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.