The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) spring elections are underway. There are two executive slates: Hello UofT, and One UofT, as well as a few independent candidates, vying for seven positions.
University College student Madina Siddiqui is running for president with the One UofT slate. “There are seven executives and each of has a vital role on the UTSU,” said Siddiqui. “I look at the president as the anchor, an individual that will bring the team together and push the team to do the work that it is supposed to be doing for the students.”
Siddiqui serves as the current president of the Afghan Students’ Association. In an interview with The Varsity, Siddiqi listed tackling racism on campus, improving accessibility, and working to build closer relationships between the union and clubs among her campaign priorities.
Siddiqui praised the recently released Ontario budget, which promised free tuition based on the average cost of arts and science tuition in Ontario for students with household incomes of less than $50,000. She would like to see tuition fees eliminated entirely.
“We pay the highest fees in Ontario. To me, I think that it’s straining on students. I myself am a student who has two jobs, a full course load, and I manage an association,” she said. “It is difficult and the thing is that education is so beautiful. Unfortunately my parents didn’t have an education because of the war back home, so my mom always says knowledge is power. To be able to give students the tools that they need to empower the society like to help the community is great and I think that free education is a must.”
Running for president with the Hello UofT slate is Innis College student Jasmine Wong Denike, the current UTSU vice president, external.
“When I came to U of T in my first year, I was terrified,” Denike said. “I came from a place where I didn’t have a lot of friends, I didn’t really know who I was, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Denike credited her work at the UTSU this past year for changing her perspective on the union’s potential to spark positive change at the university. “I had the chance to do things I wanted to do and see ways that I could try to improve the experience, especially for first-year [and] second-year students so they wouldn’t have the same experience that I had when I showed up my first and second year,” she said.
“Now I am running to be the president of the UTSU which is kind of a big step for me in the sense that I did not see this coming. I want to do it because I am not done yet,” Denike stated.
Like Siddiqui, Denike emphasized the importance of connecting with students. Additionally, she said that she wants to see more progress made on the Student Commons project, lower or frozen caps on tuition fees, as well as efforts to help make students feel safe on campus.
Denike also indicated that she believes that the UTSU’s procedures have made the union inaccessible to some students. “I feel like this year it’s sort of been lost in the jargon of Robert’s Rules of Order in a way, and I want to bring it back down to earth, bring it back to students so they can understand what is going on, they feel like they have a sense of what the board does and after every meeting I want to make sure that students don’t have to read through a 200 page board package to find out one motion,” she said.
Vice president, internal & services
Mathias Memmel, current co-president of the Faculty of Music’s Undergraduate Association and director for the Faculty of Music on the UTSU’s current Board of Directors, is running with Hello UofT for vice president, internal & services.
When asked about his goals for the position, he expressed his desire to improve the undergraduate health and dental plan. Next year, the plan will cover up to $100 in psychological care for the first time, a development that Memmel suggested he would like to take further. “We should be able to raise that and cover the full cost,” he said.
Memmel went on to say that he would like to implement a more transparent budgeting process and to establish “a sharing economy of materials” between clubs and student societies, in order to maximize resources.
Carina Zhang, an international student at New College, is the One UofT vice president, internal & services candidate. Zhang credits her appeal as a candidate to her past experiences as a representative for the New College Council (NCC) and the New College Student Council (NCSC), as well as her time spent on the academic appeals board and the Arts & Science Council.
When asked about the issues she aims to tackle as a prospective member of the UTSU executive, she said that she would like to increase the number of scholarships and internships available to international students: “I’d like to ask the Centre for International Experience to co-operate with us because they are kind of the core centre for international students.”
Zhang would also like to see a greater sense of community and enhanced communication between U of T’s three campuses. She said, “The campus itself, those buildings are not the things that keep the students here. It’s more like the perspective, the culture, the respect, everything, the environment to engage people, to unite them, to become one U of T. So that’s our goal… Our team name explains it all,” Zhang said.
Vice president, university affairs
Shawn Williams is a Victoria College student running for vice president, university affairs with Hello UofT. Williams has been involved with various Facebook groups for newly-accepted U of T students. According to Williams, in 2014, “I wasn’t running a Facebook group but I was still really active and I was basically the person who was helping new students, just using that as a mechanism to help them with student loans, course selection, program enrolment, all those sorts of things,” she said.
Williams set up a group for the class of 2019 and then again for the class of 2020, which the UTSU officially endorsed at a Board of Directors meeting in October.
