Democracy in Action is an award-winning module on community organising, currently offered to students in their final year at the University of Essex.

Students from the 2022/23 intake share their experience in a series of blogs.

Ivana Ivanova, a liberal arts graduate, describes her experience of taking part in Democracy in Action, and how working to improve the lives of refugees and asylum seekers helped her make important decisions about her future. 

I have always known that my passion lies in helping people, but I had yet to learn how to implement that passion into a career. With the last year of university fast approaching, I felt lost, as I had no idea what I wanted to do beyond that or how to make the most out of my time as a third-year university student. But then I found Democracy in Action.

Through this module, I gained the fantastic opportunity to work on Citizens UK’s national campaign Settle Our Status and work more locally to help refugees and asylum seekers have a better quality of life while living in Colchester.

We worked with big organisations, such as Refugee Action, to learn more about the issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers and how to help them. We negotiated with Essex Integration and the university to arrange English lessons, so people feel more equipped and confident to socialise and integrate within their community, apply for job opportunities, and work towards their aspirations and goals.

Most importantly, we visited asylum seekers’ hotels, played board games and laughed, hoping these happy moments would make them feel accepted and valued as members of society.

As part of the national campaign, we worked towards creating a one-off regularisation process for people who are currently living illegally in the UK. The campaign’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate to Members of Parliament and the Government that ‘good’ people become undocumented for reasons beyond their control and not because they are the ‘criminals’ everyone thinks them to be. For that reason, we met with many people. We listened to their stories of exploitation and abuse, whether from partners or immigration lawyers, and learned how that had left them without documents and vulnerable in the face of government legislation.

Now they live in hiding, without access to health care or protection, and constantly fear deportation. We worked hard towards raising awareness of the issues they face by attending assemblies and having meetings with important power holders, namely the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner of Essex, as well as a Member of Parliament.

Not only were we able to receive their commitment to work with us and Citizens UK, but these experiences proved very valuable in our professional and personal development.

While managing the project, I learned invaluable knowledge about leadership. To be a leader, you must be able to work as a team, understand the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates, and support them every step of the way. I also gained other essential skills such as stakeholder management, negotiation, decision-making, problem-solving, interpersonal and communications skills, which are highly transferable and crucial for any career sector.

Speaking at assemblies and talking to and working with power holders undoubtedly improved my confidence and public speaking skills. Now, enrolled onto a Project Analyst Graduate Programme, these experiences have provided me with all the skills needed to succeed in my chosen career path.

Ultimately, Democracy in Action prepared me for the adult world beyond university better than any dissertation or academic module could, and the experience and skills gained have proved valuable beyond expectation. It has genuinely changed how I see and care about the world, the people within it, and the issues they face.