While all U of T students share experiences of campus, can the same be said of a single school culture? JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

U of T’s student culture is one of smaller groups

I am personally tired of defending the University of Toronto to friends and strangers who attend other universities. With any institution the size of U of T, there are obviously going to be issues unifying around one unique student culture, but in my opinion, it does not have to be defined as a single communal experience. U of T is a community of communities, very much similar to the way that Toronto is a community composed of smaller communities.

Who says that we have to have an intense school spirit? Who says that we have to all walk around in U of T clothing during our university careers, celebrating our collective university experience? Who says that we have to enjoy school-wide events to have fun at university?

School spirit does not necessarily mean attending a football game. Many U of T students carry a school spirit that is narrowly defined by their college or campus, which was developed during their first years. Wearing a school sweater does not necessarily mean you liked your experience there; it could have just as easily been a gift from your parents. 

U of T is composed of numerous, unique colleges, faculties, clubs, and groups that each make up their own independent student communities. The sheer size of U of T as an institution ensures that any type of student can come and be successful socially — they just have to take the initiative to customize their university years. That is why there is no cookie-cutter U of T experience — we each create and find our own communities and cultures. Though, ultimately, isn’t that the perfect university life — one that you can choose?

Some argue that U of T is too large and that it is easy to get left behind socially as a result of the absence of a unified student culture. My response to that is firstly, being a part of a campus, college, and faculty already serves to introduce new students into  smaller communities, and, more importantly, that is the way the real world functions. No one will hold your hand every day and tell you how to do everything, with the possible exception of some overbearing parents. Your life is what you make of it and the sooner you realize that the more fulfilling your life will be. I’d much rather create my own memories than follow some outdated university culture that other people made for me. 

All that being said, there are some general characteristics that U of T students share that could be considered examples of the “average.” Everyone I’ve met here is intelligent in their own way, hardworking, and wildly interesting. Our atmosphere lends itself to producing great members of society and, in my opinion, that is what really matters. 

Christina Atkinson is a third-year student at University College studying economics and political science. 

   Culture here cannot compare to other Ontario schools

With three campuses, over 65,000 undergraduate students — one seventh being international — is it even possible for U of T to have a student culture? Our students come from all over the world, with incredibly diverse cultural backgrounds, traditions, dietary habits, living habits, and studying habits. Yet we all come together: we all chose U of T. Students share the vast number of hours spent in the body of a concrete peacock in the form of our beloved Robarts Library, and a pride for attending the so-called Harvard of the North, no doubt. Yet in comparison to other Canadian universities like Western, Queens, and Guelph, U of T lacks in the school spirit category.

If it weren’t for TIFF, frosh week would take over the city at the start of September. This is a quintessential moment of any U of T student’s experience, whether it means marching or watching from afar. Yet it seems that as September and the thrills of starting a new year descend on campus, students go off into their own shells, or rather library cubicles, and stay there until autumn of the following year. Despite the fact that a prominent student culture may not exist, it would not be fair to consider U of T students to be disassociated. This school has several smaller communities and cultures that are part of a greater spectrum. The sheer amount of extra-curricular clubs the school has to offer is practically overwhelming. Every student association creates a culture of its own, and in the unlikely event that a culture is ignored, a new club will be established.

The college system, a concept that is unfortunately still confusing to some fourth-year students, plays a role in giving students that school spirit. Going beyond the often uncanny stereotypes that define each college, these homes within U of T provide a haven for us all. 

This system, along with student councils and associations within faculties like the Economics Students’ Association, Engineering Society, and so on, give us the opportunity to involve ourselves by picking and choosing school cultures and customs. There is an underlying je ne sais quoi between students sharing the same college or association that instantly binds them when they meet. Though many students’ havens may not be the college, every student at U of T associates themselves with something.

In a nutshell, U of T may not have the strong campus culture that other Canadian schools pride themselves on, but it gives its students plenty of other instruments to create a sense of community.

Francesca Morfini is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying international relations and history.

