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Op-ed: To new student leaders — and those who hope to become ones

A retirement message from the President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union

Op-ed: To new student leaders — and those who hope to become ones

The regular student election season has come and gone. For those who did get elected: congratulations and welcome to the world of student governance. Before I retire as the President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), I want to offer some advice for those involved and those still pondering the decision to get involved.

I got involved because I wanted to feel a little part of campus life and community, make some new friends and because — let’s be real — it wouldn’t look too bad on a résumé. I started small and got involved in a course union, the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Students’ Union, as a first-year representative. I had the opportunity to collaborate with others and run events. Through it all, I was guided by senior students. This is why I am such a big proponent of getting involved in your early years at U of T.

Afterward, I moved on to a more senior executive position in the course union and eventually got leadership opportunities across multiple clubs, ranging from the Orphan Sponsorship Program to ASSU, where I eventually became the president.

For those of you who want to get involved, you first need to find your community. This campus is huge and trying to find your space is sometimes difficult. Get involved in opportunities that actually interest you. There are hundreds of clubs on this campus that cater to diverse ends, whether they are cultural groups, political work, or just recreational. If you cannot find one that interests you, then create your own.

But while you’re there, remember the commitment that you have made and try to do the best work that you can. After you accomplish this foundational experience, you might want to take the big step of running in an election for a senior role in a student union. However, there’s something you should know before you do it.

Student ‘politics’ can be a lot of fun. I’ve been involved in a few elections myself, and campaigning is one of the most thrilling experiences you can have. You will meet and talk to students about their issues and propose your own ideas to fix them. You will have articles written in The Varsity about you and you get to debate the issues you care about.

However, the role you’re in is no cakewalk. This university has a lot of problems: we have a mental health crisis, housing is too expensive, and marginalized communities continue to feel unsafe. Those in power have attempted to fix these issues for decades, but they are not so easily resolvable. When pushing for reform and lobbying administration, you can expect to face the insurmountable walls and barriers that have led multiple student leaders to burn out.

Moreover, you will face criticism — warranted or unwarranted — by simply being in the position you are in. People will call you out, write articles against you, and spread nasty rumours about you. You must be ready for that.

However, the most difficult part about student ‘politics’ is the label of student ‘politicians’ — which I hate. It creates a false sense of entitlement that only feeds into people’s egos. Trust me when I say most, if not all, student leaders at U of T have an ego, including myself. Hence, when all of these egos coalesce, we often want to be the ones in control to get the credit. This leads to disagreements and petty actions by others just to garner more clout. Often, larger groups or organizations will try to interfere with the affairs of other student groups.

What you should know is that there are well-intentioned and dishonest people on all ‘sides’ of the political spectrum. You will need to learn who to trust in your role. Stand for what you think is right. Taking the safe route on issues like the university-mandated leave of absence policy or the Student Choice Initiative is not the way to go. You need to take action.

The last thing I need to clear up is that student ‘politics’ is not real politics. There is a life beyond it — so don’t take it too seriously. If you do have a chance at ‘power,’ make it as enjoyable as you can. Live in the present, work together, and get things done. No one cares if you were the President of ASSU once you leave this school.

Have fun, and good luck. As for me, I’m out of here.

Haseeb Hassaan is a fifth-year Political Science and Religion student at St. Michael’s College. He is the President of ASSU.

ASSU referendum succeeds, increasing levy for students to $11.00 per term

Referendum result also ties ASSU levy to increase with inflation

ASSU referendum succeeds, increasing levy for students to $11.00 per term

The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) has successfully passed its levy referendum to increase its fee from $9.50 to $11.00 per term and tie it to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) starting in fall 2019. Around four per cent of eligible students voted in the referendum.

Preliminary results released by ASSU on February 15 reveal that the referendum succeeded with 597 students — 57 per cent — voting in favour of the levy increase and 440 students — 42 per cent — voting against it. Eleven students — one per cent — abstained.

