Editorial: In search of transparency: the SCSU question

World War I happened largely due to a culture of suspicion, hidden alliances, and private messages. On campus, Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU) elections are plagued with the same issues. These past weeks have seen a shameful cycle of secrecy shared equally among the SCSU, groups against SCSU president Zuhair Syed, and individuals afflicted by SCSU decisions. As a campus newspaper, all we can do is sit back and look at the facts on all sides.

Flyer campaigns were organized by an anonymous group on campus. A man in a hooded sweater was seen delivering said flyers to all residences Tuesday night. The next morning, the same group posted flyers on windshields in the campus parking lots. The group had been organized out of an on-campus office which SCSU officials were trying to locate.

“I think a lot of the information the people have been getting is propaganda,” said Syed. “But I think freedom of speech should prevail.” Funny, when the student union is under fire for secrecy. Syed screened answers during the campus radio debate and refuses to answer questions about Ministry of Labour complaints, a missing alcohol inquiry, the firing of SCSU’s accountant, meetings with U of T administration, and an uncompleted audit.

After rising tension on Facebook groups and web forums, SCSU decided to speak up. Last Monday saw the release of “A report into allegations and questions surrounding the SCSU and Bluff’s,” a document welcomed by our reporters, which clarified the union’s decisions and included last year’s financial statements. “We will not flash the confidentiality card to avoid answering hard questions, but will limit it to where it applies from a legal standpoint,” reads the report. In response, students organized a sit-in at the soon-to-be-closed Bluff’s restaurant last Thursday, where many voiced questions and criticisms to SCSU officials.

One of the event’s main promoters was a student under the Facebook pseudonym “Buttons D Kat.” Kat has become notorious online for leaking information and raising criticisms. On last Wednesday’s campus election radio show, Kat was accused of “talking a whole bunch of smack” and being “the biggest coward on campus.” The day after the radio show, one DJ sent a message to all listed on the event’s Facebook posting to inform them of Kat’s identity. Kat has since told The Varsity that the leaked name was incorrect. Meanwhile, another Facebook account with the same name was created and posted contradictory comments before being exposed as a fake. Online rumours have run rampant. With poetry, prose and wisecracks, The Varsity’s recent article comments and Facebook groups are sure to entertain and disgust.

Many have accused our reports of biased and untruthful reporting. But we can confidently state that we published whatever information could be attributed to actual people. This is really where the last source of secrecy lies. Over the past three weeks, many have spoken with Varsity staff. Most remained anonymous. People come to us in secrecy, but then expect us to spread information unattributed. In doing so, reporting the facts becomes impossible. This intensifies when students unions allude to suing the media. Some sources had valid reasons, but most kept a veil of secrecy out of convenience.

Congratulations on keeping yourselves, and some truths, comfortable and out of sight. Last week, UTSC students voted for campus executives in an election based on accountability. It is encouraging that our notoriously apathetic campus submitted 1,540 ballots in this election, compared to October’s 325 votes.

Students opted for another year of Zuhair Syed. While the results leave us baffled, we can only hope Syed lives up to his assurances of free speech and transparency. We hope that UTSC and U of T as a whole can develop a new culture; one of truth and openness. One that will lead us into a better future and not wars of suspicion.

Twice Silenced

Derek spent years in a violent relationship. At first Derek’s partner Josh made remarks about Derek being “ugly” and “not good in bed,” says Alex, a social worker in Toronto. Over time, the situation escalated to physical violence, and Josh slammed Derek’s head against walls, kicked, and beat him. It took eight years, but Derek was eventually able to escape the situation.

Interviewed for a book called Gay Masculinities, Paul recounts how his partner bit his nose all the way to the septum and locked him out of his own apartment, bleeding.

“I had to run all the way back to the bars to try to get some help. It was awful,” he says.

Most imagine domestic violence as something that men inflict on their female partners, but the real story is more complicated.

