The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is unveiling the First Year Council (FYC) at the start of the fall 2019 semester. The goal of the FYC is to engage first-year students in campus politics and improve their overall experience at U of T.
The UTSU hopes that increasing first-year student engagement will help us in mounting a defense against the effects of the Student Choice Initiative, the provincial mandate to give students an opt-out option for certain ancillary fees. Part of the inspiration for the idea came from first-year councils established by other student unions, like those at McGill University and McMaster University.
I did not become involved with any campus political organization until well into my third year at U of T. My story is the same as that of many others: entering student politics as a first-year student without any connection to the social networks within can be extremely intimidating, and sometimes feel impossible. The FYC aims to empower new students in a way that makes their insights feel respected and valued.
In my first year, I went to several drop-in events before I found a club where I actually felt welcomed. As a member of Fight for $15 and Fairness UofT, I picketed outside of a Tim Hortons on Bloor Street with several students who shared my view on fair wages. As I was doing this, a student from my program recommended that we run for executive positions on our academic student union. This inspired me to run for and subsequently be elected to the Arts & Science Students’ Union executive, which oversees 62 active course unions at UTSG.
I am now the President of the UTSU, but I had to meander through a myriad of lost connections and one-off experiences with clubs before I found my footing in student government. This should not be the only way for students to get involved with politics on campus.
The UTSU is tasked with representing all full-time undergraduate students at the downtown campus, including first-year students. Students should not have to wait years before feeling comfortable enough to get involved in student politics. The FYC was created to change that.
The UTSU is a huge organization. We have a 41-person Board of Directors, with seven executives and directors from across the colleges and faculties. Getting involved with such a large organization may seem daunting, and the reality is that for the most part, it is.
Students are asked to balance their studies with a cumbersome election period that takes place both in-person and online. After rounds of debates, social media campaigns, and handing out pamphlets, there is still a possibility that candidates will not get elected.
The incentive for students to actively get involved with UTSU programming and operations has been gradually chipped away over time. Moreover, engagement is very low, as seen in the voter turnouts in our previous two election periods — respectively at 4.2 per cent and 2.9 per cent. We should be creating opportunities to change these trends.
The FYC will be one of the only institutions that is completely operated by first-year students at the University of Toronto. While residence councils and college-based student societies have long been creating positions for first-year students, they have done so with the impetus that senior students will be guiding their decision making. This is not the case with the FYC.
The FYC will be composed of an appointed body of 10 councillors and two executives that will meet each month and report to the UTSU Board of Directors. At the first meeting, the FYC will select a president and vice-president from among its membership. After its inaugural year, the FYC will be elected entirely by first-year students. It will be able to create and lead its own committees, which will be dedicated to addressing specific issues facing first-year students.
Now in my fifth year at U of T, I know first-hand how long it takes to become meaningfully involved with the UTSU. Our hope is that, in creating the FYC, we can create a UTSU that genuinely supports its first-year members. We need fresh ideas, and this year, the UTSU wants to find new ways to implement those ideas from first-year students. Through this new initiative, we will be listening to first-year concerns and amplifying them in a supportive and meaningful way.
The FYC is a way to do this. Apply and become involved in a university that wants to hear from and work for you.
Joshua Bowman is a fifth-year Indigenous Studies and Political Science student at St. Michael’s College and current President of the UTSU.