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Meet the President of the Students' Union

Thursday 20 September 2012

Babs Williams is one of your student-elected Sabbatical Officers. Meet the rest of them here. They were elected in the spring and came into office on 1 September, in time to prepare for the new academic year. To better understand how the Union works for you, find a summary here (LINK).

When Babs Williams, QMSU’s freshly elected President, welcomed me into the Blomeley Centre last week, he and his fellow Sabbatical Officers were gearing up for the impending Freshers’ Week. It is arguably these next two weeks when the new QMSU team will be at their most visible and Babs plans to make the most of it. “It seems that if you really want to get everything done you need to do it around Freshers’ period” he admits, a mixture of determination and the overwhelmed in his tone.

So what is it that the Students’ Union is putting in place around campus as new arrivals and returning students get ready for the first Hail Mary of the academic year? As Babs describes his plans to me, it is clear he values the campus community, many of his ideas aiming to strengthen and expand it. QMSU has created a brand new Halls System, affiliating each resident with their Halls of Residence and allocating each building one of QM’s Senior Lecturers to act as Halls Master as students compete with each other throughout the year, doing battle with everything from dodgeballs to spatulas in cookery competitions.

The introduction of this bond with students’ new homes should help to ease any anxieties brought about by leaving home. For Babs, having spent the first eight years of his life at a boarding school in Lagos, Nigeria, the experience of moving away from home was not a particularly exciting or new prospect, “I have a real affiliation to London, but I wasn’t actually born in Britain. I spent the first eight years of my life in Nigeria, so I didn’t feel the same excitement about leaving home because those first years had been away from my parents. I’d had that feeling of living away from home from the moment I was born.”

Babs explains that his parents stayed here in the UK while he grew up in Lagos. He had been sent to boarding school in the hope that he might arrive in London a well-disciplined young man, “It was an interesting idea and something that I think quite a few Africans would be amused by actually”, he says, “this whole idea of disciplining the child before he comes over to visit ‘Western, liberal culture’.”

Although it is unclear whether or not those years set him up for London, there certainly was enough discipline, “I can’t remember how I behaved at the boarding school, but I do remember getting caned several times.” It only seems logical to ask what he had done to “deserve” the cane, but Babs sees it in a far more sensible way, “I don’t think, as someone who’s six or seven, that there is that much you can do to deserve the cane. However, I do remember pulling the chair out from under someone as they were sitting down and getting caned for that.”

Even if those years had little impact on his behaviour, Babs did come away with at least one remarkable trait: an unshakeable love for a particular airline. “I have an inherent love for British Airways and for a long time I didn’t understand why. I had a strong phobia of planes, but every year I’d fly over to Britain and the only planes I ever knew were British Airways. I’d always land very safely with them and have loved them for that ever since. I have always had that feeling that every time I was safe when I was a kid it was because British Airways saved me.”

Babs’ disciplined upbringing continued right through Sixth Form, first at a Catholic convent school, and then at London Nautical, a Navy school established following the sinking of the Titanic, which involved “getting up in the morning and going to Parade, wearing a full-on Navy uniform. Gold buttons, the hat – we’re talking full on, for seven years.”

To my surprise, Babs is adamant that he enjoyed his time there immensely, “It was an interesting school - very disciplinarian as you can tell. I absolutely loved it”, he says. “Such systems either encourage you to conform or push against them. I enjoyed pushing against.” Given Babs’ recent graduation from the Politics course at Queen Mary (this summer, Babs graduated in History and Politics), could it be that this trouble-making may have been of a constructive sort, inspired by the prospect of rebellion? “It was just havoc. A school like that doesn’t allow for constructive trouble-making. Anybody trying to take part in constructive trouble-making was routinely excluded so you had to be wilfully causing havoc and you had to be wilfully trying to escape whilst causing havoc.”

Despite his colourful and heavily disciplined childhood, Babs’ plans for Queen Mary’s students don’t involve canes, gold buttons or parades. Instead the Union will be providing the QM community with such new ideas as:

  • Weekly two-hour seminar sessions with Careers in the new Student Hub
  • A Halls-based X Factor competition in December
  • QMSU's Mums and Dads Buddy Scheme, bringing students together by placing returning and new students in 'families' that can offer support and experience throughout the year. Find out more: www.qmsu.org/mumsanddads
  • Four more postgraduate-targeted events each year
  • A wider range of non-alcoholic events for those that would rather not drink

For more information on what your Sabbatical Officers are up to, keep up to date on the QMSU website: www.qmsu.org

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