Young Alumni Interview

Devika (MPhil, 2019) | EDI Officer at the University of Oxford

"It is a matter of pride, to be an Antonian."

Devika, who graduated in 2021, has just been appointed as EDI Officer at the University and was previously VP Graduates at the Oxford Student Union. She talked to Jane, St Antony's Communications Manager, about her time at St Antony’s, her biggest achievements and failures to date, and her future plans.

Hi Devika! You came to St. Antony's in 2019 to study for an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I did my undergraduate degree in English Literature, BA (Hons), from New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. As a high school student, there was nothing better for me than a good book of fiction and I absolutely adore English literature to this day. After completing my undergraduate degree, I did an MSc in post-colonial English literature from the University of Edinburgh, achieving a distinction on my thesis. It was after that, that I decided, okay, let's do an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies. This was a conscious decision to the extent that my parents had always wanted me to go to Oxford but also, I was ready to move into the world of policy and education. I applied while I was doing my Master's in Edinburgh; it came at the right time and seemed like the perfect transition to the areas I wanted to explore beyond literature. 

You were a student during the pandemic, how was that experience and what did you learn from it?

Yes, I am part of - as Professor Goodman refers to us - the COVID batch! The pandemic started when I began my MPhil and it ended when I finished! It was by no means easy, especially from an academic perspective, because all of a sudden, the whole system was trying to cope with what to do with the thousands of students, some on campus and some not. It was not easy for the staff, or for us, especially with the lockdown and the college having to control our movements within the houses, around the campus, and so on. It was a very challenging time, I'll definitely say that, but we tried and did our best.

At St Antony’s, you were appointed as Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minorities Officer. How did you manage to create a sense of community in that role during COVID? That must have been really challenging.

It was, it was - I was the minorities’ officer and I was also a peer supporter; both roles tended to blend into each other. St Antony’s paid for my training for which I'm very thankful. Most of the time, the sense of community came from a lot of personalised interactions with students. Students would approach me for peer support and then I would invite them to the events I was holding as minorities representative, which helped to build a sense of community, but it was a difficult time to fulfil this role. We tried our best online, so we had a lot of virtual events. We organised a couple of virtual games, including a murder mystery! It was all virtual and still a lot of fun.

I was elected as the minorities’ rep in 2019, and stayed on for two years. During my first year in post, we had virtual inductions for incoming students, which was surprisingly popular. Lots of students of colour were tuning in, and one of the first people to join was Pascal, who went on to be GCR President. It was a lot of fun. We also organised virtual Uncomfortable Oxford Tours, which were so popular. People were so surprised by the information but also the medium of these tours. We could really have fun doing this online and we literally created a virtual Oxford map for participants, so it was very accessible. It was definitely a time of innovation.

What are your fondest memories from your time at St Antony’s?

Some of my fondest memories in college, even though I am the COVID batch, are the bar, the events, and I love the CCR. I was lucky enough to experience the college post-COVID a bit as well, because I got to stay on an extra year after my MPhil. The college was so kind and offered me accommodation when I graduated and was appointed as Vice President Graduates at the Oxford Student Union. So, I have experienced all of the ‘normal’ aspects of college life, the move to virtual, and also the Hilda Box! Oh, my goodness – I have memories of the rain on the Hilda Box, Box BOPs, and the Box Bar!

I believe my best memories at St Antony's are the people. I'm a very social, outgoing person and I have friends in other colleges, but almost all of my community was at St Antony’s. It just highlights how important college life is to the Oxford experience, even for postgraduates. That's what I always said to incoming students when I did inductions as VP Graduates.

Some of my best memories are picnics at 21 Winchester Road, playing cricket in the University Parks, Bollywood nights, and karaoke nights in the Hilda Box and the bar. I was the one who organised the Bollywood night in the Box, I don’t know how much the staff realise, that St Antony's is famous for its Box across the university – and we throw the best graduate parties! St Antony’s Bops are the place to be. Lots of people just turn up to the Bops because the atmosphere is amazing. It’s something students want to be part of as it’s just so well organised by the GCR.

We also have one of the friendliest porter’s teams in Oxford and as someone who has been to most colleges, it is a matter of pride for me. They have been incredibly nice and supportive towards me in my three years here and I adore them.

My fondest memories will always be with my fellow Antonians – staff and students.

