OUSA is proud to introduce the Ontario Tech Student Union (OTSU) as an official observer school! Since joining OUSA this fall, UOSU has attended OUSA’s Fall General Assembly and Student Advocacy Conference. OUSA is excited to work with OTSU as we continue to advocate for accessible, affordable, accountable and high-quality post-secondary education in Ontario.
We had a chance to chat with Joshua Sankarlal, President of OTSU and Steering Committee representative. Here's what Josh had to say about OTSU, student advocacy, and what matters most to students right now:
Who is Josh? And tell us about your degree in Game Development, it sounds cool!
I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Information Technology with a Major in Game Development and Entrepreneurship just this last May. It was a typical four-year degree, but the drawing point was a class every year called “Game Development Workshop.” The goal was to build a game over the course of the academic year, so we got into groups of, you know, five to seven people and then we had full creative freedom over our game. It was a really fun program. It’s very, very freeform; we all take basically the same classes for four years, so your roles are pretty dynamic.
That’s great to hear. And obviously, some of that was spent remotely due to COVID-19. How was it, transitioning into a virtual environment in a program that was so team-driven?
Honestly, online was pretty hard to adjust to at the end. It was the tail end of my third year. A big, big portion of my experience over the four years was being President of one of our clubs, the Game Development Students’ Association. And we ran this annual event, a game showcase called GameCon and it sucked to have that canceled.
From the development perspective, communicating with our teams was really hard. My team was very in-person, like, we would have meetings every week, and we were very typically your tech people trying to figure things out. We would wheel a whiteboard in and just kind of go crazy on that whiteboard with markers, and that’s how we ideated. So moving that online was hard because online whiteboarding is a very different experience from whiteboarding in-person, where you can stand up in front of the room and take control for a second and like, draw your idea and throw the marker to your friend and be like, “Okay, what do you think?”
What about Oshawa? Like what is it like going to school in Oshawa or working in Oshawa?
I lived in Ajax all through high school basically right up until COVID-19 hit. School here is interesting, and working here is really interesting because it’s very different from the rest of the city, and you can kind of see where the university influences things like the community and almost the economy around.
The university is still really, really young too, right, so a lot of the “university life” that people experience is a lot different than what it’s like over here. You're kind of just vibing in a very suburban area as a student at Ontario Tech, but I think that’s changing.
Cool! So, what is OTSU, and what does your role as President of OTSU entail?
OTSU’s very new – this is our fourth or fifth year, so we’re figuring out our place on campus, and a good portion of my role this year is redefining that as it relates to, you know, post-COVID. I think the most common misunderstanding is that we don’t actually work for the University, we’re a completely separate organization. I think that’s a common barrier that lots of student unions have to overcome, communicating to students that actually, we’re not the University, we’re not paid by the University, so there’s not that conflict that folks think there is.
Our job as the student union is to enhance the student experience, and that takes on a lot of different forms in my mind. Yes, we have on-campus events and things that make your life on campus a little more exciting, but the bottom line is, how do we improve students’ quality of life? And we offer a lot of services that try to kind of answer that question.
One of my favourites to talk about is an initiative we have called First Impressions, which is basically a clothing drive for professional attire. If you have a job interview or a networking event to go to, you can visit us for our collection of donated professional clothes for students. For students, when you’re at school, professional attire can be pretty expensive, you know, if you’re trying to impress, so I think this is a really fun initiative to have on top of our other campus life like clubs and societies and stuff like that.
Why did you get involved in OTSU?
Yeah, as I said, I was an executive on the Game Development Students’ Association and a lot of that was really advocacy-focused. I realized there was an opportunity for me to try to do more to address some things that I noticed as a student that I wanted to change at a higher level, and that’s what drew my attention to the student union. I’m happy I was able to do it because it’s been a really good experience so far. I think this work, just kind of helping people out, is really rewarding.
You mentioned that one of your goals right now is defining what OTSU does for students in a COVID-19 world. What does this look like, what would you say are generally your key areas of focus for OTSU right now?
Yeah, I think even joining OUSA is a move to refocus on advocacy for us. I know that's something that every single student union executive says – advocacy is a term that gets thrown around so much – but for us, advocacy is understanding what it is our students are asking for, and then being able to deliver that in some way.
We know that a big thing here is that students aren’t super aware of the environment or procedures in which decisions are made at the university. Advocacy is education, so we really want to educate our students on that piece. Because once students are empowered with that knowledge, it makes it a lot easier to get them to mobilize on the things that we care about.
When it comes to the provincial government, if you’re with a group of student unions that share the same values as you, it makes it easier for us to communicate what we know our students want to a group who can operate with all of our best interests in mind. That's what drew my attention to OUSA, and in talking to students just after our announcement – we recently had our AGM – I think those who are aware are really, really happy with that decision.
