Op-ed: Undergraduate research — it exists!

The ASSU President writes on the need to support undergraduate student work beyond the classroom

Op-ed: Undergraduate research — it exists!

The University of Toronto is often ranked among the best universities globally, and it is consistently ranked as one of the best research universities in Canada. We undergraduate students know these rankings are not in reference to research produced in U of T’s graduate programs. What few of us realize, however, is that U of T has many resources to support undergraduate student research, giving students a chance to apply and test their knowledge as well as prepare for further studies in graduate school.

For instance, the Undergraduate Research Fund, co-funded by the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) and the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS), finances self-started student research that is not part of regular coursework. There are a wide variety of research opportunities for second-, third-, and fourth-year students, including research opportunity programs and upper-year independent study options. Some other funding programs include the University of Toronto Excellence Awards, the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Richard Charles Lee Insights Through Asia Challenge, and the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Scholars-In-Residence program.

It is unfortunate that students may not have not heard about such opportunities. The FAS is unique in that it organizes its students through two main structures: the program departments and the colleges. Given this, all students registered as Arts & Science students have differential access to opportunities on campus. Hence, one of the major issues is a communication gap, wherein the faculty is unable to directly and effectively reach its students — approximately 25,000 of them.

The burden to remedy this communication gap should be shared between the university and ASSU. The Arts & Science Undergraduate Research Conference (ASURC), taking place on Friday, January 19 in Sidney Smith Hall at UTSG, is the first conference at the faculty level to showcase the interdisciplinary work of undergraduate students from arts, science, and social science disciplines. I decided to take on this event as a way to test for interest in such opportunities and to gauge how much undergraduate research work is actually out there — a mini research project of my own, you could say.

What I have found is that there is a lot of undergraduate research being conducted at U of T. However, if the current opportunities are better communicated to students, then more students would take advantage of them, resulting in more undergraduate research being produced. Since we began planning ASURC in the summer of 2017, we have had hundreds of students express interest in participating in the conference in difference capacities. In total, we received over 120 research abstracts from arts, science, and social science disciplines. Given the sheer volume of interest we have received, we know that there is a need for opportunities showcasing academic student work.

The university recognizes this and has been very supportive in the production of ASURC. The FAS has served as a main co-sponsor, and President Meric Gertler and Dean of the FAS David Cameron are both delivering welcome notes to the conference’s presenters. At the same time, while the university administration has provided great symbolic and financial support, it often falls on students to self-start and dedicate time to the actual organization of projects. A variety of student-produced academic journals, colloquiums, and conferences inspired us when we were organizing ASURC, many of which were produced by ASSU course unions.

The issue with student-run initiatives is that, with changes in the executive committees of each group happening each year, the possibility of an initiative being discontinued is always a concern. Many of my fellow student leaders on campus share this fear. Despite the precedent set by all our work organizing the first ASURC, I have no formal assurance that next year’s ASSU executives will continue such a long and logistically challenging process.

On the other hand, colleges and faculties have a more continuous presence on campus, creating the potential for long-term improvement of research initiatives. Therefore, I believe the solution lies in campus administrations playing a more active role in filling the communication gap and providing more formal opportunities to showcase student work. While administrations like those of Trinity College, St. Michael’s College, and Victoria College do hold their own undergraduate conferences, they limit participation to their own students, rendering other Arts & Science students at a disadvantage simply due to their college affiliation. In comparison, the University of British Columbia and McGill University both have conferences dedicated to undergraduate research at a far broader level.

From organizing ASURC, I have come to realize the key to undergraduate research. Many times, all it takes is incentive for students to build on and rework their research from their regular FAS courses. Because our academic work is primarily submitted for grading purposes, repurposing it to contribute to research is something we do not usually consider. Funding incentives and showcasing opportunities such as the ones outlined above are incentives to getting students to work out their ideas and engage with their immediate academic communities.

