James Shipley and Ruthie Walters: Class of 2020 Campaigners

This year's newest alumni have had to show massive adaptability, studying and graduating during a hugely uncertain time. In spite of facing many challenges, our 2020 graduates are embodying the Sussex values and continuing to inspire us.

James Shipley (Sustainable Development 2018) and Ruthie Walters (International Development 2017) are two such alumni. Each has been pioneering different campaigns to create a better world both locally and globally.

Photos of James and Ruthie. James is an on walk by a lake. Ruthie is at Brighton seafront

Ruthie's story

Influenced by both her academic studies and by her growing awareness of issues in the housing market, Ruthie became a founding member of the SEASALT housing cooperative in her first year at Sussex.

James' story

James completed his Masters in January 2020 and, just one month later, was diagnosed with Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder (NEAD) – a condition he had been living whilst misdiagnosed as epilepsy. James is now campaigning to raise awareness about NEAD and is currently running the walking competition OctoberTrek.

James, can you explain what Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder is and how it affects you?

Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder is the brain’s response to traumatic/stressful events. In an attempt to help you when you’re thinking or talking about something traumatic or stressful, your brain will trigger an episode or seizure to basically say “no”.

I started having episodes about two and a half years ago. During an episode I’ll sit there, unresponsive, fidgeting with my hands, with my mouth chewing constantly. They’re very short now but they leave me very upset and tired because it forces me to think about all the bad things from my life.

Ruthie, what's the ethos behind the SEASALT housing co-operative and why do you think it’s needed?

Our vision is of a student-led initiative for affordable housing, democratic living and long term sustainability. A place where students, for generations to come, have control over their home and have access to lower cost, higher quality housing which they can run democratically.

We’re trying to tackle the housing issues many students face: extortionate rent, poor quality housing, unresponsive landlords or agents and unstable accommodation. Because the student population is very transient, they are more likely to face these issues in the private rental market.

James, what issues are you trying to tackle through your awareness-raising your campaign work as well as your work with OctoberTrek?

NEAD needs to be as well-known as epilepsy to avoid misdiagnoses. And increased investment in mental health services across the UK is crucial. If people better understand their mental health, it can help them get the right diagnosis and help them get better.

Just like I can go to A&E for a cast for a broken, I should be able to easily get free mental health support. It should be seen as being as important as physical health.

Picture of two teddies dressed in fundraising t-shirts

Teddies in York dressed in fundraising t-shirts for York Mind and FND Action, two charities James is fundraising for. 

Ruthie, did you come to Sussex with a view to undertaking lots of extra-curricular activities or did something spark that interest and your work on SEASALT after arriving?

I had two years out before uni and didn't really know what to expect. At Freshers’ Fair, I realised how much there was to get involved with and I wanted to make the most of it. I joined SEASALT in my first year and I think my interest was partly influenced by my academic studies and interest in grassroots development. I had started looking at housing in Brighton for the following year and seen some really poor quality houses so I was interested in the housing co-operative model as an alternative.

What is your favourite spot on campus and in Brighton?

Ruthie: Stanmer park and the beach.

James: The Attenborough Centre café. I spent a lot of time there eating and chatting with friends. I even had a seizure there, so I was a recognisable face! In Brighton, the beach and Purezza – I lived around the corner and it’s the best pizza ever.

Ruthie, how did you juggle your time studying and with your extra-curriculars?

As well as SEASALT, I was part of the successful Sussex Sweatshop Free campaign, a committee member of the German society, a Student Rep – and I had two jobs. I was very organised with my time and squeezed a lot into each day! I made lots of lists and had a full diary but I was dedicated to all the things I was involved in, so I made it work.

The SEASALT team manning an information table about the project at a fair

The SEASALT team promoting the cooperative at Freshers Fair. 

James, how do you juggle dealing with the challenges presented by NEAD whilst also wanting to help others in a similar situation as you, and how did having NEAD affect your studies?

I missed an exam because I got up, had a seizure and woke up two hours later having missed it. In 2018 I also missed a month of seminars and lectures when I had to go back home and wait for an appointment with my neurologist. It definitely had a big impact on my studies but I was so happy when I managed to graduate in January.