So, I think advocacy is definitely a huge priority for us this year, that is, understanding what it is students want, and especially defining what our advocacy process actually is.
Do you have some examples – you mentioned OUSA – of how you’re trying to define this advocacy process or reach out to students?
The way we’ve been explaining advocacy to students this year is by splitting it into three different categories.
We have Internal Affairs, through which students report concerns that are at the institution-level to us. From our end, we have to figure out how to triage those concerns. If they are higher-level policy or service-access concerns, there’s some work for us to do internally. If students are having in-class problems, we provide resources that will guide them through resolving their situation.
We have another group as part of our advocacy for social services, so that’s what I was talking about with initiatives like First Impressions. These are initiatives that in general improve students’ quality of life outside the classroom. We would define this as an advocacy category because it’s addressing a concern and then providing a solution for that.
Our third grouping would be government. I think at first we were like, okay, let’s collect government concerns, and what I’ve done recently with the MPP for the region is share with them what our students are talking about. But as one person talking to an MPP, there is only so much I can do.
So now, being an observer school with OUSA, we have access to the policy library, as well as the evidence that there are other students who care about this. For example, OSAP is something our students were really concerned about, and OUSA was doing a lot of work on informing students what was going on. OTSU resharing that information was really helpful in relaying to students that this is something that’s happening because no one else was talking about it, right, but it was affecting everyone.
And I think students knowing that we are supporting them and that we have a support system in place through OUSA – that we have student advocates who are also really passionate about this – really reinforces their trust in our ability to do our jobs, as well as in their own ability to solve problems.
That’s a thorough system, which is great to hear! Is there anything in particular that you’re hoping to get out of being an observer school with us at OUSA?
We’re interested in understanding how the policy process works. I think observing the Fall General Assembly was a great way of starting to understand how OUSA goes about making those decisions and policy papers because I remember reading one before I even emailed Eddy and wondering, “How did they come up with these?” Like, it’s impressive, you know, there are students who are writing such detailed policy recommendations!
I also think the fact that OUSA even offers an observer status is super smart because it allows us as a student union to actually evaluate before we dedicate ourselves to something. And it speaks to OUSA’s understanding of not just how student unions work but also students in general because they will say, “Okay, what’s the point of this?” and we can reply that, “Actually, there’s a whole lot of work that goes into it!”
Awesome, I hope we’re able to answer your questions and that OTSU benefits from being an observer with us! So, how big is OTSU?
We have about 20 staff, including myself and the executives. We’re fairly small as a student union but I think it’s pretty proportional to the students we represent. Ontario Tech has around 10000 students, 9000 of which are undergraduates.
A small staff sounds sweet! If OTSU had unlimited resources, what would y’all be doing?
Ah man, yeah, if we had unlimited resources I think the first thing we would do is absolutely boost the services we know students access the most. For example, what we’re looking at right now is: how do we improve our clubs and societies? Because that’s what students use all the time; we’re really proud of our clubs and societies system. Most years we have well over a hundred operating, and our students are really involved with that. And I know our Clubs and Societies Coordinator would agree with this, like, just giving them the resources we can to host the best events and things like that!
What would you say to students who are interested in getting involved on campus or with OTSU but don’t really know how?
That’s a great question that I’m asked all the time.
I think clubs and societies are a great place to start but students, you know, are not always happy with that answer. Not because clubs aren’t a great place to go, but I think they're looking for involvement with the student union here in the office, doing the big picture stuff.
To these students, we’ve just opened up 2 new committees of the Board, which, I think, address some concerns that students have had for a while about where the student union’s priorities are. We have a new standing committee, on student advocacy advisory, composed mostly of students who can bring up identified concerns and recommendations to myself and members of our Board. Our VP Downtown has also launched a downtown advisory committee, for our downtown campus. That group of students frequently feels disjointed from what’s going on in our main north campus here, so this committee focuses on those students and their unique needs.
I think these are fantastic opportunities because they make space for students who are interested in OTSU and want to know more but don’t necessarily want to dedicate their full-time hours to it.
Sweet, those are great initiatives to have conversations with more students. Fun question time! If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be? If you say Oshawa, I will have many follow-up questions...
Haha, no, not Oshawa. London, Europe, 100%. Just because I’ve always wanted to go. I’m a big nerd and my favourite TV show is Dr. Who, and it’s always in the UK, so I’ve just always wanted to go since I was a little child!
Aww, nice! And finally, if people want to find you or OTSU online, where can we go?
We have a big presence on Instagram, so @the_otsu.
And if for whatever reason, people want to find me *chuckles* it’s just @josh_sankarlal on all the platforms.