What did you learn during your time at St Antony's that's shaped what you do going forward?

I would say it's shaped me so significantly because to draw on from the last question, it was when I came to St. Antony's that I found my community in Oxford. I truly adore the college environment, it's not just your best friends and housemates who influence your time there, but also your casual acquaintance who's doing their research in a different area to you. I have a very international community of friends and it is because of St Antony’s.

I always give credit to St Antony’s for allowing me to explore professionally as much as I could, whether it was running programmes as the BAME Officer or submitting applications to the Antonian fund to organise activities. The first committee I sat on in the University was the St Antony’s Interim Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee which was such good experience. I was also a regular alumni telethon caller when we were fundraising for the Hilda Besse, which was very exciting. The best part is when you recognise the person on the other end, and they do the same, ‘oh, I was here two years ago. I remember you’.

The Warden, Fellows, and staff at St Antony’s were incredibly supportive and were always willing to listen. I went to meetings as the minorities’ rep and I would always have opinions, sometimes about things beyond my remit, but they would always have an open ear for that too. Professionally and personally, at the college, there was a sense that your community will always be there to help you.

I will always be in favour of an all-graduate environment. I know for a fact that I'm starting with a plus point in most cases, because in my college I'm not competing with undergraduates for attention, it’s totally focused on the graduate experience, which can be rare in the University.

You have just finished your tenure as VP Graduates at the Student Union. What encouraged you to stand for this post, and during your year in the role, did you achieve what you hoped to achieve in your manifesto?  

At St Antony’s, I realised that I actually like representing people. I've always been a very social individual, but I was never social to the extent that I'm happy talking to 500 people at once, and I developed that at college. I've done public speaking since the age of three; it's always been a part of life, with debating society and so on, but I believe it was St Antony's and Oxford, that really developed these skills and taught me what being the leader or actually effectively engaging with an audience is about. My experience of public speaking previously was that you go up there, you put your points forward and you're done. The transition that happened at Oxford, was that all of a sudden, the audience was interacting back with me as a public speaker. Though challenging, it led to me developing the skills to engage back and listen, I actually started talking to people about what they care about more than just standing up on a stage and debating on a topic.

Someone nominated me for the SU role, I have no idea to this day who did! I got the nomination and I talked about it with my friends, from my course, from the GCR. I said, ‘I'm thinking about standing’, and the reply I got was ‘it sounds perfect, you should do it!’. It was basically reassurance from the community that encouraged me to do it.

The best part and the worst part about being in a student’s union role is that there's always more to do. I feel that the most important thing I have done this year is to leave a legacy for the next person to continue to work on. One thing that I'm hoping that I've achieved in post is to raise awareness of postgraduate issues across the university. I know that a lot of the senior leadership in the university is very sick of me constantly asking ‘what about the postgrads?’ (Thank you to them for being so patient with me on this!).

Within the SU, I have tried to make governance changes that take care of postgraduate students. I took a paper to the Trustee board where I said that we need to do a review of the students’ union as a whole in terms of how we are serving our postgraduate population. One of my legacy projects is the pilot Postgraduate Consultation Group, which will continue hopefully till 2025. I started it and recruited for it and it comprises 15 postgraduate students, from different backgrounds; colleges, parents, part-time students, mature students. My biggest achievement for the group is that I got funding for it from the university and the SU (combined £27,700). So, every student who sits on the group till 2024/25 will be paid. The overall purpose of the group is to represent postgraduate opinion to the university, beyond the single VP Graduate position.

Professor Goodman has been a great mentor, he's always there whenever I need help. As has Dr Baldwin, and Filiz. They're always there whenever I need opinions or advice about university and college matters. It's so great to have collegiate support. And this support extends to others affiliated with St Antony’s like Professor Nandini Gooptu who was on the Vice Chancellor’s Nomination Committee with me and guided me through it. Also, Professor Patricia Daley, my incredible mentor in the role is going to be on Antony’s Race Equality committee and was with me on the Education Committee and Council.

All these individuals and many others, including my Antonian friends have truly supported and kept me going in this role – 35+ committees, events and projects can get quite hectic as you can imagine!

What's next for you? Do you have any specific goals for your career that you would be happy to share?

