Shakira Martin was elected President of the National Union of Students (NUS) in April 2017 with 56% of the vote, and took up her new role in July. Her route to the top has not been without its challenges – she is a single mother-of-two, who left home at 16 and is the first female NUS President from an Afro-Caribbean background and only the second leader not to go to university. A graduate of the Further Education (FE) system who studied a Christ Church-validated course at Lewisham Southwark College, her local college in South East London, Shakira is a passionate advocate for FE. Inspire talked to Shakira about her tough upbringing, her involvement in student representation and her thoughts on the main issues facing students today.
Background and journey
Shakira’s childhood was far from easy, as she recalls: "I grew up in a single-parent family where drug abuse played a big part in my upbringing. My mum’s a recovering addict. Because of that, I didn’t have the traditional route into school and didn’t have a stable home life, so it was up and down. I moved out at the age of 16, and also left school with one GCSE in RE.
"I didn’t plan my next step after school like many of my friends did. I just enrolled at a local sixth form that my friends were attending, but I dropped out after three months. I then took a number of cash-in-hand jobs, including working in a hairdresser's."
A job in a doctor’s surgery provided Shakira with some much-needed stability and economic security, and she happily worked there for three years. However, she felt compelled to quit after the appointment of a new manager who made life very difficult for her: "I ended up leaving and taking my employer to a tribunal because of racist and sex discrimination. I was young at the time and didn’t understand all aspects of working life, but I represented myself at the tribunal and won the case. It was partly to show them what this young woman could do. I know my rights and I will fight tooth and nail for what I believe in. It was at this point that I decided I wanted to return to education."
After dropping out of several earlier courses, this time she was absolutely determined to make the most of the opportunity: "After having this experience, I said I wanted to go back to college to take a leadership and management course because I wanted to learn to be a leader. I promised myself I wasn’t going to drop out and I would go to every single lesson. My course took place in the evening, two days a week and it was a totally different experience of education. Everything I was being taught made sense in my head and I was leaving the classroom feeling full of ideas.
"I am the first person in my family to graduate and the graduation ceremony was a really great experience. When I walked up on that stage to collect my certificate, it made me realise that I will always fight for education."
"I also got an apprenticeship at a training consultancy and went on to take my PTLLS (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) qualification – which I finished two days before giving birth to my second daughter! I began to realise that teaching and education was my thing. Following that, I went on to study for my Education and Training qualification, which was really exciting because it is the equivalent to the first year of a degree and was accredited by an HE provider. One of my first questions about the course was ‘Do you graduate?’ and they said ‘Yes!’ I thought, wow, people don’t even know about this. I am the first person in my family to graduate and the graduation ceremony was a really great experience. When I walked up on that stage to collect my certificate, it made me realise that I will always fight for education."
Running for Office
Despite having had such a positive experience in her own further education, Shakira’s decision to become involved in student politics and advocacy was almost accidental: "I was in college one day and saw a poster inside the Student Unions' office for a Women’s Officer and I thought that was for me. So I ran for it and won, even though I didn’t really know what it would involve or anything about governance.
"I then heard about some NUS events that offered childcare provision, so I attended my first NUS event – the Zones conference in Manchester – and I ran to be on FE/HE zone committee. I had never made a public speech in my life before and didn’t really understand politics at the time. I was just talking but I still got elected to both of those positions!"
"What I would like to do now is make education accessible for all."
After being elected to the black students’ committee and the women’s committee, Shakira decided to run for Vice-President for FE: "I felt like FE was underrepresented and I really wanted to be a voice and a presence for that sector. Looking back now, I think ‘wow’, but back then I was just going with the flow. I didn’t realise this was the route to becoming a national officer. And now I’m National President!"
Shakira’s own experiences have had a profound impact on her outlook as the President: "I’m aware that I did not come through a conventional route and I’m only the second person to come from FE, but I’m also trying to be a non-traditional leader. It’s very personal to me – education saved my life. If it wasn’t for my college and the NUS, I don’t know where I’d be because it’s much easier to become what you know than to break the cycle of deprivation. Based on my experience of the student movement and of FE, I really do know the power of education.
"What I would like to do now is make education accessible for all; for education to be in parity so it’s not about apprenticeships being better than university or university being better than FE, it’s about what suits the individual prospective student."
Challenges for today’s students
With great power comes great responsibility though, and there are considerable challenges for Shakira's presidency, with students having to deal with fees and debt as well as the uncertainty of Brexit. Shakira has prioritised the financial burdens by establishing a Poverty Commission to examine these issues and, as ever, she is forthright with her opinions on the subject: "The Government talks about poverty in a way that ignores class and I think class barriers are a huge obstacle to accessing further/higher education both in terms of mindset and finance. It’s not a one size fits all and we need to think of different ways to break down these barriers. Just getting these people into university is not enough if they are not succeeding to be the best they can be and going into the same jobs as their counterparts.
"Then there’s Brexit and the uncertainty around what it means… It’s make or break for the future of our students."
"The Poverty Commission will be a major quantitative research project to examine tuition fees, the cost of living, student poverty and debt. It will also feature qualitative case studies of the realities of students’ economic life. It’s a two-year project so, if I’m re-elected, I would like the Government to undertake an independent review based on the recommendations.
"Then there’s Brexit and the uncertainty around what it means for our economy, our teachers, our professions, our industries, our academics, and the freedom of movement to learn and schemes like Erasmus. It’s make or break for the future of our students."
As well as looking at huge national issues, Shakira is also very supportive of more localised campaigns, such as those organised at Christ Church in partnership with the Students’ Union, raising awareness of mental health issues and the support available, and Expect Respect, which aims to create inclusive and welcoming campuses, free from abuse and harassment: "These are two really good campaigns. In terms of mental health, we definitely need to remove the taboo surrounding it. In terms of the sexual harassment work, again, this is an important topic of priority for the NUS and our Women’s Officer has done a lot of work in this area. I think much of the work and awareness raising around consent needs to be carried out at an early stage during the enrolment period. We often dedicate a lot of time and work to cure rather than prevention. In this instance, particularly in relation to harassment, the prevention part is key."
"We need to start getting active and start shaping the society that we want to see."
Despite the challenges of being a student in the 21st century, her final message to new students is a positive one: "Education can be hard at times; it’s not always as easy as it seems when we speak about it. But it’s the journey that makes you and happiness is about that journey not the destination. Make it your own, be who you want to be and not who others want you to be. We need to start getting active and start shaping the society that we want to see. We are the leaders of the future and we can’t rely on the politicians to do it for us. So get active, get registered to vote and start shaping your world!"
Images: courtesy of the NUS