In addition to the increase of the levy, the referendum also narrowly succeeded by nine votes in approving a cost of living increase each year as determined by the CPI, with 480 in favour, 471 against, and 97 abstaining.

In total, 1048 students voted of over 23,000 full-time undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts & Science represented by ASSU. Voting took place online and in-person at Sidney Smith Hall.

Potential effects of the levy increase

All full-time undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts & Science pay the ASSU levy, which goes into funding services such as course unions and bursaries. A course union is a student union that represents a particular program of study.

Course union spending may increase, which may broaden the number of events available to students, said ASSU President Haseeb Hassaan. Students may also receive more opportunities for scholarships and bursaries.

However, Hassaan noted that a specific breakdown of planned spending of the increased funding is currently unavailable, as the present ASSU executive aims to let the next executive decide how to spend the funds. The new ASSU executive would assume office on May 1 once elected.

Motivations behind the referendum

ASSU explained the timing of the referendum in a public statement on January 28, writing that it has “historically asked students for a levy increase on a 5 or 6-year cycle” to account for inflation.

A previous referendum by ASSU to raise its levy failed in 2016.

Hassaan believes that students may have voted in favour of the levy increase this time because ASSU “did a really good job of communicating and talking to students about the work that we do.”

Another factor may have been ASSU’s increased direct engagement with students, said Hassaan. “We partnered up with a lot of our course unions and made them the focal point of our campaign because, in my honest opinion, I think course unions are one of the most fundamental things that ASSU does, and that’s where a lot of our funding goes.”

Explaining the ballot requesting an annual levy increase tied to the CPI, Hassaan said that ASSU thought it was a “smart, sound financial decision to make” to account for annual changes to the cost of living. He also noted that other student unions on campus, such as the UTSU, have already tied their levies to the CPI.

Responding to voices against the levy increase

Asked how ASSU would respond to students who have spoken against the levy increase, Hassaan noted that there have been “a lot of valid criticisms.”

He continued by saying that ASSU is “taking a lot of what people have said and the arguments against the increase, and hopefully we will implement some changes.”

Hassaan further noted that ASSU plans to host an annual general meeting or a town hall to receive student concerns. However, Hassaan said that ASSU had discussed this before the announcement of the referendum.

“We are hoping to do one this year,” said Hassaan. “If not me as president, hopefully the future executives could do it.”

Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

How we support students — beyond just buttons and free coffee

Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

During the 1960s, students were faced with large class sizes and a sense of alienation on campus. In response, course unions were founded across the arts and science disciplines to advocate on behalf of student issues within their respective departments.

Ultimately, this led to the formation of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) in 1972 to ensure stronger representation for all students in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Today, ASSU represents over 23,000 full-time undergraduates, and we’re asking you to vote in favour of the upcoming referendum to increase our levy by $1.50 per semester.

We support course unions

We at ASSU are comprised of seven executives, three staff, and over 60 recognized course unions. The structure of our council, which meets once a month, allows course unions to best represent the voices of their students. We fund over $180,000 to our course unions, which work tirelessly to meet student needs through interesting and innovative events.

The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union’s Honouring Our Students Pow Wow and the Philosophy Course Union’s Symposium on Love are just a few examples of the ways by which course unions are able to connect with their peers.

Course unions also provide a multitude of platforms for students to showcase their academic work, including journals such as the Classics Students’ Union’s Plebeian and the Health Studies Students’ Union’s Health Perspectives. Our course unions will directly benefit from our proposed levy increase as the funds will be used to further support their projects and events.

We support campus life

For student support, Executive Martha Taylor started the Moving on From… campaign to showcase the obstacles that students face during their undergrad. The campaign now features multiple students covering a range of themes, including international student life and mental health.

Executive Victoria Chen started the ASSU Mentorship Project (AMP) to establish a student support system, especially for first years, international students, and students with accessibility needs. The AMP received hundreds of applications, proving the necessity of such an initiative.