Williams wants to hold informal groups similar to commissions but geared towardsdifferent demographics, a move that she believes will facilitate greater student community engagement. She said, “I want to have things sort of like commissions, which are for specific groups of students. Various groups have different concerns. You might have kids in certain programs who are concerned about fees in their programs in particular — those sorts of things.”
Williams expressed concern about accessibility and mental wellness in terms of the support services currently available to students, which she believes to be inadequate. She proposes working with the administration to improve policies surrounding test absences and expanding services that make recorded lectures available online.
“Students often have to juggle their own health with schoolwork and we just don’t really have good mechanisms in place to allow people to do that effectively,” she said.
One UofT’s vice president, university affairs candidate was unavailable for comment. At press time, the slate stated that they had a candidate confirmed for the position, but that they were unavailable.
Andy Edem, current associate to the vice president, campus life, is running as an independent for the office of vice president, university affairs. The Varsity did not approach Edem for comment.
Vice president, external
Andre Fast, an Innis College student, is One Uof T’s candidate for vice president external. Echoing Siddiqui, Fast intimated his desire to see the union fight for free tuition in Ontario in the future. “In Ontario, we pay more for tuition than in any other province. I think it is important that university be accessible to everyone.”
“I think overall [the budget] is positive because it provides more funding for low income students. There are some negative things,” said Fast. “It is not free tuition, despite how they framed it. They say it is $6,200 for people whose parents make less than $50,000. We know that is not actually the average tuition. Statistics Canada says it is closer to $7,900,” Fast commented, referencing the recently released 2016 provincial budget.
Victoria College student Lucinda Qu is Hello’s candidate for vice president, external.
Qu wants to see the barriers to involvement that face marginalized students demolished, and focus on issues such as affordable education and access to food at all hours. Qu’s broader platform involves “lobbying external organizations and governments, a lot of talking to student groups and admin on campus.”
Qu hopes to level the playing field for students by working to make post-secondary education more affordable.
Qu said that achieving these goals would involve “a lot of talking to student groups and admin[istration] on campus. Whether it be top-down or whether it be in more of a grassroots fashion through the establishing and funding of groups that can start new initiatives here, I’m interested in exploring every option possible to tackle the issues that speak to students most.”
Vice president, equity
“University, I feel, is a time where students actually end up spending more time here on campus than they do at home. We want that to be some place where people feel comfortable, feel like they belong… like they’re part of a larger community… like they’re safe, feel like they are with their family basically,” said Malkeet Sandhu, One UofT’s candidate for the equity seat. She currently serves as co-president of the Sikh association.
Sandhu identified the prevalence of racism on campus, accessibility concerns for students with disabilities, and divestment from private firms complicit in the operation of for-profit prisons in the United States as her chief concerns.
“I want the student body to know that I care about them. I am here for them. I want to engage in a conversation with you and know what it is you guys need and want and I want to work towards helping you get there,” Sandhu said
Farah Noori, a UTM student and Hello UofT candidate for vice president, equity, attributes her potential to her past experience with the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), specifically with the women’s coalition, and her current position as a UTM director at the UTSU.
“I’m going to try and work on every issue I can just because I want to be fair,” Noori said. “But at the same time, I want to ensure every cause is spoken for.”
“That’s my number one platform point… by combatting, challenging the different -phobias and -isms… I want to reach out to the different colleges, professional faculties, and clubs and people from UTM, because UTM students are also represented by the UTSU,” said Noori.
Her primary goals include fostering a greater sense of community to allow for greater discussion of issues concerning students, improving campus security resources, food accessibility, the inclusion of student rights on course syllabi, and the implementation of gender neutral pronouns with registrars on campus.
Noori emphasized the importance of dialogue and education in addressing equity issues. “Individuals have different opinions on things, I want them to, in a respectful way obviously, talk about those opinions and have a discussion. So I don’t want to just shut them out cause I feel if you do that then you’re not really solving the issue itself or you’re not really getting anywhere… having those intellectual discussions, you’ll get somewhere. If you don’t get to an agreement, you’ll get to some sort of understanding,” she said.
Vice president, campus life
Shahin Imtiaz is running with Hello UofT. Her previous experience includes being an associate to the vice president, university affairs at the UTSU, serving on the executive at The Spectatorial, a speculative journal at U of T, and time with The Varsity as an associate science editor.
