Cheese Grater Journalist Makes Sabb Cry In Meeting

Nick Miao

Activities and Engagement Officer Aria Shi, right, pictured tearing up during Questions to Officers at the final Activities Zone meeting on 28th May 2024.

Activities and Engagement Officer Aria Shi, right, pictured tearing up during Questions to Officers at the final Activities Zone meeting on 28th May 2024.

Something is wrong with democracy at the Students’ Union. We may have held onto the impressive record of holding the largest student election in the UK, with 11,177 voters, or 23.8% of UCL’s student population. But we also re-elected, by a significant majority, a sabbatical officer who was unashamedly open about her ‘lazy’ attitude towards the role.

I am, of course, talking about none other than Activities and Engagement Officer Aria Shi, whose shock resignation – almost as shocking as her re-election victory – will come to offer a massive sigh of relief for anyone who has vaguely been involved in clubs and societies.

Since the Pi article failed to go anywhere near the heart of the issue, The Cheese Grater (awarded best publication) has once again been left to do their job. So, at the last Union Activities Zone meeting, I took the opportunity to ask Aria a number of rapid-fire questions reviewing her tenure as a sabb. These questions, I should add, were based on what she had actually done (or claimed to have done) as Activities Officer in her written reports, not what she said she would do during her leadership campaign (which involved a lot of fantasy economics and broken promises).

I began by asking her about the ‘arts and cultural exchange initiative’ that she had begun talks for with Fudan University in China. I told her that I wasn’t convinced that students would actually see an exchange programme come to fruition because I couldn’t find anything on the Fudan side reciprocating the initiative.

Aria couldn’t give me a straight answer. She said that ‘[Fudan] couldn’t do anything at the moment. We were aiming in the summer to do something online about culture’, but at this stage, they were still ‘discussing the details’. Clearly struggling to come up with a substantial response, Postgraduate Officer Issy Smith came to the rescue and told me that, as part of the Student Life Strategy, the Union will be ‘hiring an intercultural engagement manager who will be leading a lot of these international exchanges’.

I then asked Aria about the infamous sleeping pods, which she was still pledging to do in her re-election campaign. In her March Report, she said that she was ‘working to coordinate the timely launch of the Napping Zone’. Were this to go ahead, this would become the fourth sleeping pod pilot scheme in the last decade: one in 2014, one in 2019, one in 2022 under Welfare and Community Officer Umair Mehmood (an equally incompetent sabb, for those who remember), and now hers.

I put it to Aria that this is another vanity project by an out-of-ideas sabb, and that if her pilot isn’t substantially different from previous pilots, then it amounts to a waste of Union resources. In Aria’s defence, she did narrowly escape joining the ranks of Umair as a sleeping pod sabb by failing to launch the pilot altogether, blaming UCL for ‘not giving us the space for it’. This is ironic because spaces were a core part of her initial campaign in 2023.

Aria responded by saying the fact that this idea had been proposed four times suggests ‘[Students] actually want and need [the sleeping pods]. I don’t see it as wasting resources because we actually need it’. I’m not sure if there is a conflation between want and need. I’m also not sure if this policy falls within the purview of ‘activities and engagement’, something she appears to have absolutely zero interest in even though that is quite literally her job title, evident from her mysterious absence at this year’s Arts Awards. At any rate, she insisted that this is why the Union building (which is Union President Mary McHarg’s policy) is so important, because UCL would always prioritise spaces for teaching before other things.

Lastly, I asked Aria about her notorious campaigning tactics at the Leadership Race, having received a 48-hour ban on campaigning for breaking the Union’s election rules. I put it to her that her strategy of mobilising the support of the largest ethnic group on campus to vote for her along communal lines, evident from her rule-breaking posters which (only in the Chinese version) included nationalist rhetoric such as ‘Chinese people do not lie to Chinese people’ (中國人不騙中國人), is tantamount to ethno-populism.

Aria began her response by saying that Chinese students, who account for the vast majority of UCL’s international student body, have historically had low engagement rates with the Union. She described herself as an ‘atypical AEO [Activities and Engagement Officer]’ in that she focuses on the ‘engagement’ side of things: ‘AEO doesn’t just represent active members’, she says. ‘There are people out there being neglected by clubs and societies’ who are ‘not feeling welcome or wanted’.

Aria then began tearing up as she spoke about her experience of feeling excluded from clubs and societies as an undergraduate student. As she left the room, she added ‘I just want to say, I totally understand some people are not happy about me being [re-]elected, but there’s no point to raise it as a collective Chinese issue. What’s the point of targeting the whole nation, when you think the problem is the body problem? [sic]’

I think it’s helpful at this point to note that I am Chinese myself and did not intend to raise the question as a ‘collective Chinese issue’. I think it is fair that Aria is concerned about the low engagement rates among Chinese students at UCL, and I think it’s terrible that anyone should feel unwelcome in our clubs and societies.

My concern is the dangerous precedent that Aria’s successive campaigns have set for future sabbatical candidates. Her strategy of targeting a specific ethnic group with nationalist rhetoric – at the cost of alienating others – has proved to be so successful that she won her re-election despite having absolutely nothing to show for it. Aria isn’t wrong in saying that the Activities and Engagement Officer shouldn’t only represent active and engaged members. But I’m not convinced that she has been an Activities and Engagement Officer for all UCL students in her endeavour to be ‘UCL’s first Chinese Activities and Engagement Officer’.