This was the goal of ASURC. In processing over 120 applications, our selection committees prioritized student presenters who had not been published nor had had a chance to present at a conference before. We prioritized topics of study that were interdisciplinary and unique. Research opportunities should not be restricted to graduate students or to the few elite undergraduate students who have been fortunate to have access to them. They should be made available to students interested in developing their ideas beyond the classroom.


Priyanka Sharma is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying Criminology and English. She is the President of the Arts & Science Students’ Union.

ASSU loses bid to raise levy by $3

Course unions, ASSU Executive dissapointed

ASSU loses bid to raise levy by $3

Last week, the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) lost its bid to raise student fees by $3 per semester.

The tallied results of the referendum showed that 60 per cent of student voters were opposed to the proposed fee increase. Of a total of 1,533 voters, 925 voted against the increase, 578 in favour, and 30 voters abstained.

ASSU’s proposal would have raised union fees to $12.50 from the $9.50 that students currently pay per semester. It also proposed a new “cost-of-living adjustment” to tie future fee increases to the rate of inflation.

According to ASSU, funds collected from the increased fee would have gone towards funding its 66 course unions as well as towards grants, bursaries, and event programming.

ASSU’s decision to ask the student body for a fee increase was also, in part, due to financial concerns regarding its budget. Speaking to The Varsity earlier this year, ASSU President Ondiek Odour explained that the the union has been operating on a budget that “far exceeds our income.”

Sahal Malek is the President of the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Students’ Union and the French Course Union, which are two groups that could have benefited from the levy increase. Malek called the referendum results “extremely unfortunate.”

Malek explained that the work that course unions do includes representing the interests of students in the respective departments, hosting academic workshops and conferences, and organizing social and networking events: “We do these tasks on a shoestring budget, and are not paid for any of our efforts.”

“[It] tells us that our efforts to enrich the lives of students on campus are not worthy,” Malek continued. “I hope that students will appreciate what course unions do for them in the future, and maybe decide that we are worthy of a mere three more dollars.”

The political climate on campus likely played a major role in the referendum’s defeat. A month ago, the UTSU held a referendum on a levy increase, which also failed to pass.

Tanzim Rashid, a third-year Trinity College student opposed to the fee increase, explained his objections in a statement to The Varsity. Rashid is a member of Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), a student group critical of ‘political correctness’ which began in wake of the psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s YouTube lectures on the topic. Rashid encouraged fellow SSFS members to vote against the levy increase.

Rashid expressed concern that ASSU is being used as “a platform to promote radical polarizing political views” and suggested that the impartiality of the union had been compromised in light of recent events. ASSU was one of several student unions to release a statement criticizing Peterson.

He said that the failed referendum was a message to the “ASSU, UTSU, and U of T admin, that the mismanagement of funds, and the misappropriation of the ASSU… will not be tolerated by the silent majority” and slammed the union for “purchasing drake posters, having coffee soirees,” and supporting the Black Liberation Collective.

Following weeks of campaigning, the ASSU executive was left “disappointed” by the results of last week’s referendum. In a collective statement to The Varsity, executive members addressed some of the concerns that ‘No’ voters may have had.

“A lot of individuals’ criticism of our levy stemmed from a misunderstanding of our current financial situation,” they said. “We admit that we could have been clearer with disseminating our financial situation to our membership, so that they could be better informed.”

Their statement continues: “One of the more common criticisms we received was that we had somehow mismanaged our funding by passing a deficit budget when having deficit budgets at tale end of our five-year levy cycle had been practiced for more than 25 years.”

The executive also admitted that “this is a difficult year to hold any sort of campus-wide vote.”

“Most of the discussion surrounding our referendum—ironically—focused on how our Union chose to freely speak out against a professor’s problematic actions,” they continued.

If it had been successful, the fee increase would be the ASSU’s first since 2010. The referendum also marked the first time that the ASSU used online voting instead of paper ballots. ASSU allowed students to vote remotely online or in-person with computers set up at Sidney Smith Hall.

Despite the new voting measures, voter turnout was meagre. Of the approximately 23,000 students that the ASSU represents, only 6.6 per cent voted in the referendum.