While straight women make up the majority of victims of domestic violence, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are not immune. According to Statistics Canada, people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual are two to four times as likely to have experienced intimate partner violence.

A familiar story

Their relationships may look different, but LGBT victims of domestic violence face many of the same challenges as their straight counterparts.

“It’s hard to get the energy to stand up and walk away from a relationship that has lasted years, after going through years of abuse,” says Laurie Chesley, manager of the David Kelly LGBTQ Counselling Service at Family Service Toronto. Victims may also be financially dependent on their abuser. Over time, they can become cut off from friends and family, losing the social support that could help them escape. Many victims may think that violence just comes with the relationship, and that they should deal with it.

But LGBT people face particular challenges in finding help. Stigma, gender roles, and a lack of adequate social services combine to keep them in harm’s way.

Nowhere to go

None of the domestic violence shelters in Toronto accept men of any sexual orientation. This makes it difficult for gay men to find safety in times of severe violence, and even harder in the long run to leave an abusive relationship.

“There are people not knowing where to go,” explains Howard Schulman, coordinator for the Anti-Violence Program at the 519 Centre, a community centre for the LGBT community in Toronto.

Even if they do decide to seek help, Schulman says, “There are issues of shame, and people might not even recognize they are in a violent relationship.”

Compared to social services for heterosexual women, there are far fewer programs for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals that accept both women and men. The 519 is one exception, along with Family Service Toronto. The lack of support is a real concern, because early intervention can make a big difference in victims’ lives.

“The longer you are quiet about it, the more likely you are to experience it again and again, and to deal with something more serious down the road,” says Alex.

A culture of silence

Cheryl Champagne, an assault counsellor and educator at U of T, says it can be difficult to admit that domestic abuse happens with LGBT couples.

“There is fear that it confirms that same-sex relationships are not healthy,” she says. “But it’s important to realize violence and abuse can happen to everyone, to every group […] and it’s important to be out there talking about it.”

“Violence in some same-sex relationships shouldn’t undermine [our perception of] the quality of relationships in the community as a whole,” says professor David Rayside, founder of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at U of T. No one uses heterosexual domestic violence to argue that straight relationships are dysfunctional, he points out.

Victims must also confront stereotypes. Gay and bisexual men might feel that they should be strong enough to defend themselves, and lesbians face the stereotype that females are not violent or abusive. These assumptions become a problem when seeking help from the police, who might brush violence off as a “catfight.”

Studies show that every minute, a lesbian is abused by her partner. Lesbian relationships are often romanticized as a utopian “fusion” of two women, where violence is out of the question. Many lesbians are trapped in “a conspiracy of silence,” as scholar Joan Mclennen writes, where women face immense pressure to maintain the romantic façade, even in times of severe violence.

Moreover, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have to come out twice, once as a sexual minority, then again as a survivor of intimate partner violence. HIV/AIDS, homophobia, ethnicity, and age further complicate the issue.

Abuse can even take the form of outing a partner, which means that it is closely connected to homophobia.

“There is a surprising amount of homophobia still present,” says Chesley. “Some people can experience that overtly, from negative comments to not getting promoted.”

Closing the gap

The few public services open to men or focused on LGBT relationships, like the 519 Centre and Family Service Toronto, are hampered by underfunding and understaffing.

“It’s always funding, funding, funding,” says Chesley. She runs the David Kelly LGBT program with another staffer, who has to divide her time between this and another family services program. Chesley notes that it’s hard to attract large donors like TD Bank, who support LGBT events like Pride Week. “How can a counselling service compete with Pride? We’re quiet, confidential, and small. It’s hard for us to sell our image, whereas something like Pride is a celebration, and on TV. Social services generally have a hard time.”

“There are limitations in terms of services we can offer, in terms of dealing with clients,” says Schulman of the 519 Centre, who’s the only one shouldered with the Anti-Violence Program. “More funding from city of Toronto and the provincial level would definitely be helpful.”

