UPDATE #7 - The 2020-2021 JCR Committee - Looking Back

2020 has been a year like no other. This is no different for the JCR Committee, who have stepped up to face a global pandemic and all the implications for life at Queens’ College. And yet we still kept our eye on the ball, reforming the QJCR website and constitution, working on new access and welfare initiatives, and stepping up our survey and social media game. As this committee’s term comes to a close, let’s look back at the achievements of the 2020-2021 JCR Committee.

It’s easy to forget that the first four weeks saw in-person JCR Committee meetings and a proper handover dinner. Some quick wins for the committee included adding a light switch guide and first aid kit to the JCR Room, and working with the Welfare Team to explain the Queens’ Harassment and Assault procedure (see welfare pages). LGBTea & Cake, pub quizzes, and Humans of Queens’ were going on.

The first meeting as JCR President I had sat on was on COVID-19 and at this time discussions revolved around hand sanitisers and students who might need to quarantine on return from Italy. We were still planning for a normal Easter term… Behind the scenes, we’d prepared resources for the ballot planned for the Easter term, which was the same as the 2019 ballot (with no group balloting and still effectively run just by college - but better than its 2017/2018 predecessor). Discussions on Bounce had begun and we’d committed to constitutional reform after another dismal JCR open meeting.

At the very end of Lent, it became clear that the whole World was about to be turned on its head. Things happened very quickly. Guest policies changed without notice, suddenly everyone was being asked to go home. The first week saw the first four of many ‘updates and summaries’ emails, seeking to summarise all the information we had and reassure everyone. Very soon we knew we wouldn’t be back in Lent term. Adding to all this, the Senior Tutor of Queens’ for a decade needed sudden unplanned leave (later retirement) on unrelated health grounds.

Like other JCR Committees across Cambridge, we went into action mode. A Queens’ Discord was set up, and a calendar of events that included fortnightly Tuesday bar quizzes (something that would remain popular all the way until September) and competitions on our Instagram stories. Humans of Queens’ even continued. It didn’t matter that it was the vacation and we wouldn’t normally expect anything to be going on - this was 2020 and the world was going crazy for Zoom quizzes.

Canva and Instagram skills were rapidly improving. You can still see the amazing Queens’ bakes from our bake-off, pets and stash photos in our Instagram highlights. Back in Queens’, those who were remaining stayed in Cripps, occasionally helping the gardeners out and enjoying free food. The Queens’ herb garden above Lyon Court was set up.

Easter term started… remotely. Lectures, supervisions, and exams were happening online in one way or another. The JCR sat on committees, including the first virtual Governing Body meetings (gowns were not necessary). Around this time we rolled out society registration through the College Union, as part of a strategic move to better support societies in Queens’ with facilities, funding and recognition. We also signed off the new College Union constitution with the Governing Body, opening avenues for better collaboration with the SCR and MCR (see https://qjcr.org.uk/jcr/collegeunion/).

May saw the 1448 challenge, a successful sponsored project to run a total of 1448 miles (1448 being the founding year of the college) collectively in May on a Strava group. Six students also shaved their heads live in the Big Queens’ Shave-Off, and alongside the Q-Raffle, a trio of fundraisers was completed, raising about £2000.

Once exams had finished for some of the JCR Committee, we set about drafting the new JCR Constitution, not only articulating our plan for referenda but also formulating JCR Committee policy. We also surprised you all with the Queens’ Didn’t Start the Fire (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciS0yFpiSyA) song on what would have been the last day of residency. Queens’ Scenes, a communal bucket list and ranking of 100 movies was another initiative we started at this time.

We worked with college on how to collect belongings as the first wave was easing. For those returning in sunny June, we had a morning or afternoon of being reminded just how beautiful Queens’ can be. The variable disappearance of food items in cupboards was a headache for all involved, after the panic of March saw the disposal of more than just perishable goods.

The Big QJCR Survey was next in our sights. We threw everything into publicity and we were glued to the results as they came in. Half of all JCR members completed the survey and you can see the quality of our report online (https://qjcr.org.uk/jcr/reports/). The report would later make waves in Michaelmas as it worked its way onto the desks and inboxes of all the fellows, being trumpeted as a ‘snapshot of Queens’ pre-pandemic’.

