OUSA’s Steering Committee members are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable student advocates in the province. This interview series is an opportunity to share some of their experiences and knowledge with a wider audience of future (and current) student advocates.
Matthew Gerrits, OUSA’s VP Finance and the VP Education at the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association, is serving his second term on OUSA’s Steering Committee and can tell you more about the history of student associations in Ontario than you’d think one person can know. Here is his student advocacy story:
1. How did you get involved in student advocacy?
It’s a really interesting story. They say all politics is local, and I don’t think its usually very different in student association politics. I started off getting involved in an endowment fund in my first year, but my real journey started at the end of first year, when I saw that the small association that represents the about 110 Knowledge Integration students at the University of Waterloo. They didn’t have anyone for their Finance position, and I had done accounting in high school. So I signed up and was acclaimed. As I was happily doing that, a vacancy opened for the finance role in the society representing all students in my faculty. It was then that I started meeting with my student association, and I ran and was acclaimed to the environment seat on our students council. I learned about our Board of Directors and the University Senate, and added those the next year. After that, some people suggested I should consider running for VP Education.
2. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get involved?
Feel free to start small, and start with something you enjoy. I started with finance, which I enjoyed, and a lot of other people didn’t. Niches are everywhere in advocacy, if you look closely. From there, make sure you talk to people and learn where else they think your talents or interests might be well-suited. There’s always room and time for growth, so don’t feel you need to run for an executive position with no prior experience. Talk to student leaders about what you’re interested in, and they might be able to help mentor you and help you grow.
3. What are some of the priorities on your campus this year? What are students concerned about? What is your association taking initiative on?
There’s a big international tuition calculation issue that is going to have some significant impact on international students as tuition increases, something that we need to see rectified if our international students are going to have predictable tuition.
I’m also working on various collaborations with the university, such as looking at the viability of implementing an ombudsman’s office, and collaborating on some government relations priorities like mental health funding.
Obviously a lot of other projects in development, and a lot of internal work to the student association on adjusting our communicating our value proposition strategies now that student choice has been implemented
4. Tell us about some of the projects and initiatives you’re working on this year and why they are important to you and to your campus.
One really cool thing that has come out of our advocacy has been a partner project with the Co-operative Education department at Waterloo. We identified pain-points for co-op students, and then identified the kinds of changes that could be made to most effectively change those pain points. When we saw some of those areas were not difficult to bring in, they were labelled low-hanging fruit, and they’ve been a big hit so far!
Housing is another big area for us this year, and one of my commissioners, what many student associations might call associates, is working on with full-time research staff in the organization is a comprehensive student housing report for the area.
5. How do you think student associations support students and the issues that are important to them? What are some of the services you provide?
I think first and foremost is the opportunity to serve as a place for students to share stories and concerns. We can only advocate on what we know. To this day, I’m amazed at some of the stories people share that highlight deficiencies in systems. From there, we can do more research, figure out why systems are the way they are, and try to determine how things could or have to change.
We support students in plenty of ways beyond the advocacy process just mentioned. We provide the infrastructure for students to find communities through our clubs and services, and through supporting our societies as well as the chance to volunteer in student government or all of the above. We help assure student healthcare through providing supplemental insurance for dental, drugs and paramedical services. We have a new legal service that helps connect students with legal advice. We also take the mission to deliver affordable food to students seriously, through providing services like International News, our student-owned and operated convenience store on campus.