As a result of meagre financial support, public education campaigns, like advertisements in subway cars and buses, are directed towards heterosexual women. Shelter from the Storm displays a poster of a disgruntled family sitting on a couch: “Help her out. Donate. Because no one should have to live with abuse. Ever.” LGBT relationships aren’t in the picture.

“It would be good for larger donors to recognize the service we provide for the community,” says Chesley. “How do we tell the public ‘counselling is good for you?’

“People will go to the gym to get healthy, but counselling to deal with problems? Perhaps with time.”

Victims of progress

When it comes to earthquakes, the question is usually not if, but when. As two tectonic plates slide past each other at a boundary, a great deal of energy builds up. Earthquakes occur when these plates slip suddenly and pent up energy is quickly released. Depending on the magnitude of the earthquake, anything ranging from a minor rumbling to the flattening of entire cities may occur.

There is no doubt that the Sichuan earthquake on May 12 of last year was one of the largest natural disasters China has ever seen. With over 69,000 killed, it registered as the 19th deadliest earthquake of all time. As the rubble of destroyed buildings was cleared, serious questions emerged from the dust. Was shoddy construction to blame for the large number of collapsed buildings? Even worse, were crooked officials complicit in letting building code infractions slide?

Even more interesting, some American and Chinese scientists suggest that a reservoir might be to blame for triggering the quake. Although it has not been proven, their suggestion is that the 320 million tonnes of water in the Zipingpu Reservoir may have played a factor. It is a cause of deep concern, and a potential problem for the Chinese government.

If the theory proves correct, it has a precedent: the 1967 Koynanagar earthquake was linked to the massive Koyna dam and reservoir. Although conditions allowing for earthquakes already existed, scientists believe that the weight of the water caused a quake to happen sooner than it should have. The death toll was modest—only 180 died—but the dam sustained structural damage.

The Chinese government is still reeling from the tainted-milk scandal of last year, which sickened 300,000 children. Adding a political angle to a devastating disaster, fresh in the minds of the Chinese populace, is troublesome. The government’s response has already been criticized in the international press, and, if due diligence wasn’t followed in the construction of the Zipingpu Reservoir, the people will demand answers.

The situation gets more complicated still. Chinese scientists and engineers warned of potential problems as early as 2001. Officials ignored these warnings, despite several reports from separate sources.

Considering the glut of hydroelectric projects underway or planned in Southwest China, we can expect that government officials will try to sweep this problem under the rug. A paper published by two researchers from the China Earthquake Administration in December admitted that the reservoir’s water and its mass “clearly affected the local seismicity” for four years before the earthquake. They noted that further research was needed to conclusively link the reservoir to seismic events.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese government officials have blocked the websites of certain environmental groups critical of the Zipingpu project. Although it is agreed that no reservoir, regardless of its size, could cause an earthquake, concerns about hydroelectric projects triggering seismic events before they are supposed to occur are legitimate. Even a few decades could make a world of difference when it comes to causalities stemming from faulty buildings. If corruption and bribery are as rampant as reports indicate, the government needs to act quickly to regain the trust of its people.

The price paid in Sichuan was paid in blood, if the reservoir hypothesis is correct. It is not the first time the Chinese government has put the safety of its people at risk in the name of progress. It may be foolish to hope that it will be the last.

Tamils for peace

In late January, members of Toronto’s Tamil immigrant community formed a human chain across the city’s downtown core to decry the civilian fallout of the recent Sri Lankan military surge against separatist rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A string of protesters almost six kilometres in length and 50,000 in number, they waved placards, raised banners, and chanted slogans, calling on the Canadian government to intervene in a conflict they called “genocide.”

The majority of the demonstrations centred around Union Station. An estimated 30,000 had convened on Front Street, bringing traffic to a standstill. PA systems amplified children’s voices as they made pleas for justice. These words were quickly whipped into impassioned mantras by the crowd. Resolute student activists with megaphones and women overcome with grief held up pictures of the dead and wounded. The image of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared on mounted signposts underneath the words “War Criminal.” There was not a single mention of the Tamil Tigers.