“The final votes cast are disappointing in light of the size of our membership, and show only a small increase compared to our last paper ballot in 2010. Regardless of whether students supported the levy or not, we were hoping to see more engaging numbers,” reads a portion of ASSU’s statement on its website.

The results of last week’s vote will be formally submitted to the ASSU Council Meeting on November 15 for approval.

ASSU levy increase referendum unsuccessful

'No' side wins 60 per cent of votes

ASSU levy increase referendum unsuccessful

The Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) bid to increase the ASSU student fee by $3 per semester has failed.

Referendum results on Friday shortly after midnight showed that 60 per cent of 1,533 student voters have voted against ASSU’s proposal to raise its student levy from $9.50 to $12.50 per semester. Of the total votes cast, 925 voted against the fee increase, with 578 in favour, and 30 voters abstaining.

Voting took place in-person at Sidney Smith Hall as well as online on November 2 and 3. According to ASSU, the proposed fee increase would have supported increased budgets for course unions, bursaries, and grants.

A levy increase referendum held by the University of Toronto Students’ Union two weeks ago was also unsuccessful.

This story is developing, more to follow.

A screenshot of the referendum results. VIA VOTING.UTORONTO.CA

A screenshot of the referendum results. VIA VOTING.UTORONTO.CA

Op-ed: In living colour

Reflections on race, respect, and responsibility from the outgoing president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union

Op-ed: In living colour

Becoming president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) was a life changing experience. I got to work with an amazing group of people and work on some great projects; the skills I gained will stay with me for life. But, more importantly than anything else, I am leaving my position with a stronger understanding of how I fit in the world as a person of colour.

Growing up as a son of Sri Lankan immigrants in a fairly mixed community, I never really thought about race. I didn’t really see myself being treated differently from my peers. This bubble was shattered when I became president of the ASSU. I began to notice subtle things, from the way I was addressed, to criticisms of my personality, to double standards in how I was treated compared to others. At times, criticisms would be personal and tinged with words that speak to an individual’s character, not their work — ‘corrupt,’ ‘angry,’ ‘bully.’ Of course, I experienced this as a male person of colour — women of colour on this campus have had it even worse, and are constantly singled out.

Dealing with this can be disorienting and confusing. While you try to make sense of it all, your mental health takes a toll. There are few mental health supports for student representatives, and few of the supports that do exist are prepared to deal with the intersectionality of race and mental health. As a result, you are left to navigate it mostly alone, or with like-minded people who have been there.

After a while of dealing with seemingly unfair criticism, some people learn to just dismiss it all, especially if it comes from a student who is white. The effort and energy to go through each criticism and analyze it is far too taxing on people, so some choose to shut down and learn to see a lot of criticism — including valid criticism — as being a product of this racial double standard.

This is undoubtedly a bad thing, and harms dialogue on our campus. People of colour are not immune from criticism and should not be put on a pedestal. We are not asking for special treatment, just fair treatment. But this is what happens when the status quo is not challenged — it is not just harmful for people of colour but everyone involved.

It is difficult to verbalize these experiences. People may think you are pulling the race card or just looking for sympathy. After all, you signed up for a position that few students get the chance to hold. I’m aware that I have talked about race and student politics many times before in the past, and there are probably people who think I make everything about race. But it is important that we talk about it.   

It is especially crucial to have discussions about race when the people who treat people of colour like this probably don’t see themselves as racist. Many of these individuals probably have friends who are black or brown who don’t see them as racist, either.

Yet, acknowledging racial bias in student settings is not about individuals, but about systems that make people subconsciously enact this bias. Racism in student politics is paradoxical in that it is often invisible to the general student body, but painfully visible to those who have to experience it. The more we understand these systems and processes, the more we can take steps to tackle underlying experiences.

I learned a few things from my experience as ASSU president. I learned that, while this work is rewarding, it is also difficult, and the added sphere of being a person of colour can make the load feel even heavier.  It is necessary to take care of yourself and take time for yourself. I learned that you won’t be able to do everything you want, but just being able to hold this position is an accomplishment in itself, powerfully cognizant of the existence of people in colour spaces where we are typically underrepresented. Beyond everything, I learned that what I was feeling wasn’t necessarily new. It just took context after holding the position of president to understand that things I experienced growing up were indeed related to my identity as a person of colour.