If elected, Imtiaz wants to address what she calls the “inaccessibility that comes in the form of decentralized information.” She proposes replacing the current paperwork-based process by which club funding is acquired with a campus life app and website that “puts all of the campus life needs in one place.” She also mentioned focusing on higher collaboration with clubs, more inclusivity, better clubs training ,and prioritizing fixing the current systems in place, especially with clubs funding.
Lera Nwineh, the One UofT candidate, is currently an executive on the Nigerian Students’ Association (NSA) and a member of the international students’ committee at University College.
“I want to accomplish things in three different aspects: clubs, students, and events,” he said. Nwineh aims to increase transparency and ease in the club funding process, a goal that he believes will “triple the effect of campus life in general.” He also aims to focus on bettering UTSU events by making them more accessible, with a special priority on the UTSU concert during frosh week, essentially ensuring a positive first experience for first-year students.
Alessia Rodríguez, the current vice president, campus life, is running for the position again as an independent. From June 2015, she served as an associate to the vice president, campus life and was then appointed to the role by the Board of Directors in December following the impeachment of her predecessor, Akshan Bansal.
“I want to personalize my relationship with clubs and provide them with the resources they need,” Rodríguez said. “I plan to continue facilitating the integration and collaboration between clubs and other groups, as well as to break the distance between students and the UTSU.”
Her other goals are to increase club funding by $10,000 across the board, facilitate collaboration between clubs and service groups through various networking opportunities, and expand and create new events with direct input from students and colleges.
Rodríguez said that she is grateful to have been appointed by the board this past year but cited direct democratic selection, rather than slate affiliation, as her reason for seeking the office again as an independent.
Vice president, professional faculties
Engineering student Ryan Gomes is the vice president, professional faculties candidate for the Hello UofT slate. Gomes is the current UTSU vice president, internal & services and is a member at large of the Engineering Society’s Board of Directors.
“I know how the UTSU works — on a very fine level, both in terms of financial level in terms of policy and in terms of various other things,” Gomes said. “Especially considering that this is the first time this position is being elected, you want someone who knows their way around the UTSU so they can take action quickly because again these are issues that the professional faculties have been facing for years.”
“One of the reasons I’m running and why I want to take up this position is because I think that, historically, the UTSU has ignored the professional faculties,” Gomes said. “I would want to develop a faculty-specific strategy for each of the specific faculties, sit down with them, ask them what their issues are, and how the UTSU can better help them and support them. I think in large part most professional faculty students don’t even know that they are a part of the UTSU, especially because many of these faculties are separated not just in terms of being a separate faculty, but also by distance.”
Gomes would also like to focus on promoting collaboration between faculties in a similar way to the collaboration that exists between different arts & science colleges. Additionally, Gomes would like to establish a commission for professional faculty students. “Commissions are key elements to the vice president’s portfolio in terms of engaging students, and I think that in creating a professional faculties commission we can better engage [those] students,” he said.
Gomes spoke enthusiastically about his interest in engaging in direct advocacy if elected to have professional faculty students’ incorporated into future changes to Ontario’s provincial education funding model. The recent promise of free tuition is based on the average tuition for an arts & science student, whereas professional faculty students have higher average tuition fees. “I think that’s an issue that the UTSU should be taking on,” Gomes said, adding that the caps on tuition fee increases are expiring next year. “The government has never explained why there’s a higher cap for professional faculty students… and now these caps are expiring, and I’m sure U of T is going to want to increase them or let them expire and not have new caps so they can increase tuition by how much ever they want.”
Running with the One UofT slate is kinesiology & physical education student, Charlotte Mengxi Shen. Shen has held executive positions with the University of Toronto Chinese Student and Scholar Association, the UT Chinese magazine, and founded a fitness club.
Shen has proposed monthly meetings with major student associations to address their needs and wants to make exam deferrals easier for professional faculty students.
“For example, in engineering if you defer [a first-year course]… you have to take an extra year even if you have a valid doctor’s note or a death certificate of someone else,” Shen said. “If you defer one exam, a four-year program turns into a five-year program. Also, [for professional faculties] education is very expensive, and I think this policy is a waste of money and a waste of time. I think we can do better than that.”
Shen also wants to create more study, studio, and design space for professional faculty students.
The UTSU executive debate will take place this Wednesday, March 16 at 5:30 pm in the William Doo Auditorium. Voting will take place between March 22 and 24.
Disclosure: Shahin Imtiaz is a former associate science editor for The Varsity
Correction (March 14th, 2016): An earlier version of this article misspelled Lera Nwineh.
This article has been updated to include further information on the candidates for vice president, campus life and a photograph of Alessia Rodríguez.