“This rally is not pro-Tigers,” a demonstrator informs me. “It isn’t anti-Tigers either. In fact, I don’t even want to talk about the Tigers at all.”

This sentiment shouldn’t be surprising. With the Sri Lankan forces poised to deal a deathblow to the rebel organization within months, the Tamil civilian population of Northern Sri Lanka (250,000 of which resides within the primary war zone) is increasingly in the crossfire. The government has sealed them off from humanitarian aid, medical attention, and their expat families. Hundreds of civilians have been killed or displaced from their homes by the fighting, taking limited shelter in the surrounding jungles. For many Tamils, this is a grievous abuse of human rights, the culmination of a quarter century of ethnic prejudice and oppression.

The Tamil separatist movement gained momentum in the 1970s as a reaction to the ethno-religious tensions rising in the wake of the country’s independence from Britain in 1948. A succession of Buddhist-Sinhalese governments followed, reversing the privilege historically bestowed upon the minority Tamil population by the British colonialists, which they considered disproportionate. To this effect, Tamils were persecuted by the political and education systems. The Sinhalese language, Sinhala, was recognized as the only official language of Sri Lanka and measures were put in place to severely limit Tamils’ ability to enter university and to prevent their immigration. Buddhism became the official state religion, curtailing the religious freedoms of all religious minorities, including the mostly Hindu Tamils. The segregation of the Tamil people became systematic, sowing the seeds of discontent that would result in the formation of the LTTE by 1980.

Since then, the LTTE’s extremist approach—political assassinations and pioneering the use of suicide bombers—has garnered sharp criticism. Today, the group has been denounced internationally as a terrorist organization. The various Sinhalese administrations have escaped these indictments, despite an appalling litany of atrocities and human rights violations spanning the better part of three decades. A watershed event in the escalating divisions between the Sinhalese and Tamils occurred during the 1983 pogrom, now known as Black July, in which orgiastic riots in Colombo left Tamil neighbourhoods ablaze, businesses looted, and over a thousand Tamil civilians murdered by Sinhalese mobs. Though then President Jayawardene’s administration was not officially blamed for the slaughter, the connection was never formally investigated and is commonly viewed by the Tamils as deeply suspect.

Suspicions were likely reawakened last month when Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sri Lankan independent newspaper The Sunday Leader, successfully predicted his own murder in an editorial. Citing the newspaper’s fiercely critical investigative coverage of the current Sri Lankan government, Wickrematunge said that his murder would be politically motivated, part of a wider effort to suppress and control the country’s media. A personal associate of President Rajapaksa, he addressed him personally: “In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises […] But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.”

Perhaps this despair, felt by countless others, inspired so many to unite across our nation and speak out in a way that their loved ones in Sri Lanka never could. It’s also likely that these protests were spurred by a desire to redraw the lines between the Tamil people and their de facto political representatives, a difference at times overlooked by the media. Whatever the reason, the message was clear: the Tamils are united, not by politics, but for peace.

Cinema Studies

Leggings again? My own sentiments notwithstanding, the mirror reflects a complete lack of wardrobe flair during these dreary months. You attend the prestigious University of Toronto, which (according to President David Naylor) is the hardest school in the country to obtain an A grade. So it’s fair that your attention is on matters of academics, not acid wash, though I welcome debate on the latter. However, as Ryerson has their angsty emo and OCAD their colourful hipster, wouldn’t it be grand if U of T’s fashion identity were equally compelling?

I asked a couple members of Toronto’s media glitterati (and alumnae to boot) to reminisce on their scholastic style.

“I would stock up on khaki pantaloons like Anna Nicole used to stock up on meds. I haven’t worn khaki since,” reveals The National Post’s society scribe Shinan Govani, a former member of the Trinity tribe. “Preppy was my destiny. I remember a lot of loosened ties with untucked shirts—preppy, but shabby. We were all minding the Gap.”