Now that Easter term was over, the next twist in the story of 2020 was the suggestion that gyp rooms might not be available next year (I could write pages on this, but let’s just be glad it didn’t happen) and the announcement (in the chat function of a Zoom Q&A session) that all rooms would be on the quarterly scheme.

Graduation was not the affair it should have been, though recent graduates can take comfort in the iron commitments to a proper ceremony, hopefully some time mid-2021. Still, the JCR and MCR were pleased to organise a virtual toast and address from the outgoing president of Queens’.

Coronavirus wasn’t the only big news story in 2020. The explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement after police murder in America forced everyone to scrutinise their own anti-racism policies. The JCR was no different, with the main result our renewed and successful resolve to incorporate anti-racism and diversity workshops into freshers’ week. The Queens’ Library responded brilliantly and undertook projects both in decolonisation and in a Legacies of Enslavement project.

Accommodation was the next concern. The JCR approach went from nervousness about what system would be landed on us to realising that there was no plan, and that it was time to step up. Though only given 5 new price bands to play with, we were able to organise these roughly in the right places (we’d come back to this in December). A-level results day came and in the national chaos, Queens’ was able to accommodate a record year of first years (to everyone’s relief). This, the removal of sharing Fisher sets as an option, and the data that not enough first years wanted to share in 2020-2021 meant that Owlstone Croft would house a community of undergraduates for the first time.

The JCR designed and jointly ran a system that successfully allowed balloting groups of up to 6 (something years of students had clashed with college on in the past), third-year advantage, a trade-off between group size and room preference, coping with the ridiculous room, all while allowing the Welfare Team to do their important work in discretely accommodating health needs. Thanks to Mikel’s sleek interface and a month and a half of back-and-forth, the ballot ran more smoothly than it had in previous years while keeping all balloting groups in the same household. The JCR also lent a hand in a ballot for freshers, allowing subject pairs within mixed subject households.

With time on our hands still, we started a huge drive for JCR access material. First was the alternative prospectus, a fantastic student-made document on Queens’ made in August, and the first in ages (that we know of). Second was the Queens’ JCR TikTok, whose account gained 20,000 followers and whose videos gathered a collective hundreds of thousands of views. Check them out if you want! https://qjcr.org.uk/prospective-students/

A sign of changing times, communication with first years came first via Instagram, not Facebook. Our freshers’ Instagram was an opportunity for more Canva excellence, Q&As, features of sports and societies, and more. We started to design gifts, including the bespoke Cambridge scratch maps, contact cards, stickers, term-planners and t-shirts.

The new website came along next. We’d got rid of the obsolete clutter, and focused on being an interchange of all Queens’ information. We had a fancy main page with all the links you’ll ever need, tons of new resources for sports and societies (including a guide from Hannah and a new reimbursement form allowing bank transferred courtesy of Iona), a Raven-protected section and capability for blogs and updates like the one you’re reading!

As plans for freshers’ week ramped up, the JCR began moving into Queens’ in mid-September (the good old ‘tier 1’ days). We spent our time making videos for the library and buttery, sharing the new Queens’ processes, preparing for freshers’ week, meeting with Queens’ staff, and running deliveries for the international students who had arrived to quarantine ahead of term. With nice weather and tons to do, it was nicknamed JCR Summer Camp.

Freshers’ week wasn’t planned over 3 months with college breathing down our necks for guides, letters and timetables this year. With so much going on for the staff, and certainty on events only a fortnight before, we worked our socks off at this time to write guides, quizzes and letters. We booked punts, learnt how to play kubb and frantically put together a timetable.

As older years began to arrive, the JCR rota kicked in, with committee members on hand to assist with the collection of belongings (hundreds of boxes’ worth!), and welcome arrivals at Dokett Gate (knowing the phonetic alphabet was a must). We delivered gowns, t-shirts and gifts to over 160 rooms (an operation that took about 6 hours) ahead of first year arrivals.

We already had self-isolating students on the Main Site, reminding us of the very different nature of this term. We helped the college as much as we could in getting the self-isolation messages across as people continued to arrive.

