RGU alumna Deena Tissera became the first female councillor of ethnic minority at the Aberdeen City Council after the local elections in early May 2022. Her political career started at RGU, where she served three terms as Vice President (International) with RGU:Union after moving from Sri Lanka. She now wishes to continue her work in frontline politics and encourage other women to take on leadership roles. Read about her journey in this blog.
Why did you decide to come study at RGU?
I chose RGU because of its reputation. RGU is the Top Modern University in Scotland for course satisfaction (Guardian University Guide 2022), with an outstanding employability rate. The university also offered an IBMS ( Institute of Biomedical Science) accredited BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science course, which I wanted to study. And Aberdeen is one of the most beautiful cities, so I thought studying here would be such a great opportunity. From where I come from, Scottish education is well-renowned so this was my chance to obtain a world-class degree.
How did you decide to become Vice President (International) at RGU:Union?
It’s quite a personal story for me why I became active in student politics. In my first year of university, I lost my father just before walking into an exam. I had to leave to go home and take care of the funeral arrangements, and be there with my family. It was a tough moment for me. When I came back to university, I was told I wouldn’t be able to progress to the following year because I had missed my exams.
As an international student, that means you have to leave the country, reapply for your visa, get your confirmation of acceptance and go through the immigration process again. All of these things are a massive burden. Fortunately, after providing all the documents for exceptional circumstances and having a discussion with the academic board, I could sit one module and carry a couple of other modules to the following year.
A lot of international students go through these problems and I thought I should be a voice for them. At first, I had the opportunity to become a Student Ambassador for the university. My role was to speak to prospective students, tell them about RGU, the application process, accommodation, among other things. And then came the opportunity to be co-opted as the Vice President (International) for RGU:Union. The Vice President had gone back to her home country, so there was a position available before the elections the following year. I put my application forward, which was successful. I was properly elected as Vice President the year after and served three terms.
What did you work on during your three years as Vice President (International)?
I did many things during my three terms!
Celebrating diversity with RGU:Union
A big part of my work with the Union was celebrating cultural diversity and making people embrace their differences. One RGU, Many Nations actually started with me. This is an annual celebration of international diversity and culture at the university. It’s amazing to see that it is still going on to this day.
RGU:Union was amazing. We were able to hold so many events such as film screenings, social gatherings in town and even debates. I also helped facilitate international fashion shows in RGU Halls and food festivals throughout the year.
In my opinion, in order for international students to have a great study abroad experience, you need to engage with them and bring them together. And I thought societies played an essential part in achieving this. That’s why I encouraged the launch of student societies for people from different parts of the world, such as South Asia or Africa. This was a massive success!
Campaigning to increase awareness of support services at RGU
I organised various campaigns within the university. One of the things I learned in my four years at RGU was that, often, international students don’t know what services are available at the university. So making sure that they were aware of support services was really important for me.
Mental health and student welfare were at the heart of my campaigning work. Some of the students, including myself, came to RGU from developing countries where there is little to no focus on mental health. So it was important for me to showcase how beneficial support services like the Counselling and Wellbeing team are when you are living far from home.
Another aspect I really focused on was working with Study Skills. It can be hard for international students to come from a totally different academic environment and having to adapt, especially when they have to study at a higher level of education, for postgraduate studies for example. They can struggle with speaking another language, learning new software, or using proper referencing. I worked with Study Skills to organise sessions for international students to help them cope with these changes.
I also did some work with the now Centre for Employability and Community Engagement to implement workshops and help international students find placements or improve their employability.
I represented students and gave them advice on situations similar to what I went through after missing my exam. I was in a position where I was able to empower students to fight for their rights and represent them in academic disputes. It was great to be able to help them progress if they had failed their exams because of health issues or other personal circumstances that affected their academic performance.
Another important thing for me was getting feedback from students asking them what was needed. Are they getting the services that they need? What do they think we need to improve? To get some answers, I conducted a couple of surveys. With the students’ feedback, I was able to better represent them and the university with the Governor’s Board.
Influencing politics outside of the university
International students are not only affected by academic regulations, but also by wider national issues such as immigration. A problem with their visa or their immigration status can negatively impact their mental health. That’s why I decided to bring my campaigning outside of the university and attend National Union of Students (NUS) international conferences. I travelled to England a few times and met like-minded people. With this new network, I was able to create a UK-wide political movement that represented international students of South Asian background called the South Asian Students Union.
Through this union, we campaigned for various international students’ rights. For example, we campaigned against a £4,000 bond that was going to be imposed over Tier 4 student visas. We managed to stop that from happening, which was a major milestone.
I didn’t do any of these things expecting awards, but I did win a lot! I obtained some Student Achievement Awards as well as a Saltire Award, among others. It was an amazing experience for me.
How has your career evolved since you graduated from RGU?
After obtaining my undergraduate in Applied Biomedical Science, I went to Aberdeen University to study for my master’s and my PhD. Of course, I stayed involved in politics a lot. I was the Vice-Chair for the Labour Party in Aberdeen and I was also selected to be part of the first cohort of the Joe Cox Women in Leadership Programme. Only five women from Scotland had access to the programme this year, and I was so proud to be one of them. I had the opportunity to attend specialised leadership training, which was essential if I wanted to take on more responsibilities in frontline politics.
I was also recently elected as the representative to the Scottish Executive Committee within the Labour Party to represent the entire North East, Highlands and Islands. This is a major position which gives me more influence within the party. After this milestone, the opportunity to run for a spot on the Aberdeen City Council opened up. I was elected in early May and became a Councillor for Hilton/Woodside/Stockethill!
Last year, I was featured in the BBC after the Scottish Parliament elected their first woman of colour. I wasn’t running for these elections but I had been doing a lot of work to promote diversity in politics, which is why I was interviewed. But promoting diversity isn’t the only thing I bring to the table. With my PhD in Public Health Policy, I am able to advocate on issues regarding health and social care in Aberdeen.
At the moment, I am also an entrepreneur. I have started my own business in education consultancy. I want to share my story with international students and encourage them to come study here. Educating yourself in Scotland means limitless opportunities, and my story is a testament to that.
How did it feel to be the first female Councillor of ethnic minority at the Aberdeen City Council?
It felt like a glass ceiling shattered in the council! It felt amazing, but the journey was hard. The problem is that when people think of a leader, they often imagine a white man. So it was hard to break this stereotype. And women of colour suffer from the intersectional issues of sexism and racism, along with ageism sometimes. I’m really grateful of my support system and all these leadership programmes I benefitted from. There are so many female politicians across the UK who have given me the right advice and empowered me to continue my political journey.
In the future, I think shattering glass ceilings is not enough. I want to build bridges between people and create a fairer political environment.
In what way do you think RGU has helped in your career in politics?
RGU was the founding stone of my career. This is where I got my first taste in having a career in politics. I did not expect to become a politician when I came to Scotland. I actually wanted to study medicine. But seeing how my campaigning actually influenced decisions on a national level, I thought I could have a real impact. For me, coming from Sri Lanka as an international student, it felt surreal to be able to have a role in UK politics. I suddenly felt like I had a calling for politics.
My first ever successful election was also at RGU when I became Vice President (International). This amazing experience allowed me to meet so many students from across the world and build a valuable network. My experience at RGU has been nothing but the best and is the reason why my policymaking always involves students. Students play a massive role in this city and I want to make sure they are heard, just like I was at RGU.