  U of T may struggle with unifying under one banner, but it isn’t for a lack of trying

The political science student in me would be remiss to begin this response without defining school culture. As much as I detest the formulaic approach to argumentation that is drilled into students over the course of a four-year undergraduate degree, I do recognize the format’s value. Thus, allow me to define school culture as student recognition of, and involvement in a cohesive, vibrant, dynamic, social, and learning community.

It is widely recognized by both students and academics that U of T lacks a school culture. The reasons for this belief are clear: U of T is divided into three campuses and is home to a large commuter population. Furthermore, the misconception that U of T is an easy school to get in to, but hard to stay at, speaks to the emphasis placed on achievement over culture at this institution. As do the high admission standards that U of T’s graduate programs have in place — the median LSAT score for admitted U of T law school students is 167/180. Additionally, bodies that seek to represent the student population and build student culture have recently come under fire, resulting in a more fragmented student population. It appears that we are too divided and disillusioned to come together and build school culture.

The cynics would argue that the facts speak for themselves — students seeking school culture would be better served attending schools such as Western or Queens where Mustang or Gael games, respectively, are characterized by packed stadiums and screaming fans. In contrast, I have yet to see Varsity Stadium packed, despite living across from the venue for the past two years.

Much like Canada, unity in diversity is at the heart of school culture at U of T. The college system is the most powerful representation of this idea — seven colleges serve as homes away from home to both resident and commuter students, offering resources, services and, of course, the occasional party or two to their constituents. 

Within each college, vibrant and dynamic communities are cultivated during club meetings, student government collectives, and perhaps most frequently, during raucous dinner conversations. As a Trinity student, this has certainly been my experience and I for one, would not have it any other way. 

While some may suggest that Frosh Week chants and other rivalrous activities set the colleges against one another, I would argue that it is activities such as these that allow us to find a collective culture through diversity. 

Students are proud to belong to colleges that are constituents of Canada’s top university — there cannot be one without the other. The frosh parade is the best example of that unifying principle — in the midst of sharp yet witty chants, our diverse learning, and social mosaic is pieced together as we bleed blue through the streets of Toronto. There are, then, mechanisms in place which seek to, and succeed at, building school culture at U of T.

Another current example of an initiative that builds school culture is the pre-homecoming festival.  

The street festival serves the purpose of breaking down divisive barriers between student groups on campus It is my hope that these barriers can be broken down and, in their place, we can establish a greater sense of belonging — a feature of successfully vibrant and dynamic student communities. 

Students came together to paint their faces, create banners, and collectively support the Varsity Blues as they took on the York Lions — this is evidence of a community investing in itself. Furthermore, earlier this summer, I was asked to be part of the effort to revitalize the U of T Varsity Blues cheer — initiatives such as these, integrated into larger programming such as the pre-homecoming festival, speak to the need to cultivate school culture. By working across multiple platforms and groups to grow school culture at the university, we can ensure that everyone is proud to shout and fight for the blue and white in honour of U of T.

Finally, school culture at UTSG is unique in that, while we exist within the confines of our college or faculty’s respective quadrangles, we share important priorities. U of T’s students should pride themselves on their ability to recognize challenges and respond to them. Students have, and will continue to act in ways that benefit the student community as a whole. A vivid example of this is the manner in which a number of colleges and faculties rallied together at an UTSU Annual General Meeting (AGM) to stress the importance of online voting. Students  waited in line for hours to make their voices heard on an issue that promises to affect school culture significantly. Regardless of our differences, acting in ways that put students’ interests first has always been a hallmark of the student population, and by extension, student culture.

The frosh parade and homecoming festival are examples of an existing framework for a unified school culture at U of T, and the unified action at the UTSU AGM of November 2012 is one of a handful of cases where students have come together under one banner.. 

We need to be willing to venture beyond our local campus bubble, seeking out new friends, conversations and opportunities if we are to cultivate a school culture that each student contributes to, and benefits from. We also need to make better use of the clubs, resources and institutions available to us if we are to truly celebrate a school culture we can be proud of.

Ultimately, cultivating and growing school culture at U of T is not simply the duty of every student — it is simply a noble calling, and an immense responsibility.

Aditya Rau is the Male Head of Arts at Trinity College. He is a third-year student studying political science. 

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