While Mr. Govani and his gaggle were tricked out in squeaky-clean Americana during Gap’s ‘90s heyday, campus darlings now abuse a different purveyor of colourful basics. “Do not dress head to toe in American Apparel,” he urges.

For Poli Sci grad and PR maven Natasha Penzo, “a great pair of jeans, earthy-coloured boots, a chic cozy sweater and a great tote bag with lots of hardware,” was her go-to class getup.

What did Penzo think of her campus flock? “The look was intellectual/conservative. However, because of the large portion of international students, there is also a great blend of unique styles.” Nowadays, she discusses collections with designers well before they hit the runway. “It makes you a few steps ahead of the game.”

Students, even if your day is spent engrossed in chemistry as opposed to couture, consider this: “Sloppy appearance often equals sloppy performance, so do your best to appear polished and put-together for class. Don’t get me wrong, sweatpants are a necessity some days!” Penzo makes a good point.

Now that we’ve heard from arbiters-about-town, let’s turn to some cinematic references and adopt their scholastic sartorialism, shall we? Confused as to where you fit in? Read on.

Bombastic Bookworm

In The Paper Chase (1973), a first year Harvard law student falls for his Professor’s daughter. (Our campus is the carefully disguised shooting location.) The film makes two things clear: faculty-laced liaisons are tricky, and corduroy is due for a comeback. Gentlemen, take note—a corduroy blazer elevates the plaid shirt to stylishly scholastic proportions. An oversized bow tie or ascot is charming with a grandpa cardigan. Work with a library-inspired palette of butterscotch, burgundy, mustard, and slate. Experiment with this 1970s mood, but in loving memory of Jim Croce, skip the ‘stache.

Underclasswomen unable to put down the Proust should turn to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957). As Jo Stockton, this reserved bookworm oozes well-read dignity. Her look is stark and simple—a beatnik mix of slim black separates with contrasting socks and smart oxfords. Add a coated canvas tote brimming with dog-eared classics.

Geek Chic

A Revenge of the Nerds (1984) look can be made ironically chic with the right adjustments. While pants should never be worn so grossly high on guys, both ladies and lads can steal select styling tips. Button your chemise all the way, then tuck it in and belt it. Pens go in the pocket. Slip on Clark’s Wallabees’ shoes and clunky tortoiseshell spectacles—heck, wear a calculator watch. The appeal of this look lies in your irreverence. Make square your statement.

Poetic Prep

Love Story (1970) is an iconic college film. While I wholeheartedly disagree that love means never having to say you’re sorry, Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal nail the Bostonian brand of prepster. To achieve Ali’s elegant New England manner, tuck centre-parted hair behind your ears or wear a wooly tuque. Collect belted pea coats in camel, navy, or cream, and don equestrian riding boots and a saddlebag. (Stollery’s at Yonge and Bloor is having a sale on striking Barbour messenger bags. Run!) Pair all with ribbed tights and a touch of a sandalwood scent.

For Ryan’s pedigreed polish, wear sweater vests, top-siders, spiffy blazers with suede elbow patches, and timeless trenches. I can attest to the longevity of these looks—they maintain an air of privilege perfect for long days in lecture.

For a West Coast take on Ivy League style, see The Graduate (1967). Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Bradley just graduated from Berkeley and is a little lost, which explains his pieced-together suits and Anne Bancroft’s snappy seduction. I’m tempted to comment on her effective use of animal prints as the original cougar, but I’ll resist.

Vintage Vixen

If you’ve considered a women-only college only to be met with looks of horror from your friends, family, and academic advisor, Mona Lisa Smile (2003) was a revelation. “Look how pretty and cunning they all are!” you cried out at the screen. While the ladies of 1950s Wellesley are overly coiffed and attired for today’s campus, their sense of fashion decorum is well within reach. Vintage stores, charity shops, and consignment boutiques are prime sources for ladylike tweed jackets, silk scarves, and flirty skirts. Commit to retro red lips or pin curls with diligence. While this style is unabashed, keep your husband-hunting antics under wraps. Boys, a whole world of thrifty goodness awaits at your nearest vintage emporium. You might not be inclined to digging through shops (surprising given your evolutionary role as hunters), but take a gander. Something secondhand will infuse all bland ensembles with character.