More broadly, providing our students with strength and guidance during stressful times is an area that ASSU aims to continue to focus and grow on, such as through our bi-annual Exam Jams — the ones with the cute puppies — and access to our past test library for over 500 courses.

We support student research

Last year, we recognized the lack of opportunities available for students to present their own research. In response, our Undergraduate Research Conference was created, inviting students from across disciplines to present original research to fellow students, professors, and the general public.

In addition to the conference, ASSU provides travel grants and undergraduate research funds to help students afford the costs of creating and presenting novel research. Our Arbor Journal of Undergraduate Research furthers our commitment to celebrating student work. With an increased levy, ASSU hopes to create and contribute to projects and grants that prioritize undergraduate research.

We support accessible education

Treasurer Ikran Jama created ASSU’s Student Success Day High School Conference in an effort to help marginalized youth explore the prospect of university education. Invited students attended workshops run by our course unions, listened to professors, and spoke to campus leaders.

Our Project: Universal Minds matches U of T students as tutors for high school students. Our scholarships and bursaries give our students greater assistance with continuing their education. Our levy will always contribute to projects and increases in scholarships and bursaries in order to ensure that the academic needs of all students are fulfilled.

We continue to build on our past accomplishments, including the implementation of our annual Fall Reading Week, the credit/no credit option, and the 24-hour study space in Robarts. Currently, ASSU is working to extend the credit/no credit deadline, revise our course retake policy, and create an American Sign Language course.

We need your support

Our levy, unlike that of most other student societies on campus, is not attached to the Consumer Price Index, meaning that it does not reflect the changes of dollar inflation over time. As a result, we have had to make strategic cuts to line items in our budget, which we hope to reverse and provide additional funding to, such as award bursaries and course union funding.

We encourage you to read our official referendum statement, and to contact us with any questions or concerns. We need your support to continue supporting you: please vote ‘yes’ to our levy increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Victoria Chen is a second-year Psychology and Cell & Molecular Biology student at Trinity College. Ikran Jama is a second-year International Relations and Criminology and Sociolegal Studies student at Victoria College. Martha Taylor is a second-year Life Sciences student at Trinity College. They are members of the ASSU executive.

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

Before asking for a raise, the group should improve its governance and finances

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

With the recent postsecondary fee changes announced by the Ontario government, student groups across the province are under attack. It is more important than ever to fight for the existence of strong, well-funded, and democratic student societies. It would feel almost irresponsible to urge students to vote against a student organization’s fee increase at this time.

However, these changes have placed a new emphasis on accountability, and it remains important to speak out against student societies that, whether through apathy or malice, act in undemocratic ways. As such, I cannot support the Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) upcoming referendum to increase its levy from $9.50 to $11 per semester.

ASSU’s primary function is to organize, aid, and fund arts and science course unions. The union proposes to distribute about $180,000 in course union funding each year. It also offers essential academic services and advocacy. While there’s no evidence that ASSU is acting maliciously, it is clear that little progress has been made to address the union’s long lasting problems.

A read of ASSU’s constitution shows that there is no avenue for a member to engage in the union’s governance process. ASSU holds no general meeting at which all fee-paying members have voting rights, does not advertise the dates of its regular meetings, and holds no public forums to hear student concerns.

Furthermore, although it holds its presidential and executive elections at open council meetings, ordinary members are not eligible to vote. It seems that the only time that ASSU offers its membership basic democratic control is when it needs a fee increase.

Instead of being governed by its 23,000 full-time undergraduate student members, ASSU is governed by the course unions to which it provides funding. ASSU defends this structure because it views itself as a federation of course unions rather than a student union made of individual members.

However, the union cannot expect its members to pay fees if it is not ready to give those members the right to participate in its governance process. If ASSU wants to be more than a middleman for distributing funding, it needs to acknowledge that it is accountable to all full-time Arts & Science students at UTSG.

