Elle Gray, University of Portsmouth alumna

Alumna Elle Gray shared her experience of studying and being president of UPSU in the 2000s

4 min read

If you studied at Portsmouth in the noughties, there’s a strong chance you’ll remember Elle Gray. She not only worked to make the Students’ Union a more inclusive place but campaigned for the University to become a greener institution. 

After graduating with a BSc (Hons) Psychology, Elle served as Union President, then travelled the world. She is now working to improve mental health in Portsmouth and training to become a Clinical Associate Psychologist.

Portsmouth in the 2000s

In 2002, Portsmouth had an amazing music scene. That was part of why I chose it for University. There were loads of independent bands at the Wedgewood Rooms and the Pyramids. It was fun to be here and had good energy. We organised a charity hitchhike to Amsterdam for 72 students in fancy dress. All 72 made it, we didn’t lose anyone!

Some of my favourite memories are of going to different cultural societies. It was wonderful being exposed to people from all across the world and learning from them. If we can learn from each other at University, and understand each other a bit more, it sets us up on a global level.

Student life was so open and that was my favourite thing about it. There were so many opportunities for learning and meeting people - anything was possible. We had great support from staff to explore ideas and turn them into action. 

Park Building was where the majority of my lectures were. A beautiful building and very historic, a lovely environment to study in. Being next to the Guildhall, you knew you were part of an institution in a city connected to its heritage.

Campaigning history

While studying, I started a campaign group called People and Planet. There were so many injustices in the world and this group gave us the tools to make a difference on campus. We were part of the reason why Portsmouth became a fairtrade city and University. 

Fairtrade means more money goes to those that grow the food. We thought it was really important, so we wanted the Uni to stock fair trade products. We campaigned in a nice way, hiding bars of chocolates from fair trade companies all over campus. We also ran fair-trade fashion shows and invited people from the trade justice movement from all over the world.  

We worked with Nick Leach, then the Catering Manager, and he was fully on board to stock these products. They didn’t cost much extra and were a lot fairer to producers.

We also focused on environmental issues because, even back then, it was really clear that we needed to do more to stop damaging our environment. We ran campaigns across campus encouraging people to go green. 

As an institution, the University took up a lot of space in terms of buildings and the population it served in the city. So we knew it was important for this impact to be monitored. We lobbied the Vice-Chancellor at the time, John Craven, and the University listened. They employed a designated Environmental Manager who ended up paying for his own salary just by reducing energy usage within the first year. 

Elle Gray holding Fairtrade campaign sign

It’s definitely fair to say that student life here, for me, was like a microcosm of society. We had the world represented and I loved engaging with it.

Elle Gray, BSc (Hons) Psychology

My next steps

After my studies, I was elected as Student Support Officer. I was one of the first members to not come from a sports team, but I was well known because of my campaigning. I then became Students’ Union President from 2007. 

If I were to pick one thing I was most proud of during my time as President, it would be making the SU more welcoming for the student population. I made it more inclusive, with events and activities which didn’t involve drinking. 

I ensured everyone was represented in the Students’ Union structures, media, activities and events to celebrate the diversity of Portsmouth. That tradition has remained to this day. During my time here, the societies doubled and today, there are over 150 societies running.

On a journey

In 2009, I left to go travelling. My campaigning work came with me. I travelled overland without flying as far as I could, to New Zealand and worked for Greenpeace. 

In 2011, I returned to the UK and got into youth work, which my degree helped massively. I then worked for Leonard Cheshire Disability in London, which was incredibly rewarding.

By this time, I had a young family and the commute to London was too much, so I got a job in Portsmouth. I worked with amazing GP’s in Portsmouth and south east Hampshire on all the things that keep us happy, healthy and well - that are not medical. A lot of this was replicated from my University days when I worked with students to volunteer, which helped their wellbeing.

Now I’m training as a Clinical Associate Psychologist and going back to my psychology roots after fifteen years in social justice jobs. I’m really pleased to be going back to what I studied at the University and working locally in mental health services. Psychology itself and the services are transforming, so I think that’s going to keep me busy! 

It’s definitely fair to say that student life here, for me, was like a microcosm of society. We had the world represented and I loved engaging with it. That set me in good stead to then travel the world. And then to come back and work in different roles with a really good understanding of how to work with people, appreciate differences and celebrate diversity. All of my University experiences set me up well to help me get where I am today.