Nasreen steals hearts

Whether separated from their home country and culture, bereft after the death of a loved one, or set apart from the rhythms of the world by a grueling night shift, the characters in Farzana Doctor’s debut novel Stealing Nasreen all battle loneliness and isolation. Salma and Shaffiq Paperwala moved to Toronto from Mumbai, India two years before the story begins. Both are homesick, unsure of their decision to move, and woefully underemployed.

Nasreen is a Canadian-born daughter of immigrants from the same city and ethnic community as the Paperwalas. Having lost her mother to cancer and her girlfriend to infidelity, Nasreen plans a trip to India with her father to relax and spend time with family. To prepare for the trip she ends up taking classes in the home of Mrs. Paperwala, who offers lessons in Gujarati (the principal language of the Indian state of Gujarat) until she can find a full-time teaching position.

Little does Nasreen know that Mr. Paperwala is the janitor at the institute where she works as a psychologist. Both Shaffiq and Salma find themselves drawn to Nasreen. Shaffiq sees in her a vision of his daughters as adult Canadian women. Nasreen’s open sexual orientation leads Salma to recall the ladylove she left in India when she married Shaffiq. Through Nasreen, the Paperwalas confront their fears and regrets about leaving India and becoming citizens in a new and unknown place.

The novel marks a career change for Doctor, who shifted to a private psychotherapy practice to make time for her writing. “Initially it was a hobby and I didn’t think of myself as a writer,” she said. Doctor wrote the first draft of the first chapter for a continuing education course at U of T. “I felt there was something important happening in the story that I wanted to keep developing.”

In presenting issues of homosexuality and social expectations, Doctor was intent on steering away from a stereotypical approach. “So often we hear negative stories about the kids who are getting disowned and thrown out of their houses, and that still happens,” she said. “But we don’t hear much when families embrace their kids, and there are a lot of those stories as well.”

Though it reveals the growing pains of a new novelist, Stealing Nasreen is a well-executed story, uplifting, and even funny in its very human portrayal of isolation and longing in our often alienating city.

Farzana Doctor will hold a reading and discussion about the themes of her novel at U of T Centre for Women and Trans People (563 Spadina Ave, room 100) on Thursday February 12 from 5 to 7 p.m.

Fringe Science: Testing precognition

“Let me see your palm. Hmm…interesting. Someone from your past will return to you this year. And you will have some conflict at work, but you will eventually find a balance and strong financial stability.” It’s the classic psychic experience: vague information, a conflict to overcome, and an eventual happy ending (that will be $50, please). While it’s easy to poke fun at the psychic experience, researchers over the past decade have weaved together a different picture of precognitive abilities—gaining direct knowledge of the future via extrasensory means.

In 2004, Dr. Dean Radin from the Institute of Noetic Sciences published a paper in the Journal of Scientific Exploration explicating how over a 10-year span he utilized galvanic skin response sensors (sensors capable of measuring emotional arousal by detecting electrical activity on the skin) to investigate precognition.

Using this technology, Dr. Radin subjected 109 participants to multiple trials involving exposure to randomly selected calm images, like a ball, or more erotic or violent emotional images. Research in cognitive neuroscience had demonstrated that individuals exposed to emotional images have increased galvanic skin responses than those who are exposed to calm images. Based on these findings, Dr. Radin hypothesized that if precognition is a valid phenomenon, one might see an increase in galvanic skin responses for emotional images before they appeared to the participant; he alternatively hypothesized that no increase would be seen for calm images.

Results from the experiment confirmed Dr. Radin’s hypothesis. These results suggest that people know what is going to happen before it actually does—a precognitive claim that cannot be explained by contemporary understandings of time.