With little oversight, it’s easy for an organization to slide further away from its mandate and democratic norms, and a look at the ASSU budget tells us that this is exactly what has happened. ASSU has three full-time staff members in addition to its elected executives. The most senior of the three staff members receives a salary of at least $100,000 before benefits. The remaining two employees receive salaries of about $55,000 each.

Student society staff are essential and deserve to be compensated fairly. However, ASSU spends about $280,000 on salaries and benefits each year, and these salaries are increasing at an annual rate of three per cent above inflation. With every year that goes by, a larger and larger share of ASSU’s budget will be taken up by its staff’s salaries — leaving less and less money for bursaries, scholarships, and course union funding. The ASSU executive has not, and likely will not, admit that these salary increases are an issue.

ASSU’s financial statements paint a picture of an organization that’s running out of money as staff costs increase. While the union claims that it needs a fee increase to fund bursaries, scholarships, and the growth of course unions, it hasn’t made any assurances that this is how the new funds will be used.

The proposed increase is a band-aid solution for ASSU’s problems, and those in charge have demonstrated no intention of finding a long-term fix. Even if this referendum passes and allows for inflationary increases, between each referendum, staff costs will increase at a rate greater than these levy increases due to inflation. Eventually, the union will run out of money, be forced to cut services, and will come asking for another increase.

If ASSU wants a fee increase, its leadership needs to show that it understands who the union is accountable to. It can begin by giving all members the ability to elect their own representatives. It should also follow the lead of similar unincorporated student societies and voluntarily hold annual meetings for members of the executive to hear and address the concerns of students.

It also needs to prove that it has a long-term plan to fix the union’s financial woes. ASSU should work with the labour union that represents its staff to limit salary increases and ensure its long-term welfare.

Until ASSU starts to take the students’ concerns seriously, and addresses them with long-term solutions, they shouldn’t be given a fee increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Daman Singh is a fourth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Operations of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Highlights from the Arts & Sciences Students’ Union Research Conference

Students showcase their research at the second annual ASSU conference

Highlights from the Arts & Sciences Students’ Union Research Conference

The Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) Undergraduate Research Conference took place in Sidney Smith Hall on Friday, January 25. The second annual conference brought together students from the natural sciences to the social sciences.

Students communicated the methods, results, and impact of their work by delivering talks and presenting posters to conference attendees.

In an interview with The Varsity, ASSU Executive Victoria Chen noted that the conference was valuable to both listeners and presenters.

For attendees, going to research talks enables them to learn about other disciplines. For presenters, delivering research talks enables them to develop their public speaking and science communication skills.

Highlighting environmental science research

In his opening remarks, Faculty of Arts & Science Dean David Cameron drew attention to research led by Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) undergraduate Cole Brookson.

Brookson presented his findings on microplastics — pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in size — which had been found in 87 per cent of the double-crested cormorants sampled in the Great Lakes. The cormorant is a species of seabird.

Brookson and his colleagues were surprised to find microplastics in the digestive systems of cormorants from an unexpectedly wide geographic range, from Hamilton Harbour to eastern Lake Michigan.

The high quantity of microplastics in the Great Lakes is especially concerning because its consumption can be deadly to seabirds, causing starvation due to a false perception of fullness. Digesting plastic can also cause hormonal problems.

While the results of Brookson’s study do not present direct risks to human health, they do demonstrate how improper plastic waste disposal can impact wildlife.

Plastic can take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade, if it ever does at all,” said Brookson. “When you don’t manage your waste properly, when you don’t have effective mitigation strategies, you end up having this persistent pollutant that just never goes away.”

From health to human geography

Presenting his research findings on the hepatitis B virus (HBV), immunology major Seungwoo Lee explained how the introduction of lactose into donated white blood cells (WBCs) could reduce binding of the galectin protein to T cells, which are immune cells. These T cells attack HBV-infected cells that die off when galectin binds to them. In 10 per cent of HBV patients, binding has reduced the number and effectiveness of T cells, which could make them more susceptible to cancer. These findings could be used to mitigate the risk of developing cancer in some patients with HBV.

