As the end of the 2022-23 academic year looms over the heads of post-secondary students, undergraduate student leaders across Ontario ramp up for a new term. For most Ontario university undergraduate student associations, the end of elections means the ushering in of the new executive team.
As such, my term as Vice President, University Affairs (VPUA) for the Brock University Students' Union ends on April 30th. As the end of these terribly-wonderful chapters approaches, I have become reminiscent of my time as an undergraduate student and my involvement in student government.
In the wake of the recent elections, I asked myself why do students often not engage in student government, and why did I?
Why I “Give a Shit”
Throughout my life, to most people I meet, my personality is notably outspoken, passionate, and intense, doused in a layer of bubbly quirkiness. While all are often true and some not always situationally appropriate, the well-intentioned characteristics have been beneficial and especially relevant in my position in student government.
During my adolescence, these traits weren’t seen as positive qualities of a leader but as being bossy, abrasive, and annoying. I would find adults, my peers, and sometimes even myself trying to stifle my outspoken and passionate nature. Over my 23 years, I was often frustrated and felt defeated when my intensity was not returned and validated for things I cared about.
Eleven months in my current position, a lot of introspection, and two election periods later, I realized I have what experts have referred to as "Giving a Shit" (Ye-Mowe, 2023). "Giving a Shit" is a quality that can be easily contagious, acquired over time, or occur naturally. Some side effects include: lack of sleep, burnout, existential dread, and public ridicule.
Fortunately, I have found like-minded and tempered individuals and these pieces of myself that once seemed like a burden became positive qualities, even considered a superpower by some.
While this should not have been such a dramatic realization, it has impacted my outlook on my entire term as VPUA and undergraduate student engagement.
Do Students “Give a Shit”?
Over the 2023 winter term, OUSA member schools’ election voter turnout ranged between 3.28% and 17.0%, averaging around 10%, with Western's University Students' Council (USC) as an outlier reaching 34.6% of students' votes. Even taking USC numbers into account, all Ontario university student associations are receiving significantly less than half the undergraduate student population's votes.
Approximately 150,000 professional and undergraduate, full-time and part-time university students at eight student associations across Ontario will be represented by leaders with under 10% of this support cumulatively. While these numbers are typical for student government elections, the normative standard should not be the goal for Ontario student associations and undergraduate students.
This traditional form of engagement seems to have flaws, as apparent through the lack of voter turnout and engagement… but why?
Why Students Don’t “Give a Shit”
Retrospectively, I bring an outspoken, passionate, and sometimes brash intensity to my personal and professional life simply because I care. I also know my exhaustion and frustration were due to feeling belittled and ignored.
As such, students are often told throughout their entire lives and educational experiences to follow the rules, not ask any questions, and that they don't know what they are talking about.
Why would simply entering post-secondary institutions change the learned mindset of dismissal ingrained in students?
It is critical to note that the lack of student engagement in elections, feedback, and services, or the fact that less than half of students can tell me what a student union does, is not indicative of the amount undergraduate students care. In fact, I would argue it is the opposite.
As a student leader, assigning blame and aiming frustration toward students who don't engage or care in traditional ways does not solve the overarching issues. Why would simply posting an Instagram story or organizing a giveaway change student’s feeling of disdain?
Students have diverse passions and interests and demonstrate that they care in many different ways. However, students’ involvement in their student associations, advocacy, activism, and interests must be fostered.
Students must be engaged, need to feel empowered, and supported to amplify their voices.
Why Should You “Give a Shit” and How?
Unfortunately, my Dear Reader, there is no one size fits all solution to this issue, and I am certainly not the great mind that will stumble upon it if there is. Additionally, it is essential to note that there is no standard or proper way of involvement and engagement.
However, I would like to leave you all with some of my final thoughts.
The voices, values, and best interests of every single one of the 903,780 undergraduate students in Ontario are represented through a student association in some capacity. All Ontario student associations have the duty to provide their students with the support, services, experience, advocacy, and platforms to amplify their voices.
To all student leaders, what you do with your power, the decisions you make, the student money you spend, and the words you say leave an impact. While it can be easy to forget, you have a responsibility to every single one of your undergraduate students. You have agreed to facilitate a standard of representation, share information, receive feedback and concerns, provide ample opportunities, and uniquely foster student engagement. You do not get to give up when it is hard or choose to let student voices be silent. When each of you signs your contracts, whether explicitly stated or not, it is your role and duty. Please do so with these intentions in mind always.
To all Ontario undergraduate students, your voice matters. Whether you believe it or not, cared and were told not to, you never cared and want to try, or if you do care but are exhausted, please keep going. Find something that makes you feel outspoken, passionate, and intense and let it take you. Your student leaders are there to represent you; make them listen and let them understand.
When undergraduate students come together, we are unstoppable.