Across campus, we have just elected new teams and new leaders — I hope the people of colour elected know that their experiences matter and that they should be able to talk about it. I also hope that other leaders and the rest of the student body respond by listening and re-analyzing their priorities and any problematic behaviour. It will take more than empty platitudes on privilege to fix problems of racism on campus; what we need is genuine dialogue, and I hope our campus is prepared to have that conversation. 

Abdullah Shihipar is the outgoing president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.

ASSU executive removed from office

Natalie Petra impeached, executive cites continued absences as a reason

ASSU executive removed from office

The Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) removed Natalie Petra from its executive, effective January 27, following her absence at two previous, consecutive meetings.

According to the ASSU constitution, “Any Executive member who is absent for two (2) consecutive Executive meetings shall be in jeopardy of losing their seat.” 

The constitution also states that upon receiving reasoning for repeated absences, “The remaining Executive members must, by a majority vote, accept the reason(s). If the majority does not accept the reason(s) or if no reason(s) have been submitted, the member shall lose their seat.” 

The Executive Committee reviewed Petra’s absences and unanimously found the reasons presented to be insufficient.   

“This is not a decision the executive took lightly. We realize the implications of removing an individual from the executive committee,” read the committee’s press release. 

“Based on a pattern of behavior, the Executive [Committee] felt they could no longer accept the actions of this executive and felt voting to not accept their explanations of absence was the only appropriate course of action,” said Abdullah Shihipar, ASSU president, in a statement to The Varsity. Shihipar declined an opportunity to comment on his working relationship with Petra.

Some students have taken to social media to discuss the ASSU’s decision to remove Petra, who has engaged in online conversations with unnamed account holders on reddit. Several of these users have claimed to have been present at ASSU council meetings, Petra’s contribution to which is in dispute. Petra, writing from her own reddit account, said that she intends to appeal the decision and that she can provide documentation of which the ASSU executive was hitherto unaware.
The ASSU council is comprised of course union representatives and is responsible for initiating policies. The role of the ASSU’s Executive Committee is to implement the policies that come from the c
ouncil, as well as work with the administration and other student groups to improve the academic experience for Arts & Science students.

The committee considers this decision to be final; there will be no appeals process. 

“Our elections will be in March, so the position will be vacant until our Spring Elections. The Executive are confident we will be able to continue to host events and serve Arts [&] Science students during this time,” said Shihipar. 

Petra said that she is exploring her options, declining to comment further on the ongoing proceedings.

ASSU pens letter in support of homeless youth

Students in need of shelters, city services

ASSU pens letter in support of homeless youth

In response to controversy over the Yonge Street Mission’s (YSM) recent decision to relocate its Evergreen Centre for Street Youth to 365–367 Spadina Avenue, the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) executive has written a letter to Toronto Mayor John Tory supporting the move.

Several community organizations, most notably the Chinatown Business Improvement Area (BIA), have protested the move out of concern that the centre will bring loiterers to the area. Those who are against the relocation also claim that the centre and its programs are unnecessary in Chinatown because they, as BIA member Tonny Louie told the Toronto Star, “don’t need any more grit.”   

Locals against the relocation have taken to plastering their businesses with posters that read “No YSM here!” They also claim not to have been consulted prior to the YSM’s purchase of the Spadina property, a charge denied by YSM President and CEO Angie Draskovic. Draskovic told CBC’s Metro Morning that the centre has had discussions with over 150 stakeholders about the move. Those against the move have submitted a petition to Tory’s office.

Given ASSU’s history of social justice advocacy, the executive decided to write a letter in support of the YSM. “As students at the University of Toronto, our community and home is not just the campus, but our community at large,” said ASSU president Abudullah Shihipar. “It is in this spirit that after seeing the uproar surrounding the relocation of the Yonge Street Mission that the ASSU executive decided to write a letter.”