Lee showed that introducing lactose into human WBCs blocks the reception of galectin by T cells, boosting the number and effectiveness of T cells.

These findings could give rise to better treatment options for patients with HBV, and reduce their risk of developing cancer.

Neuroscience student Alexandra Kassikova showed how transforming the astrocyte brain cell into the oligodendrocytes brain cell could be a promising treatment option for multiple sclerosis.

Kristina van Veen, who studies human geography, showed how emojis are changing the way we communicate. She highlighted how emojis can take on unique interpretations within small social groups, and how their inclusion in text could lead to misinterpretation.

Evelyn Ullyott-Hayes — a student studying Middle Eastern civilizations — used a software program called JSesh to translate the Middle Egyptian text written on an artifact that is part of a collection in the Royal Ontario Museum.

Where art meets science

Patrick Fraser, a physics and philosophy specialist, spoke about how ghost imaging in experimental quantum physics may have implications for how we define the representation of objects.

In classical imaging, said Fraser, we visualize objects because the light reflecting off of them is registered by our eyes.

But in ghost imaging, using quantum optics, researchers are able to observe particles that are highly correlated to, yet physically distant from an object under study. These particles then let us create a precise image of the distant object.

Current philosophy contends that photos are “representative of the objects they depict in some direct contact mechanism,” but for this to stay true, only a small number of interpretations of quantum mechanics can remain true.

To accept a larger number of interpretations, said Fraser, we may have to dispose of this intuitive definition.

Disclosure: Tom Yun, former Managing Online Editor, was a moderator at the event. Ibnul Chowdhury, current Comment Editor, presented a talk on research at the event. Neither are directly mentioned in this article.

ASSU announces levy increase referendum in response to rising costs

Union seeks to raise levy from $9.50 to $11 in referendum

ASSU announces levy increase referendum in response to rising costs

The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) will be holding their second referendum in recent years to increase their union fees. 

After a similar referendum in 2016 failed to pass, ASSU now hopes to raise the current fee from $9.50 to $11 per semester. The union also seeks to tie the dollar value of their levy to the Consumer Price Index, so that the levy will increase proportionally to inflation. 

In a statement to The Varsity, ASSU President Haseeb Hassaan wrote that, from 2016 onward, the union has been forced to make numerous budget cuts in the face of rising costs. In particular, “awards/scholarships, bursaries, travel and course union funding have all been slashed,” said  Hassaan. The goal of the upcoming referendum will be to return funding to the programs that have seen their budgets reduced. 

ASSU provides 62 course unions with over $180,000 in funding, in addition to $36,000 in scholarships for students, and $21,000 in grants for undergraduate research. 

Some of the services provided by ASSU include selling test packages, offering printing and faxing services, and working with the Dean’s Office to represent students’ concerns with faculty policies. 

In the past, ASSU has also organized talks with prominent speakers, such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, run exam de-stressing sessions for students, and hosted an undergraduate research conference. 

Some of the projects that ASSU currently has in the works include a new mentorship program for Arts & Science students, and “Moving on From,” a project that seeks to highlight the difficulties that students face at U of T. 

Jennifer Wang, a second-year political science student, is skeptical of these proposed increases. In an interview with The Varsity, she said, “I feel like the ASSU has never been a really big part of my life. The time I’ve been at U of T, a year and a half now, I haven’t interacted with them at all. If it was something that was more integral in our student life then I would be totally fine paying more. But because I don’t really use their services, I feel like we shouldn’t be asked to pay more.”

In response to objections like these, Hassaan said that ASSU does play an integral role in the lives of students, even if they might not realize it. 

“Every course union in the faculty gets their funding through us, which is to be used to run events, academic talks and more. Moreover, academic advocacy is a big part of who we are, things like Fall reading week was a proposal that was given to the Dean of Arts and Science by us at ASSU.”