I also worry that we are already seeing the consequences of the precedent that Aria has set. Of the six candidates who won their sabbatical post in this year’s Leadership Race, four were on some kind of ethnic or nationalist slate. It certainly didn’t fill me with confidence when Equity and Inclusion Officer-elect Eda Yildirimkaya’s campaign team began waving the Turkish flag on the podium at the results ceremony. The joke almost writes itself.

UCL students are spared from another year of Aria’s incompetence, who – very fortunately – received an offer to study at Columbia University. But her tenure and her re-election victory will serve well both as an alarm bell for the state of student democracy at UCL and a warning for those who come next. I wish Aria all the best in her future endeavours, but I hope to God that she will never be allowed back into public office.

Students’ Union UCL responded with the following comment:

“During Aria’s year as a Sabbatical Officer, she has reinforced the need for the Union to improve engagement with Chinese students, a group that sadly has low levels of engagement in students’ union activity. We want to change this, and Aria has led our work this year to improve our relationship with Chinese students. That work will continue after Aria leaves to take up a fantastic opportunity at Columbia University.

In May, Aria and Issy were in China visiting universities and forming partnerships, including Fudan University. Delegates from Fudan University will be visiting the Union at the end of July as part of an ongoing relationship that we hope will benefit students at UCL in the years to come.

We wish Aria all the luck and success in the future and Aria leaves UCL knowing she has made an important contribution to our mission to build a vibrant and empowered student community with real influence in UCL and beyond.”

Activities and Engagement Officer Aria Shi responded with the following comment:

“Shocking as her re-election victory” – You wouldn’t be shocked if you actually knew about all the amazing work I’ve done and my achievements, the urgency of the problem, and how many students feel related. 21% were underrepresented. 90% of people (60% being non-Chinese) I talked to are aware but have taken no action.

How do I identify my priorities: We live in a world that changes rapidly, and I see myself as someone who adapts to changing situations. My priorities didn’t fully form before my election; they developed during the election while talking to students and understanding their concerns. I have several proposals in different areas, and when I reached out to students, the topics that interested people the most were related to low engagement among Chinese students and understanding China. Almost 80% of useful feedback was related to this. By useful feedback, I mean conversations that led to further discussion rather than just nodding. These reflections were collected without bias (gender, nationality, age, etc blind). When prioritizing, I used two main criteria: A. There’s an urgent need. B. It will have a long-lasting impact. Surprisingly, this issue was on everyone’s mind, but the awareness of tackling it had never been brought up.

“Her ‘lazy’ attitude towards the role” – One of the big things I’ve done this year is establishing the “Arts and Cultural Exchange”. It’s hard to convince people that I don’t care about the arts when I initiated an exchange in this area, right? The previous article about me claiming I just don’t care is not true; I never intended to express that view.

Exchange and reciprocating the initiative – This will happen. It was brought to the LT in March, and I’ve been promised it will be prioritized. The following are not just my vision but opportunities that people have actually offered.

Fudan has proposed and offered many things, including student representative connections, mutual visits, a showcase at their university anniversary celebration (their most important annual event), a tour in Shanghai, slots in their theatre, a traditional costume showcase, etc. With SJUT, we are discussing sports and volunteering. Their team is participating in the Olympics this summer and wants to visit as well, with opportunities for a “friendly match”, etc. We are also linking with galleries in Shanghai, the China Academy of Art, and other external organizations to supplement these initiatives. Fudan’s Youth League Committee and Student Affairs Office (equivalent to our SU) have confirmed a delegation of around 50 people to visit in late July.

As my time in this role is limited and this is a big project, my strategy at this stage is to gather as many opportunities as possible to maximize the value of this exchange and trip, leaving students to select and professional staff members to support.

“Hiring an intercultural engagement manager who will be leading a lot of these international exchanges” – There is a Head of Intercultural Engagement, Talia, who started this academic year. I’ve gradually handed over all connections and this project to her. New staff members will be hired to support intercultural engagement (i.e., the manager mentioned) and will heavily lead this effort.

“Mysterious absence at this year’s Arts Awards” – I was on sick leave on Friday due to a medical emergency and hosted the community awards on Thursday.

Poster – I ensured there was at least one English version on the same wall as the Chinese version by Monday evening 8pm of campaign week where I finished putting up all of them. By Tuesday, the majority of my English posters across different buildings “mysteriously disappeared,” while all the Chinese ones remained. An instant complaint “happened” to be submitted the same day and I was not given any room for appeal.

“Chinese people do not lie to Chinese people” – This is a trendy black humor reference among my target audience rather than a nationalist rhetoric. Misunderstanding and incorrect accusations are caused by a lack of understanding of my culture. See the attached link for this term being selected as the buzzword of the year in the annual behavioral report of Generation Z. I see this as a marketing strategy similar to how your misleading title of this article, “You Make Me Cry”, actually refers to me recalling my experiences rather than you questioning me, and only one sentence in the article says about it.

“At the cost of alienating others” – This is not true. From the start of my biggest project, “the Exchange”, I made it quite clear that it targets UCL non-Chinese students. I believe bringing students to China and encouraging them to experience and understand Chinese culture as well as collaboration in arts, sports, volunteering is an important part of fostering an inclusive campus. It also provides guidance for student leaders on how to interact with this specific and extremely large community, leading to mutual understanding and greater Chinese engagement on campus.

Very fortunately, I’ve received several offers from HYMPS and Ivy League schools due to my extraordinary academic abilities rather than luck.

Incompetence – I’m not sure if, after this clarification, you still see me as incompetent, but I look forward to more articles about me and my priorities (both recognition and criticism).

This article appeared in CG 87.