Elected in Spring with more than 65 per cent of the vote, it’s hard to argue that SU Activities and Opportunities Officer, Oli Gray, wasn’t the popular choice. Concrete sat down with Gray to chat about his plans for UEA’s sports clubs, how he wants to widen participation in sports at UEA and why sport can help with mental health.
He’s bristling with enthusiasm as we sit down in one of the Bookable Rooms, and we soon end up discussing his manifesto pledges for sports clubs.
Gray, who has taken a year out of his undergraduate study in Environmental Science for the role after his second year, explains his background in university sport. A keen swimmer as a child, he became part of the UEA Surf and Snow Sports committees last year, which really made him realise the opportunities university sport held.
Interestingly, he picks out speaking at a Year 10 summer school as one of his highlights of the job so far, citing the “eye-opening” possibilities for sport at university compared to school, thanks to UEA’s 60 clubs.
In terms of the role, Gray has a varied job. “I started in July. What strikes me is that it’s such a varied role. One minute I’ll be planning freshers’, the next I’ll be in a Sports Operations meeting with the Sportspark team, the next I’ll be planning some key financial decisions.”
The job is also about talking to staff and students – he’s looking forward to meeting more of them this semester – representing students and campaigning on issues that affect sport and societies at UEA.
Gray explains he has three key strands of campaigning.
“Mental health – a lot of the student officers campaign on mental health, so it was important that I made it specific to our student groups [sports clubs, societies etc.]. We’ve got two big ideas for this, around mental health in sport. The first is activity sessions… physical activity can really help.
“The UEA Sport team has done some fantastic work in getting sessions on, particularly around the exam season. You might have seen the Chill Out or Smash it Out sessions, including Yoga, Boxfit and walking around the lake, and we’re looking to continue that this year.”
Gray explains that he’s also passionate about getting mental health training to club committees, citing recent statistics that suggest that students are far more likely to turn to their friends for help than professionals.
Gray says he wants to use ‘mental health first-aid training’ to empower sports clubs, “training our students to signpost people and point them in the direction to get some more help. And I think that’ll really help not just sports club members, but everyone at UEA. Quite often the hardest thing on that journey is seeking help.”
“My second campaign is around Wednesday afternoons and keeping them free. I didn’t want to just keep it around Wednesday afternoons, though, because any late lectures are rubbish!
“The majority of courses are creeping later and later into the evenings. We believe in the Students’ Union that part of the reason for that is there are more students and not enough space. As an officer team, we’re working to make sure current students’ timetabling isn’t affected by the increase in student numbers.”
“My third and final one is around value for money.” One of Gray’s major election pledges was to encourage sports clubs and societies to offer single-semester memberships to students, with a particular focus on international students enrolled at UEA for one term. This also extends to a reduced SAM fee for one semester.
Gray recognises that there are obstacles to tackle here in terms of club budgeting, explaining how much his job entails financial decisions (he’s also chair of the SU’s Finance Committee), and how he represents both students and club committees – needing to balance their interests.
He explains: “Cost should never be a barrier to participating in sport or activities. We’ve worked with the Sportspark team to ensure that Sports Association Membership (SAM) has been frozen at £50 this year which is good news for our students.”
So, what does a typical day look like for Oli Gray? He shows me his diary, packed with staff committee meetings, leadership sessions and presentations. It’s a cliché, but he’s right: “no two days are ever the same.” Gray’s looking forward to BUCS matches starting, having dropped in on a number of taster sessions, and says he’s keen to watch as many UEA sports teams as he can, having travelled to Essex last year for Derby Day.
“I’ll be down at Colney Lane week-in, week-out,” he smiles.
Among his current workload, Gray wants to focus on promoting sports clubs (“we need to shout about what they do”) and he has done a lot of work on the newly-revamped Sports Night, the first of which will be this Wednesday (10th).
Inclusivity and accessibility are major keys, with Gray keen on breaking down barriers to sporting participation among the student body – he’s currently organising the return of the Take A Stand charter, a public display of inclusivity among sports clubs.
I couldn’t let an interview with Gray pass without asking about the UEA institution that is Concrete Confessions. Do the officers actually read it? His response was interesting: “I love Concrete Confessions. It’s the student voice. It’s good for us as a Students’ Union to see what students are really thinking.” He’s open to listening to everyone’s ideas, especially directly: “it’s my job to listen to people.”
So, all that in mind, my last question to Gray was a simple one. What, when the year is up, would make him proud of his time in the role?
“Because I’ll be returning to university sport, I’ll get a chance to see the difference that I’ve made first-hand. That’ll be the point that I can look back and see the impact.”