Here we speak to current JCR President, Elizabeth Heywood (2022, Philosophy and Theology) about her life in College.

Thank you for sitting down to talk with us today. Would you introduce yourself to the Women's Network?

Elizabeth Heywood, JCR President (2024)

I’m Lizzie, a second year studying Philosophy and Theology at St. Johns, and the new JCR President. I’d never really studied Philosophy and Theology before coming here and it was a bit of a shock to the system in first year, delving straight into philosophical logic and the life and influence of Jesus, especially considering I couldn’t then, and probably still couldn’t now, tell you a single verse of the Bible! Now that I'm in my second year, I can focus more on the things I am actually interested in. So far this year, I have studied ethics, the relationship between science and religion and now metaphysics. It is hard but rewarding and doing subjects with friends who also need to stay in the library into the early hours of the day makes it a whole lot more manageable.

College politics is an integral part of many student's lives at College. How long have you been JCR President and why do you think College politics are relevant to students?

Technically I have been JCR President from the last weekend of last term, so from early December, but given that I spent December and the start of January skiing and in India, it didn’t really feel like I had started until I got back to College at the start of this term and met with the staff and my committee for the first time.

I don’t think there was really a ‘moment’ when I decided I wanted to go for it. In my first term I was asked by a friend to run together with them as an Entertainment Officer, and we unexpectedly won! So this time last year I was getting to grips with running internal and external bops and other events. I enjoyed that job so much and became close friends with the two previous presidents, and those relationships encouraged me to become more involved, which is when I became Women's Rep. I then was co-chair of Fresher’s Week just last October, and that gave me more responsibility which I really enjoyed. Through all those experiences, I felt like I had a good grasp of JCR politics and roles, and it was largely that which encouraged me to run. I think there was also a healthy dose of ‘Who else is going to do it?’ and a bit of unexpected confidence that I would be able to do the role well. It was an amalgamation of many things.

I don’t think College could run effectively without having someone advocating for what students need, and what will make their university experience better. However one wants to think about the relationship between College and the JCR, it’s definitely one that requires communication from both sides, since students want certain things from the College which equally places rules and requirements on students in a way that is unique to the in-between stage of life that is university. The great student experience we have at St. John’s would also be hugely decreased without having the JCR Committee. They organise guest nights, welfare events and liaise with College about sports team budgets, just to name a few things. I’m happy and willing to lead that team and think the things that we do will always be relevant to student life.

What are your top priorities for your time as JCR president and how do you hope to achieve these?

Firstly, I’m motivated to sort out a JCR charity reform. In short, the JCR has its own charity budget composed by a small amount money collected from termly battels. Right now, the spending of this pot of money is not optimised; it gets sent to charities that most students haven’t heard of and usually no one is checking up on those charities to make sure they are spending the money effectively. There’s also the bigger problem that students are paying for this money to be sent to places and generally feel like they have little say, since few people know it happens and even fewer tend to vote. I want to start talking about charities a lot more and start running fundraising events. With this newfound exposure, I want people to nominate charities and then get the explicit chance to vote on who they want to support. In an ideal world, we’d support a nationwide/global charity and local charity every year and announce the charity of the year in a big event. It’s ambitious, but the MCR have a similar scheme and it works well. It’s something I care about a lot and, as the richest College in Oxford I think it’s something that we as a JCR need to talk about a lot more.

Secondly, there’s a lot to be done on the accommodation front. Right now, all students (except a very small number) must move their belongings and themselves out every term. This is inconvenient, costly, bad for the environment, bad for morale and the list goes on. It’s also especially difficult for a small number of students that are estranged from their families or might live very far away. I’ve been having some discussions about this problem and thinking up solutions. Getting any change on this would be huge and I know I’d really appreciate not having to move out every term!

Thirdly, I want to ask for more exposure to College committees. I think JCR representatives should be welcomed at any College committee and I want to investigate whether the ‘reserved’ agenda of committee meetings could possibly include us. Being there for more discussions of how things work and are changing would hugely help me to understand College better and help me to be a better ambassador for the College to the student body.

What are the best and worst things about being an undergraduate student at SJC in 2024?

The best part of being an undergraduate at St. John’s is that we genuinely have a good time or have the opportunity to have a good time outside our studies. We have ample welfare support since the employment of the new head of student wellbeing, Hanne Clark, who is building a team around her to support students no matter what they are going through. We have newly invigorated and often open bar bops, subsidised by the JCR budget, and we have two termly guest dinners which are ridiculously oversubscribed, testament to how popular they are. This also extends to the fact that many have College-given grants for their sporting endeavours, and we have the cheapest accommodation in Oxford. Overall, student wellbeing is generally pretty good.