A lower-key but equally-busy freshers’ week began in earnest. Tours (in groups of up to 6) were running every 15 minutes from the Round. Our virtual formals, quizzes and bingo had mixed success and attendance. Freshers met their college parents, who took them for ice cream or picnics rather than tea in the Fisher Building. Thanks to Mikel and Hannah’s brilliant work, we held an enviably-sophisticated sports and societies fair. Our Just Dance sessions in the Fitzpatrick Hall even inspired a new Queens’ Just Dance Society! Thanks in part to startling statistics on the Big QJCR Survey, a big win was having freshers meet their tutors virtually. The whole affair was nothing like a normal freshers’ week, and the first years should look forward to formals, matriculation and speed meetings in future.

The installation of Dr Mohamed El-Erian as the new president of Queens’ had profound impacts on the ways student views could be communicated to Queens’. There were weekly JCR-MCR-College president meetings, and a couple of joint communications pushing key messages. The President took weekly feedback, with focus especially on longer-term academic and development goals that would otherwise be outside the scope of year-long JCR Committee terms. Meetings with random selections of students were also set up, which proved popular and gave a new avenue of feedback.

The experiences of the JCR Owlstone residents were a huge learning curve. Persistent small operational issues took time to solve, but we now have an informal Owlstone rep (formalised as an optional role in the next committee cycle), and members of staff nominated to improve facilities short-term, while the college plans development.

The JCR President, Secretary and Treasurer now have access to a refurbished office off Walnut Tree Court which is shared with the MCR Committee. This room held some JCR archives (minutes, committee papers and other stuff mainly from the 1990s but with some from the 60s-80s and 2000s) which were sorted and catalogued one weekend.

COVID-19 restrictions and adaptations were the JCR’s main focus. In the tier 1 days at least there was some normality in sport, with proposals for relaxations collected through the JCR Sports & Societies Officer. We had worked hard on proposing relaxations on guest rules, though in the end it was everything else we’d lobbied for that was approved (gym open, cafe open, new discipline options to avoid group or excessive punishments, planning for formals).

We had expected tier 2 in November, but were given a lockdown instead (both would have disallowed guests indoors). Cue more emails, and another Q&A. The move threw gym openings and formal planning under the bus. Still, we were able to have some modest privileges under the ‘education’ banner. The premature lockdown announcement came with some unfavourable consequences, and in the week following tier 1 ending and Halloween, we had more than 100 self-isolators. At this time the JCR wasn’t so involved since the buttery had started delivering food.

Queens’ planned a regime of exercise slots just in time for the spike, giving self-isolators some controlled time outdoors. Just as we had made booking sheets for the gym, music rooms, and JCR Room, the JCR’s Google Sheet services came in handy here.

In November’s trans awareness week, the college supported a JCR-MCR resolution to fly the trans pride flag on the Mathematical Bridge, making us one of the few colleges to mark the occasion. Meanwhile the JCR continued to push for amendments to clarify rules on flags, with the aim to see pride flags displayed on the inside of windows. Bridgemas came around, and the JCR elves had delivered some socks, as households came together for Bridgemas formals.

By the end of the term, we were ready to move on the new JCR Constitution. After a virtual open meeting, a meeting of the Council of the Union and then Governing Body, we had officially changed our constitution, and the work began over the vacation to draft some ‘starter’ JCR Committee Policy.

What we thought one of the last challenges for the JCR would be was to revisit price bands - playing with bandings and relative prices to make the system as fair as possible. We’d been given one extra price band to play with and were invited to play around within the same total income. This work is ongoing. As is writing new JCR Committee Policy, handover and preparing for new JCR Committee and Lent term

The reason, of course, why room bands might not seem such a challenge is because of the ongoing fast-moving and worsening national situation with regards to COVID-19 transmission, which means that Lent 2021, at least initially and at least for most people, will be taken remotely from home as we go through Lockdown 3.0. More Discord quizzes it is! When will COVID leave us alone???

The JCR has new respect. New relevance. New responsibilities. More social media presence. It’s an exciting time to be a member of Queens’. Let’s hope the next JCR Committee can take us even further, and realise a post-COVID vision for our community.

Tomos Wood

Queens’ JCR President 2020 - 2021