The letter refutes the notion that a centre dedicated to assisting marginalized youth in the area is unnecessary. The letter highlights the fact that many university students in the neighbourhood live on a shoestring budget and are dependent on shelters and food banks. 

The ASSU also expressed concern that municipal budget cuts have resulted in the recent closures of shelters such as Second Base Youth Shelter and Hope Shelter. According to the union, these budget cuts are part of a disturbing trend that will deny services to those experiencing homelessness and those living in poverty. The letter ends with an exhortation to halt the cuts and will be delivered to the Mayor’s office next Thursday.

“Students can help out by writing to their elected representatives, writing articles, raising awareness and participating in protests,” said Shihipar, adding, “Public pressure is key to ensuring that our elected representatives pursue anti-homeless and anti-poverty strategies.”

Plans for YSM relocation remain on track for Street Youth in fall 2017.

Norm Kelly, Shawn Micallef, discuss pop culture and politics

Event held as part of ASSU’s City Series

Norm Kelly, Shawn Micallef, discuss pop culture and politics

Drake may not have come to campus this year, but his Twitter-famous city councillor buddy Norm Kelly paid U of T a visit last week. Councillor Kelly made an appearance as part of Social Media and the City, the first event in the Arts & Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) City Series, three events designed to explore what makes Toronto unique, and how to make it better.

Students gathered at New College’s William Doo Auditorium, where they talked social media, pop culture, and politics with journalist and event moderator Shawn Micallef. Micallef opened the discussion by describing Kelly’s stint as the deputy mayor of Toronto as a “calm presence in the city, who would later embrace Twitter.” Kelly gained a large Twitter following after he came out in support of Drake in his feud with Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill.

According to Kelly, his activity on Twitter began out of curiosity, with no plans to use it as an extension of his political life. “I just simply wanted to have fun. That was it,” he claimed.

Discussion of the ways in which a politician could use social media dominated the event. There is an “entrepreneurial drive out there [in social media] waiting to be released in opportunities,” said Kelly. “I think Toronto is beginning to situate itself to compete internationally for skilled people and investment money. We have the essential mass of creative young people in the city that carries us forward.”

“A lot of conversations about the city now take place on Twitter. Journalists, politicians, writers and ordinary citizens all engage in these conversations,” said Abdullah Shihipar, ASSU president. “We hope the U of T community gets a better appreciation of the issues that face our city, what we have accomplished and the challenges we face [through the City Series].  How so much happens takes place around us in the place where we live, that we may be oblivious to.”

While there were questions about Drake and the 6ix, students also grilled Kelly about his job as a councillor. When asked about his stance on ranked ballots, Kelly emphasized that he does not support ranked ballots as a voting system.

Students also used the event as a platform to air concerns about the gentrification of Toronto. One audience member brought up the racial and socio-economic divide that has plagued Toronto over the past three decades, as noted in U of T professor J. David Hulchanski’s Three Cities report, which looked at income inequality in Toronto from 1970 to 2005. “Toronto has always been a city of immigrants,” said Kelly, adding that, “the research shows that the longer you stay, and the longer you’re here, the more your income goes up.”

Toronto may have ambitions to become more of a creative city by using social media, but there are issues that surround citizens who identify in minority groups that still need addressing. How social media can bridge those experiences to help Toronto become a sustainably equitable city was the question to which many audience members left the event without an answer.

 Norm Kelly’s tips for Twitter

Stir the pot — get a reaction

Write tweets that tickles the spot — be humorous!

Inform — use Twitter for an educational purpose

Know your audience — consider who is going to listen to you, and who will be impacted

ASSU wants private tutors out

Campaign urges students to use university services they already pay for

In U of T’s high-pressure academic environment, students often turn to private, on-campus tutoring services for extra help. The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) recently launched a campaign entitled “Say No to Private Review Companies.” The campaign, launched on November 8, 2013, has gained momentum in recent weeks with the launch of a website and posters around campus and Facebook posts. The campaign advocates using U of T’s free academic resources instead of private tutoring services. The awareness campaign is set to end in mid-February, though the union may restart it later in the year.

