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Steering Committee Introductions: Matthew Gerrits

Partners, Priorities and Progress: Matthew’s Entry blog 

The warm weather has returned and so have I! Looking at my old entry blog I talked about the ability to serve, empower and represent students. One year on, I see so many opportunities and partners that can help make Ontario a better place for undergraduate students.  

Firstly, I see the important role that universities themselves can play. Our university system depends on public support to drive universities as institutions that are both economic engines by turning out graduates, knowledge and business, but also as compassionate and human institutions, ones that care about the wellbeing of their students’ physical and mental health, but also care about the human dimension of society, turning out critical and diverse graduates who are willing to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow. Universities have roles in being proactive about mental health, listening to student voices, promoting entrepreneurship and skills, and continually improving their pedagogy and learning experiences.  

But public support is essential for universities to be able to do this, and governments are the biggest part of that. Our current government has many of the same priorities that all Ontario governments do, supporting economic development of the province, caring about the safety of Ontario’s citizens, listening to constituents, finding efficiency, and working for a better tomorrow. While the specifics of policy, whether minute or sweeping, may differ from government to government, there are always opportunities to partner on these values which make Ontario a great place to live and a great place to study. As OUSA moves to determine its priorities for this year, I will keep in mind the priorities of the elected government, but also their values, and where the common ground lies between the government and students. This past year we advocated on mental health, OSAP, preventing sexual violence, funding for the sector to alleviate student costs, fairness for international students and for work integrated learning. For many of our priorities we found agreement among MPPs and stakeholders, and on others we heard disagreement, but no matter where we went we heard a genuine willingness to listen to students, and it is that voice that I am proud OUSA will continue to be. Our students deserve wellbeing on campus, and valuable degrees and skills that will serve them after they graduate.  

Advocating to government is important, and that is why it is critical that our direction is informed by our student associations, who are democratically elected and speak as the student voice. This year we’ve spent time defending student unions and the work they do to make Ontario better for undergraduate students. They collect research, they ask questions, they debate, discuss, deliberate and democratically decide on what student priorities are on campus and priorities for advocating to government. They provide affordable food on campuses, they fill the gaps that students care about but might not be profitable for businesses or priorities for universities to fund, things like resources for LGTBQ+ people on campus, extra mental health supports, or peer counselling. And student associations services are threatened with thinner budgets having to go further than ever before, with students able to opt out of fees for services like government advocacy they will benefit from. Here I disagree with the government’s approach, but student associations will continue to serve and represent students, and I’m proud to be part of one that cares deeply about making life better, easier and less stressful for all of our members. It is amazing to see OUSA work with and serve our eight student associations, bringing provincial issues to light to the public and to government, and OUSA is built on the power of student associations, and I know it will continue to do its best to serve thee students those student associations represent. 

There are numerous partners who play a role in student wellbeing, from local clinics to city councilors, to arms length government agencies, student focused insurance companies and more who play a role in benefiting students, and I look forward to OUSA continuing to build those partnerships to benefit students.  

Finally, there are you and me. It is important not to discount the power of the single student voice. A single student voice is a powerful thing, and there are more ways than one to use it. I chose to be involved with my student association, got elected, and now have the honour of serving as a steering committee member and Vice President Finance on the Board of one of the best student alliances in the world. Students play an important role in using their voices to bring issues to light to government, to the public, and to student associations themselves, priorities like affordable education, improved counselling services, better ability to find work during school, and so many more. I serve in that boardroom, but I have the gift of being able to see a vision for more student voices in thousands of different rooms across the province, trying to make life better for students. I see the potential for students to participate in the most important room, the election booth, deciding the future of their governments, I see students fixing the age imbalance in our federal, provincial and local governments by seeking nominations and running for office. I see students getting involved outside of government in the boardroom by forming social enterprises or joining boards of non-profits, charities, co-operatives, foundations and more. I see students who think out of the box and write articles to newspapers and participate in think tanks and conferences. I see students who think in the inbox and email administrators or politicians or student associations and get involved to seek solutions for problems or stand up for justice for their friends or even for people they don’t know. I see a better Ontario for students who might not be able to do the bigger things and simply have to take care of themselves, but take the time to build the social fabric of our society by performing good deeds, looking out for their friends’ mental health and wellbeing, or simply by building their own communities through participating in clubs or finding the small places they can make Ontario’s communities a little more beautiful. We are also partners in making Ontario a better place. Our burdens, responsibilities and powers are less, but our impact when we all work collectively to improve our communities, our government and our universities, is immense. 

I already see some: people volunteering for local charities, people forming clubs, people donating their money as well as their time. But there are so many more opportunities to make Ontario a better place for students. I urge every student to consider these opportunities if you can: run, vote, speak, type, act, build, serve. These are awesome verbs for the awesome people I know that students are, and I hope we will see more students do more of these things in the future.  

Together we all form a network that will strive to make student experience better this year. OUSA is proud to be at the nexus of it, a hub for government, student opinions through research and through student leaders and community partners. We research, we present practical educated solutions, and we advocate for Ontario students. This year I am looking forward to continue to serve, empower and represent students, and I sincerely hope that together we can improve the lives of students across this province.