Now, people always ask what jobs I’m applying for, but that’s the last thing on my mind. I’m focusing on raising awareness about NEAD, my mental health and spending time with my family and friends.

Connecting allows us to come together, speak about things and help each other. It reassures you that you’re not alone, you’re not making things up and you can get better."James Shipley 

Ruthie, how do you get other people enthusiastic about your campaign?

Talking to people about their housing experience is usually a good place to start. Describing the flexibility people have living in a housing co-operative is something people get enthusiastic about: being able to decorate your room, buy different furniture, garden and grow food, do DIY.

We are also hoping to retrofit our first property so it is more energy-efficient – that's another factor that enthuses people. Overall, hearing about existing housing co-operatives across the world that show the model works, tends to get people interested.

James, what are your plans for your campaign?

We still have a few weeks left of OctoberTrek so that’s the focus now. I want to organise walks across the world to raise awareness of the condition everywhere.

Mostly I want to get people talking and watching the campaign video.

I also want to do more with my local neurology department to see how we can increase awareness of NEAD. And I’m thinking about contacting universities’ neurology departments to see if they study NEAD. If you'd asked me this question four years ago, I’d never have thought I’d be talking about neurology!

Photo of James on a walk, smiling at the camera in a cap

James on a walk in the countryside. 

Ruthie, what are your plans for the next three months?

I’m applying for jobs at the moment so I hope I get something soon, but I’m trying not to make plans because everything is so uncertain. I’m just taking things one step at a time – the only definite is online calls with friends and family! 

How have you both been coping with Covid-19; what effect has it had on your lives and how have you looked after yourselves?

James: Every time I turn on the news it leads to all this anxiety. It’s caused me to have more episodes and seizures because it’s a constant reminder of losing people. Speaking about it with my counsellor is helping me cope and change the conversation in my brain.

Ruthie: I got used to writing my dissertation at home and embraced zoom calls! This summer I was planning to interrail in Europe and travel but instead, I’m looking at jobs. I’ve tried to stay positive and make the most of the things I can do, like cooking nice meals with housemates and cycling in the South Downs. I’ve got used to a slightly different routine and am keeping myself busy. I think just adapting and staying positive has been important.

I got used to writing my dissertation at home and embraced zoom calls...I've tried to stay positive and make the most of the things I can do, like cooking nice meals with housemates and cycling in the South Downs."Ruthie Walters 

Ruthie, what have been your successes in getting individuals and organisations on board with your campaign?

We have worked closely with Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust (BHCLT) for nearly 3 years and have a strong partnership with them. They are going to buy a property which they will lease to us on a long term basis and where responsibilities for the property are split between them and SEASALT. We are now raising investment for the property which is really exciting. A share offer was relaunched this summer and we have already raised over half of the target amount!

We have also received a lot of support from the University of Sussex and Students’ Union and continue to work closely with them.  We are also a proud member of Student Co-operative Homes and have contact with other student housing co-ops in the UK and abroad.

Ruthie on a walk up the South Downs, smiling at the camera

Ruthie on a walk in the South Downs. 

James, your campaign work has led to a lot of other people contacting you: what do you think the main benefits of building this community are?

I’ve spoken to people around the world and learnt so much about NEAD. If someone had said “seizure” to me two years ago, the only thing I would think would be epilepsy – I didn’t know it was possible to have seizures beyond that.

Connecting allows us to come together, speak about things and help each other. It reassures you that you’re not alone, you’re not making things up and you can get better. If I didn’t have this community I’d still feel alone.

What are you currently reading?

Ruthie: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

James: The Deficit Myth by economist Stephanie Colton.

Ruthie, what's your favourite podcast?

PushBack Talks –  Exploring the broken housing market with filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha.

James, what’s the soundtrack to your time at Sussex?

My friend Daniel was a drummer for the musical theatre society and they were doing Legally Blonde. When he told me that I started listening to the soundtrack a lot: I’d be walking around Brighton looking very serious whilst listening to the cheesiest musical songs ever.

If you’re a 2020 graduate and would like to share your story: get in touch with us at alumni@sussex.ac.uk; we’d love to hear what you’ve been up to! 

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