Music (Honours) degree. He studied under Josef Pacewicz and with international saxophone virtuoso Arno Bornkamp. He started playing in primary school and immersed himself in music throughout his teenage years.
“I loved playing and I feel doing music made my entire school experience better. I was with a community who thought the same, it was very collaborative and felt really rewarding.”
With a keen interest in politics, John has been a member of the RCS student council throughout his studies, and he decided to run for president in his fourth and final year. “I’d always been part of the student council and had good relationships with the former presidents – Ankna Arockiam, Will Stringer and Jasmine Munns. I felt I was clued-up on what the role involved.
“I’d helped out with previous election campaigns but this year the process was online for the first time.”
“I had to make pledges that I believed would benefit students in the current circumstances, not just things we could do in a normal year.”
It included tackling digital poverty and John has lobbied the Scottish Government for additional funding for essential equipment, to ensure that all students can engage with blended learning.
The SU will launch its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee that will feed into the RCS Equality and Diversity Forum. It’s also working to become the first conservatoire in the world to receive full autism accreditation with the National Autistic Society:
“It bolsters the reputation we have of being open, welcoming and being able to respond to the needs of a diverse population.”
A cross-conservatoire digital festival is in the works while wellbeing activities include online comedy workshops. “It’s a way to offer new supplementary skills to students’ learning,” says John.
“The workshops are led by former Scottish comedians of the year and they’re great fun. Students will record a stand-up session which helps to boost confidence and can be an indirect way to tackle performance anxiety.”
The SU website and social channels are also being revamped: “The website will be a hub of information as well as a portal to book events and other activities. It also allows us to have our own shop to sell branded merchandise, which will help diversify the income stream of the SU and secure a source of funding for the future.”
John says the SU is very much a collective effort: “We may be the smallest Students’ Union in the country but we want to make big changes, make the SU more autonomous and create long-lasting opportunities.
“A students’ union is a powerful body and it’s a privilege to work for our students every day.”