For the future of the SDF community, everyone’s contribution counts
Emily Hopkinson, Leaving SDF Secretary
Interview by Dr Rossana Espinoza
Emily, tell me about how you joined the SDF?
I found out about the SDF very early on in my career. I knew about the JISCmail so I joined. I was aware of the conversations and the conferences. Once I put forward a proposal to run a workshop at the SDF conference. This is how I got involved in the work of the SDF. The answer is I joined the SDF gradually.
What were your motivations to join the SDF in the role of secretary?
My motivations were to develop my career. I wanted to understand what other universities were doing. I also wanted to know my network better. I had the skills they were looking for, so I thought I would give it a go. I once heard Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor at Liverpool. She talked about how during her career she would say yes to things and wonder afterwards if she could do it. I did this with the SDF secretary role. I knew I had the skills, whether I could fit that with my job that I didn’t know.
Looking retrospectively, now that you are concluding your period with the SDF, why has this been important or so significant for you?
It developed my confidence in my own knowledge and understanding, in my ability to comprehend what is going on in lots of different places, hold that, think where the SDF can go to and then see that happen. It developed my understanding of the national picture around the Higher Education sector and staff development. It contributed to my strategic thinking skills.
Before starting the interview, you talked briefly about your family and children, how did you balance your life, career and the work that you did for the SDF? What helped?
Staff developers and the people that are in the staff development profession are, generally speaking, emotionally intelligent – there are aware of the impact of their selves on others. They are supportive and constructive. They are quite kind on each other. In working with Kathy, Nick, Wendy, Linda and yourself, it is implicit that you support each other. It is the same with the community as well; there is high professionalism, always. There is high standard but there is not that instant demand like in the workplace. There is a lot of empathy. What makes this a doable role is that you are working with emotionally intelligent people.
In you, I see a very professional, dynamic and active person, who wanted to achieve something for yourself by joining the SDF Executive team; did you have, intuitively or more explicitly, personal or professional objectives when you started the role of Secretary for the SDF?
Yes, I knew that I wanted to progress in my career. I was happy in the role I was doing at the University of Sheffield. However, I wanted to develop a much broader understanding of what was happening outside my role in the institution I worked. I knew that taking up this role would be of benefit to me later on. I don’t have a master plan, but I thought this would help.
How do you feel about the SDF?
Now, I feel it is at a real pivotal point. It is really useful and beneficial for people. It could have positive impact, on far more people. However, this depends on the community wanting to engage with the community more and reaching out the regions through the SDF Regional execs. So instead of doing the same, the SDF needs people to articulate what is that they need. People are willing to do other things, but we need to know what these things are. SDF is accessible, it is doing really well and it could be more.
You have been an insider, part of the SDF Executive team, how would you describe the culture or ‘feel’ of the SDF? To explain myself, we don’t have headquarters; we don’t work 9 to 5. It is a very interesting organisation. What things worked and what things didn’t work?
SDF is open, sharing, collaborative and developmental. It wouldn’t work that the SDF directs people, telling them what to do. If it hasn’t come from the community, nothing really happens. It works well when the SDF has been self-generative, when the idea may come from the community; the individual runs with it and makes it happen. However, if the SDF says that, as a community, we have to do something, the actual community would question it because such direction wouldn’t be necessarily helpful.
What has been enjoyable, satisfying and good for you in your time with the SDF?
What has been super enjoyable is working with diverse people, a group of colleagues like Nick, Kathy, Linda, Wendy and you, with whom there is no way I would have come into contact to do such a piece of work. No doubt, we would have met through the conferences, but we would have not worked together. I enjoyed learning from different people various ways of approaching things. Also, it has been very satisfying to see thought ideas become reality.
What opportunities did you have access, whilst working for the SDF?
I had the opportunity to organise a national conference. If I hadn’t been on the SDF Executive team, I would not have been able to go to any conferences. Development budgets are so tight in organisations. Perhaps, I would have been able to go to one but not the five conferences I went to in the end. We used to run two conferences a year. I got a lot of personal development by going to the conferences. I didn’t have a conversation with my manager about the cost of attending conferences. This was a real benefit of working for the SDF.
What skills did you enhance, develop or generate via your work on the SDF?
I would say networking. As being part of the SDF Executive team, I found it easier to talk to people at conferences that I may have otherwise. When attending the SDF conferences, I already had a role, so personally I would find easier to talk to people. If I am just one of many in the room, I would probably stand on a corner (laughs). Networking is much more comfortable and much happier.
On the other hand, what has been frustrating, difficult or perhaps upsetting to you in your time with the SDF?
The challenge is always that there is so much you can do and just not enough time. There are so many good ideas out there. Then I had to come back to earth and questioned who is going to do it?
What was your biggest achievement?
Personally, a big achievement of being part of the SDF Executive team has been that we have re-focused the direction of the SDF. We defined what our core aims are (website, networks, coaching) and we really worked on those things in the limited amount of time that we have. We started to see the benefits of that. The website looks brilliant. I know that you are doing lots of work behind the scenes so thank you. It is something that will always need to be developed. The big achievement is that we have kept the SDF going. I think with the regions, we would like to see them to pick up a bit more on engagement.
How has the SDF enabled you to make fuller use of your capabilities and potential?
Because it let me, the SDF gave me her permission and support. There is no pressure because it wasn’t part of my line management paid job. There is a risk in that the reach of the SDF is national, but this risk of making mistakes is different from the risk of making mistakes in your job.
What suggestion would you make to improve the work of the SDF?
We need to go out into the regions more, visit them more. We need to work harder, to do more of the understanding and listening side of the exec role. I think there is something around what makes lives easier at the individual level – for the community members.
What would you pass on your successor?
I would say do it, enjoy it, really commit to it 100% and see where it takes you. Use it as a learning opportunity. Use it to develop whatever you want to develop or need to develop. We have these different titles because the SDF has charity status and its governance requires that we have a chair, a secretary, for example, but we are not bound by those titles. As long as you are doing the role of secretary, you don’t have to stop there. The title of your role doesn’t stop you from participating in wider discussions, such as how to raise income, how to increase participation at the regions. This is the key of working for the SDF. Everyone’s contribution counts. This is powerful for the future of the community.
I see in you a person with a wealth of knowledge and experience, so how has the SDF benefited from this?
We kept moving. We haven’t stagnated. It is about what I know and the energy I put coupled with what all of us in the SDF Executive team know and put, in order to use it all to keep momentum and move forward, rather than looking inwards and contemplating for sake of contemplating.
Why would you recommend others to apply for your position?
Why wouldn’t you? It is a fantastic opportunity of working with a group of committed people, doing something at a national scale. You have the opportunity to hear and understand more than what you would at your institution or your part of the team that you work with. You will go to SDF conferences for free. There is so much benefit. You will always get far more than what you put in. Sometimes, this may not be truth in life but it is truth in this role. You commit to initiatives, you take action and you will see things taking place.
On retrospect, what could you have done better or more for the SDF?
I could have organised the conference better, I think I am continuing to learn that I do not have to do everything by myself. Probably, I could have done more reaching out to other people, like networking, or picking up the phone to reach more people than I did.
What would you say about the communications between SDF and members, and how could these be improved?
I think we need to explore using other forms of social media, rather than relying on emails. To enable learning and development, it is not necessary that we have everyone in the room at the same time.
Dr. Rossana Espinoza
SDF Communications officer