As a result of the controversy produced by Dr. Radin’s paper, researchers wanted to ensure the effect could be reproduced. Dr. Dick Bierman of the University of Amsterdam attempted the task, and successfully replicated the findings on multiple occasions throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Other scientists pursued research projects aiming to corroborate Dr. Radin’s findings by studying additional physiological measures, in effect creating converging lines of evidence. In 2004, Dr. Rollin McCarty and his colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that investigated Dr. Radin’s experimental paradigm to see whether heart rates reacted similarly to galvanic skin response sensors when presented with emotional or calm images. Based on past physiology research, Dr. McCarty and his team expected heart rate activity to be lower in the emotional image condition than the calm image condition, even before the images were presented to the 26 participants. Results of the experiment supported this hypothesis and corroborate Dr. Radin’s research, suggesting that the heart reacts similarly to galvanic skin activity insofar as it appears to be capable of detecting “spooky” information that can orient the body to future events.

While these experiments highlight the possible validity of precognition, the research program is still very new, with many questions still unanswered. Though some studies suggest the body can unconsciously “see” into the future, few studies provide persuasive evidence for the validity of higher-order precognition (knowing specific events beforehand). Before this research will be taken seriously, mechanistic theories must be developed to explain how information from the future travels to the present, and how the body interprets this information.

In the meantime, enjoy your neighborhood psychic, but take their predictions with a grain of salt.

Co-op students hit by recession

When he decided to enroll in the Professional Experience Year program, Xavier Snelgrove never imagined that he would be laid off. But Snelgrove is one of the unlucky few U of T students who have lost their PEY jobs thanks to the recession.

“Money was a little worrying,” said Snelgrove, a third-year engineering student. “I’d been intending to pay my way through the next two years with the PEY salary.” Administrators at the PEY centre can’t guarantee that students in the program will find or keep a job, though Snelgrove noted that they were helpful after his lay-off, giving him a stack of printouts for other jobs.

The PEY program offers students in Engineering, Computer Science, Pharmacology, and Toxicology the opportunity to go on work terms of 12 to 16 months. Companies pay the students directly, with annual salaries ranging from $28,000 to $66,000.

“Roughly 60 percent of engineering students who do PEY come back with offers [for jobs after graduation],” said Jose Pereira, director of the program. Those who do return to their original employers after graduating typically receive a 20 to 25 per cent higher salary than non-PEY students, making it an attractive program, he said.

But the recession has thrown a wrench in some plans. “Over the last four years, roughly four to six students [per year] are affected by a merger, a downsizing, or a plant closure,” said Pereira. “This year, those numbers have gone up.”

To date, 16 students have been let go. Most have either found alternative employment opportunities through the PEY centre, or have returned to classes. While the number of layoffs has tripled, the majority of over 600 PEY students haven’t been affected.

Neighbouring universities have noticed a slight decline in jobs as well. “The number of rescinded jobs was significantly higher than what would normally occur, but the problem was not widespread,” said Olaf Naese, a representative from the University of Western Ontario engineering co-op program. He added, “As of Jan. 29, 94.4 per cent of our co-ops who were to be on a work term for the winter had found employment. That compares to 96.3 per cent at the same time a year ago.”

Pereira insisted that PEY students have mostly been sheltered from the recession. “Even though they’ve cut back their workforce, they are not hitting the PEY students.” Pereira emphasized that employers are still eager to secure young talent. Furthermore, he expects available positions will outnumber students in the program by August.

“All of our students will go through this again,” said Pereira. “Recessions are part of the cycle. Those that get to work with us during this particular period are getting more value than those that don’t.”

Snelgrove has since found employment at another company and will earn his non-academic credit by the end of the year. Despite the layoff, he remains positive about his PEY experience. “I’m definitely a much better programmer for it,” he said. “It was my first real intensive professional programming experience, and it was in a language I had never used before. Now I have a new job where I’m learning new things.”