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In conversation with your student president: Sara Youssef

Debate’s graphic designer, Charlie Ratahi, sat down with AUTSA President Sara Youssef to discuss the hardships students face today, overcoming fear of judgment and honoring Te Tiriti.


It’s clear you have so much passion for equity and student welfare - what motivates you to represent students at AUT?

First of all, what a privilege. And what a compliment. To say that it's obvious means a lot to me. Everything I do in my role fills my cup. I care a lot about the students. And there's nothing better than a student coming up to you, and knowing your face and saying, ‘Sara, I need your help’. It means so much to me. And it genuinely feels so purposeful. Every day is so different. And I'm learning so much, I'm learning about governance, I'm learning about leadership and being a team member. I'm learning how to listen and how to be a better person. And just learning about how the world works, really. I think this is why I'm so passionate about what I do. If I'm not like that, then who else would be, you know? I want them to trust the Student Association. I want people to come to us because we can genuinely do something. Especially because I feel like AUTSA is not that visible within the student body. It's really important that when a student comes, you need to make sure that there's a positive outcome for them. And so it's a reputational thing as well. Like if a student had an issue and then like, oh, to help me or Sara helped me, they will come back to us if that makes sense. And yeah, when they tell you, thank you, whoa, that's what makes me want to do more things. I really love this place. I love being here. I love walking around. I love talking to people. Yeah, it's just, it's just my happy place.


You wrote an open letter for Debate last year about the government neglecting students’ wellbeing. How has the student political landscape changed in that time?

I think a lot of students especially after the cyclone and post-Covid, there is a lot of mental health talk. We've got a new vice chancellor, which means priorities are going to change. His number one priority is Te Tiriti and things like that. And so that's a big change, which I believe we didn't have before.


What issues do you think will be prioritsed in this year's student presidential election?

I think student wellbeing will always be a major topic - advocating for students and advocating for their needs. Also, I think it's really important to acknowledge that my needs are different than yours. My needs are different from a Pākehā person or a Māori person or Pasifika person. If you have another Egyptian, my needs are different from theirs. It's important to recognise that our student body is so diverse, and should be a case by case scenario.


This is why it's so difficult when somebody tells me ‘Oh, well you represent over 29,000 students.’ That's actually really hard. You will never ever be able to represent that many people. But being open to understanding, being open to learn new things, and being open to listen. It’s so important to listen, because you could think that it's not really a need that students need, but if that one person needs it, then you need to help them. And so it's really hard to say, but definitely advocating and the wellbeing of students is a major topic, especially with the cost of the cost of living crisis. Rent is so fucking high. Fucking high, for no reason. Like, do you think these are the challenges that our students are facing? Some students don't even show up to class because they have to work and support their families. So, how do we cater for these students? Or how do we cater for students who have a disability? That's why I wanted to say ‘cater for different needs’, because international students, students with disabilities or domestic students or Pasifika, Māori, it's just different needs, and everybody's got different needs.

That's why I'm hoping that the next person understands that everybody has different needs. Don't ever go into a conversation with a decision in mind. Because you need to listen first and be very open to receiving feedback.


What are some of the difficulties students in Aotearoa face today?

It’s definitely the cost of living. But also the cost of university and the cost of transport. The cost of family if you need to take care of family, or your medical bills and your international travels, if you're an international student. Maybe you have a surgery coming up… all these things play a major factor. And it impacts your academic performance as well. So, if you need to take care of all these things, are you really going to show up to class? This is the last thing that I would want to do if I needed to make money to survive. And I think students find it quite difficult to ask for help because nobody wants to ask for help. Let's be honest, why would I want the other person to know that I'm struggling? But it's that misconception of ‘are they really going to help?’ That needs to be broken as well. Mental health again is a big, big deal. Wellbeing and whether that's social wellbeing, financial wellbeing, mental wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing, physical wellbeing - it's all of these things at once.


What’s it like to be an Egyptian woman in this role?

In Egyptian culture, we're very generous and collective. So bringing that into my presidency is quite important. Because you are representing people, which is a collective. Another thing is kai. So for us, you don't eat alone. You just don't. You bring people together to eat. Food is more than nutrition for us. When I have food, I love to bring people with me, sit down and have a chat. I think this is some of my culture coming through. And it's almost like you're expected to help others. I want to say it's in my blood. I bring my identity into work and I'm not afraid to do that.


What's your proudest achievement during your time as president?

Putting on the hijab was a really big deal to me. And I wanna be 100% honest, I always wanted to wear the hijab. One of the reasons why I didn't want to put it on was, I was worried the people I'm working with, at AUT or AUTSA, think differently about me. Or if I'm bringing up a student issue - would they take it seriously? And I shouldn't have felt that way, because that's crazy. That's you compromising your values and beliefs for other people, and you should never do that. And so I was thinking like, shit, if I put it on, would I still be a good president? It took me months of putting it on and off at uni. And then I was like, ‘You know what, I'm just gonna put it on and see how it goes.’ I think that's one of my proudest achievements.


I'm also proud of my team and how far they've come. The biggest thing that I'm proud of, though, is starting our Te Tiriti journey. It is so exciting. There's a lot of uncertainty, and that's the beauty in it. It needs to start and it needs to start now. And so now we're having conversations with the Māori student association, and the national Māori student association, to make sure that we're co-designing those processes alongside Māori. That will take time and it is a hard journey because there's so many foundational things that you need to break, but it is a journey that we definitely need to be on. We need to ensure that the end goal is to work alongside each other. We can't make those decisions on our own. But I don't want to say I'm proud yet, because I feel like there's so much to do in that space. But I'm proud that it’s started. My advice is that everybody needs to fucking read New Zealand history. Aotearoa history.


How can students have their say?

There are so many channels that students can go through. It could be as simple as messaging me on Instagram. Walk up to me like say hi! I want you to say what you need, because then I can do my job. You can also get in touch with AUTSA, advocacy or Debate. The most important thing is knowing who your representative is. If you're an international student, international officer. For instance, if you've got academic problems, or issues and stuff like that, know who your reps are, you can find out on autsa.org.nz. You can just walk up to us or just rock up to the office. Give us a call if you don't want to come in.

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