I started my new role as the EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) Officer with the University of Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit, in September, after a two-week break. I am excited about the role because I am finally experiencing what it is like to sit on the other end of the table when it comes to the University and EDI. It is a short, fixed-term role for me to experience what EDI involves in Higher Education and I am grateful to Adrienne Hopkins at the EDU for the opportunity. Also, it is a good next step from Minorities Officer to SU Vice President to EDI Officer.

I am most grateful to the incredible postgraduate students at the University of Oxford, the Oxford SU staff team and my fellow Sabbatical officers for being a brilliant team. I have so many thanks to give to people, across the University, who have been incredibly supportive on this journey, and to St Antony's College for allowing me to call it home and providing me with the community I needed in this phase. It is a matter of pride, to be an Antonian.

I know for a fact that I want to go into Higher Education governance, to make the student life and University experience better for all involved. My role at the SU really helped me realise that. Oxford is an academic democracy, run by academics; I love that about it and it's definitely made me realise that I want to go into education leadership. I'm keen to stay in the UK for a bit longer, but I'm very open to international options.

What advice would you offer to incoming graduate students?

It would be foolhardy to say don't be scared. I understand that Oxford and St Antony’s can seem like a very daunting space to be in at first. My advice to the individuals who are coming in is that it’s okay to be scared. I believe that courage lies in overcoming that fear as much as you can and the best part about Oxford and the college is that it's going to be as good as you make it for yourself. So, if you choose to be the individual who sits in your room and gets a distinction on their thesis and their exams and that's what you want out of your degree and your Oxford life, that is totally fine. But if you want to be the person who steps out, interacts with every single person who's out there, participates in committee work, and multiple extra-curricular activities, that's what your Oxford experience can be as well, and that is very valuable.

It's what you want to make of it. Don't think that you have to be a scholar. Don't think you have to be a sports person. It's a chance to reinvent yourself, and I hope that the incoming graduate students look at it that way. It is a whole new world and it is for you.

Final question: what do you consider your biggest failure to date, and what have you learned from it? And on the other side, what has been your proudest achievement so far?

My proudest achievement has definitely been the Postgraduate Consultation Group, for this year. They are an incredible group of people and they just represent all that postgraduates have to offer this university, and I am so happy to have played a role in it.

I would definitely say one of my biggest issues in life in general is that I'm so bad with boundaries. And by this, I mean I have a tendency to get over-involved and commit myself to lots of things. It’s great, and I love doing it, and that's how my life runs. But one of the things I wish I could do more is to take a step back and appreciate things more as they happen. I have very fond, nostalgic memories of all the things that have happened, but it's been such a rush, with the dinners, the meetings, etc., it just keeps coming.

There are very regular failures, for example, the world will never find out how much I've cried after a particular committee! I fail every single day. It’s an important learning experience, to realise that not every committee you sit on will be a hundred percent successful. In my SU role, there are far more things I've failed at than I've succeeded at, but it's those little successes and the people around you that really keep you going at the end of the day, and that's what matters.

I think resilience is a really important quality to have. This brings me to one particular failure that I can tell you about. When I was applying to UK universities for the first time in 2018, I applied to Oxford and I got rejected. I cried, oh God, the amount I cried! But this turned out for the best, and Edinburgh prepared me so well for coming to do an MPhil at Oxford. It was exactly what I needed and I didn't realise it at the time.

Being resilient to change is something I find very important. I'm one of those individuals who personally absolutely detests change, but in my SU role, in particular, I've really learned the value of it. Especially as being identified as a person who pushes for change when the university doesn't necessarily want to change. It's been such a big lesson and one thing that has really helped me just stay resilient and happy is accepting change. I've noticed that when I get upset the most, it is when I'm not being reactive to change. As a community, I feel there is resistance to change and there always will be in the university and college, they are both old established institutions with their own traditions and practices. But the only thing that will sustain us with the values that we have as a community is when we are okay with accepting change when it knocks at our doors. It is by no means easy, I am very aware, but it needs to happen to progress.

Read Devika's Impact Report as Oxford Student Union Vice President Graduates (2021-2022)

Find out more about the Postgraduate Consultation Group

Chancellor Chris Patten with Oxford SU's President, Anvee and VP Graduates, Devika in May 2022. The first time in centuries that students sat on the Vice Chancellor's Nomination Committee

Chancellor Chris Patten with Oxford SU's President, Anvee and VP Graduates, Devika in May 2022. The first time in centuries that students sat on the Vice Chancellor's Nomination Committee