ASSU’s campaign aims to raise awareness of the dangers of relying on paid review services. “These sessions promote dependency, a denial of the problem,” said Shawn Tian, president of ASSU who is particularly concerned about students who rely on review sessions in large first-year and second-year classes. “In [third-year and fourth-year] courses, when companies don’t offer review sessions, what do you do then?”

Jill Matus, vice-provost, students, echoed Tian’s sentiment: “These companies do not have any connection to the University of Toronto, and it is appropriate to encourage students to take a critical view of claims about the validity, relevance, and worth of what is being marketed,” stated Matus.

Some of the paid review companies targeted by the campaign include Toronto Life Sciences, ECOMAN, ULife Academics and Prep101. Most of these companies claim to know the secrets to doing well on a midterm, and others guarantee students a better mark. For example, ECOMAN offers a quality guarantee. His webpage promises that customers are: “Guaranteed to enjoy the session, guaranteed easy and quick learning, guaranteed perfect understanding, guaranteed 100 per cent satisfaction, or it’s free!!!”

“It was pretty discouraging for me, as someone that runs such a company, to see its name kind of disparaged in such a way,” says Andy Romano, founder of Prep101, a company that aims to prepare students for tests and exams, particularly life sciences and math courses, “I didn’t really feel it captured anything we do…We assume that students go to class and they did learn the material, but they’re struggling with problem solving skills which is why they attend. That’s the niche we try to fill.”

ASSU’s campaign also encourages the use of services that already exist at the university, such as the Academic Success Centre, the Math Aid Centre, and Chemistry Peer Tutoring. “Shawn Tian’s statement about the resources already provided by the university for academic support is one that we would therefore strongly endorse,” said Laurie Stephens, director of media relations. However, these services are typically under-used by students, despite the fact that they are free. “I think it’s great that U of T offers these services and they should use them but it doesn’t mean they should ban alternatives,” said Romano.

Another concern raised by the campaign is the companies’ use of on-campus facilities to hold multi-hour review sessions for a variety of first-year and second-year classes, such as ECO100 and CHM138. “[These room bookings] can cause a sense of confusion between students, as if the companies were U of T-affiliated,” said Tian. “We need to clear up this distinction by making sure tutoring companies don’t book space on campus.”

Despite ongoing talks with university administrators, Tian is less optimistic about this aspect of the campaign. Companies such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, which are not targeted by the campaign, would be affected because they provide similar review services for students. “It probably won’t be implemented in the near future due to these enforcement problems,” admitted Tian.

The administration has not clearly stated an intent to ban paid review services from campus. Stephens emphasizes that external users who rent space at U of T are required to clearly state in their promotional materials that they are not affiliated with or endorsed by the university.

So far, Tian believes the campaign has been successful enough to justify keeping campaign posters and flyers in the ASSU office for the remainder of the semester. According to Tian, since the beginning of the campaign, attendance to some underused services has seen a small but noticeable increase.

On whether ASSU’s campaign affects attendance to their sessions, Romano noted that it was a concern, but it is ultimately dependent on students’ individual experiences with review companies, and whether they choose to refer them to classmates — as word of mouth is a major factor in promoting their services.

“If [ASSU] have legitimate concerns, which they do, I am the first to admit that we are crossing some new boundaries here. The first prep companies came up in the ‘40s and ‘50s for the GMAT, LSAT admissions tests and the governing bodies that control these admissions tests fought very, very hard to fight these to put them out of business, but now they are a legitimate part of the routine. All we’ve done is taken these teaching models for the undergrad context” said Romano.

ASSU plans to gauge how students reacted to the awareness campaign starting mid-February. “Student awareness should be an ongoing initiative,” said Tian. “But it’s easy for students to get tired of a campaign because the message gets old.” If there is still student support, ASSU intends to launch a reinvigorated campaign after Reading Week.

With files from Jerico Espinas