“Some students may not see the day to day work we do to enrich their student lives but we do the best we can to make sure that students can have the best education they can with as little barriers as possible.”

The referendum will be taking place on February 13 and 14. Students will be able to vote online or in person at the Sidney Smith Commons. 

The student responsibility for reconciliation

To create a more inclusive university for Indigenous students, student government must hold the administration accountable and take initiative on its own

The student responsibility for reconciliation

Last February, the Decanal Working Group (DWG) released its Report on Indigenous Teaching and Learning to the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS). It addresses the “central role” that the administration ought to play in advancing the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to the FAS.

On September 17, it was announced that the faculty would fulfill a key recommendation by creating an “Indigenous College with Residence Space.” Many of the 19 other recommendations — including enhancing forms of support, curriculum changes, and divisional leadership — are still undergoing implementation or have yet to be announced, demonstrating that this is an ongoing process.

The DWG’s call reflects an often overlooked problem at U of T: the absence of Indigenous methods in academia. If U of T is to be an inclusive, accessible, and empowering environment for Indigenous students it must become a place where forms of Indigenous expression and thinking are integrated into academics, including being “critically and rigorously studied at the most advanced levels.”

While the implementation of these recommendations are a step in the right direction, the broader systemic issue — the discriminatory and unwelcoming environment for Indigenous students on campus — is a problem that the purely academic- and faculty-based report cannot fully resolve. We, the students, must do more.

Therefore, although written for the FAS, the DWG report is also a legitimate and worthwhile document for other bodies and student government representatives to follow. This includes the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), the colleges, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), and Governing Council.

Most initiatives appear out of the immediate jurisdiction of student governments. Nevertheless, they can participate by holding the administration accountable during the implementation process. Above all, the recommendations can inspire student groups to pursue their own initiatives in the spirit of reconciliation.

In fact, the concerns at the heart of the report fall completely in line with the intentions of student government. After all, Indigenous students are represented by the UTSU and ASSU, so student governments should work for the welfare of those whom they represent.

It is also consistent with the UTSU’s mission statement to “safeguard the individual rights of the student” and “foster their intellectual growth and moral awareness.” Indigenous students have the right to an inclusive university experience, and the UTSU’s cooperation with the DWG’s initiatives, from an academic perspective, can also help to intellectually and morally enrich non-Indigenous students.

The fact is that these initiatives also benefit the broader U of T community by promoting active learning and understanding of Indigenous peoples and their forms of expression. More importantly, this will aid in the progress of reconciliation between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada — a process that requires the active remembrance of a painful past, as well as action in the present that can contribute to ending quasi-colonial institutions and discrimination.

The first recommendation — the creation of an Indigenous college — is already planned for opening in 2030. The UTSU and ASSU, however, can contribute their voice to these plans, such as encouraging particular aspects of student life within that new space.

There is also the essential role of accountability: to maintain a careful eye in ensuring that the administration does not make empty promises. Additionally, this does not preclude existing colleges from making themselves more accommodating. The Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, for instance, is pursuing an initiative to rename the Ryerson residence house and VicOne Ryerson stream to something derived from Indigenous academia or language.

One particular area that student governments can take proactive and immediate action in is by providing more support and services for Indigenous students. This seeks to address unique problems and barriers that Indigenous students face in a racist and colonial structure, in which there is a profound lack of understanding of Indigenous cultures, languages, and ways of approaching the world. Student government must play its part to counteract and remove barriers for Indigenous students.

Such initiatives are not completely new to student governments. For instance, there are plans to expand the pilot ASSU Mentorship Program, a support system for students, to include a stream specifically for Indigenous students. It should also be mentioned that this can be done through active participation in several groups on campus — such as the Indigenous Law Students’ Association and Indigenous Education Network — that have taken up the call to action.

Student government must consider the DWG’s recommendations seriously, for it presents an obligation to hold the FAS accountable, and an opportunity to act on more reconciliation-based initiatives for the creation of an inclusive environment for Indigenous students.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

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.