It is hard to say what the worst part about being an undergraduate student at St. John’s is. I think there are very few things that people dislike about St. John’s that don’t apply to the university as a whole - like large workloads, having to move about between terms. For better or for worse, many consider St. John’s quite insular, with many spending most of their time in College and not getting involved in external societies. But this also benefits many; year groups are well-integrated because most people consider hall and the bar the primary social spaces, and since very few live out, it means you’re living with your best friends in close proximity.

You were previously Women's Rep for the College. What does this role entail?

Women's Rep is a role that was made to help the Women's Officer in their day-to-day job. That meant that practically, my jobs were helping with the sanitary product orders and with running events that were put on. But it also gave me the chance to understand and discuss some of the policy that affects women most in College, including attending Student Equality Committee meetings and being invited to a working group on the College Harassment Policy.

Do you think College needs a Women's Rep?

The roles of the Women's Officer and Women's Rep are vitally important for the JCR, for two reasons; firstly for representation and secondly because they do meaningful work. The importance of representation is well-known, but especially within a JCR Committee that has often in the past been made up of predominantly male members, having roles that must constitutionally be filled by women both makes space for women to have a voice in joint decisions, but also increases the visibility of women taking on important roles which is vital for incoming and current students to see.

The Women's Officer and Rep team also do a lot for College that benefit the female-identifying students in the JCR, providing free sanitary products, emergency contraceptives and pregnancy tests which often women are expected to pay for. Women's lunches, career events and the Women’s Dinner are also events that are organised which are hugely enjoyed and help build a community within the College that goes further than just the JCR but to include the MCR, SCR and Alumni.

You mentioned that since you have become JCR president, you have encouraged your friends to engage with College politics. Why do you think this is relevant to them?

Being passionate about the JCR and its work has obviously fed into my friendships and expressing the enjoyment I’ve got out of working in the JCR is likely in part what inspired some of my friends to take up roles of their own. It’s fun, it’s empowering, and they care about what they do, and for those reasons they find it relevant to get involved.

I think that representation within the JCR Committee is important not only so that as many peoples’ voices are heard in a forum which is fundamentally meant to help everyone, but also because it genuinely looks bad if the Committee is lacking women, and I think the latter point is often overlooked. Student politics can seem like an overwhelming thing to get involved in upon joining Oxford, and, as a girl coming from a variety of backgrounds including several all-girls schools, entering a community which is run by few women can seem daunting and, if nothing else, very unfamiliar. Giving women a voice on how things run is important as it always has been, since people with different gender identities often face different challenges and the JCR aims to solve as many of those challenges as possible. But also, having women there and being able to point to them and look at them and feel like we aren’t in a male-dominated community is very valuable to me as well. I’ve felt that College has always been supportive and has often led the way with representation, by having fellows for equality and access and also obviously by having now two female presidents in a row. They don’t and shouldn’t involve themselves too much with JCR politics, but I’ve always felt that our interests are aligned on this front.

Is it a good time to be a female student at SJC?

I said in my JCR handover dinner address last week that I think it’s a good time to be a St. John’s student in general, and this extends to women. Our welfare support is better than ever, our relationship with our access and alumni officers are brilliant, bop attendance has skyrocketed, and guest dinner ballots are oversubscribed every time. Lucy Sarell made waves during her time as Women's Officer, building great relationships with the Women's Network and Fellow for Women, and setting up multiple initiatives, increasing the sanitary product budget, running successful garden parties and holding frequent self-defence classes. Women have so much opportunity to be in women-only spaces, and there are mechanisms in place to protect them when they find themselves in danger, namely the Harassment Policy’s recent changes.

Given the multitude of different experiences and backgrounds that our students have had and have come from before they walk through the porter’s lodge for the first time, it will always feel easier or harder depending on the person to be a female student at St. John’s. But I am confident that things are in place now more than ever to help support them through their time here, and I, along with the new Women's Officer, will always do everything I can to ensure that all women at St. John’s feel safe, heard, and proud to be a woman.

What are your ambitions for after you graduate, a career in politics perhaps?

Having always been a curious person, I have felt recently that I want to do jobs that help me understand the running of the world, and especially the UK economy. It is for that reason that it’s likely that I will start my career in a corporate setting - though application season is yet to end, I have tentatively accepted an offer to work in finance this summer. I love being a university student, so I’m excited to be in the process of starting to explore different master’s programs, primarily with the idea of studying abroad. Long term, my dream would be to work in the Cabinet or Foreign Office. I care about policy and making things better - which I think comes across in my motivations for being JCR President - but before I go into that world, I want to figure out the finance world. I’m lucky enough to be part of a generation where career changes and sector moves are normal and praiseworthy. I think that moving about and learning as much as I can would be the most interesting way to work.