Opinion: Student support systems suffer under the cancellation of student group activities

Necessary COVID-19 measures continue to complicate access to mental health help

Opinion: Student support systems suffer under the cancellation of student group activities

I am a graduate student currently working on research for my master’s thesis. I don’t have regular contact with any of my fellow colleagues, so I decided to join a new wellness group at the University of Toronto: Community Wellness Dialogue (CWD).

However, due to the university’s decision to cancel any non-essential gathering, the group’s first meeting had to be called off.

CWD organizer Stephanie Pflugfelder wrote, “I think that the university has an obligation to make tough decisions to protect its students, especially the most vulnerable amongst us. When it comes to CWD, we were disappointed to have to cancel the first group meeting because we feel that especially in trying times like this, it’s important to have a support system you can rely on.”

She also highlighted the importance of groups like CWD in helping to create connections to help “overcome some of life’s big challenges.”

I am currently struggling with anxiety and the pressures of graduate life. I had hoped that by attending the group’s meetings, I would be able to get support from fellow students. But at this time we don’t know when we might be able to have a meeting.

I understand the need to take precautions and prevent students’ exposure to COVID-19. However, that must be weighed against the need for student mental health support. It is especially important when graduate students seek out safe spaces and groups to help them get through the emotional challenges of solitary graduate life.

Considering the university’s aim to promote students’ physical and mental well-being, it needs to carefully think about the impact that these closures can have on struggling students. Many students are far from home and may not have close contact with their local support system, be that classes, group get-togethers, or in-person counselling.

In the future, the university should inform students about potential closures at least a week in advance, to give students more time to plan. I also hope that the university makes an effort to contact students who have sought help in the past, especially those who receive consistent care through the Health & Wellness Centres across campuses.

Ateeqa Arain is a second-year master’s student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Op-ed: Recent UTSU layoffs are undemocratic and bad for students

Health and dental services and clubs may suffer as a result of austerity measures

Op-ed: Recent UTSU layoffs are undemocratic and bad for students

Fifty thousand students under the scope of Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez. Hundreds of clubs interfacing with Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino. 14 years of service between them. Yet it took six individuals only nine minutes to officially recommend laying off these two crucial UTSU staff members at a March 27 meeting of the Services Committee — a committee whose mandate is to represent the best interests of students.

Just how they determined students’ ‘best interests’ is a mystery, as none of the affected bodies were consulted. In fact, many concerned stakeholders only learned of the decision by poring over the agenda sent out before the March 31 Board of Directors meeting.

Despite this lack of transparency, students showed up at the March 31 meeting to voice their concerns, only to be met with an overwhelming stifling of discussion. Livestreaming of the meeting was initially prohibited by the board, denying average students the right to witness it. Mathias Memmel, then Vice-President Internal and Services, attempted to prohibit debate on the Service Committee minutes, only relenting under the objections of many present. Then, a mere 10 minutes was allotted to discuss the future of the two integral staff members. The board opposed a motion to further extend debate, leaving many concerned students with words unspoken and unheard, including then-UTMSU President Nour Alideeb.

It should be no surprise that the meeting, and subsequent ones, ended in chants of protest; this was the only means for neglected and concerned members to take a stance.

This level of concern is not surprising, given Galvez and Carlino’s crucial roles. Galvez has been a consistent support, filling the gaps that the relatively new UTSU health provider Studentcare has created for students. The help students receive in accessing and understanding their health and dental plans is crucial, especially given reports of Studentcare’s poor waiting times and lacklustre customer service at UTM.

Vita has helped support clubs and several levy groups such as the Sexual Education and Peer Support Centre and Downtown Legal Services. It is through clubs that students can be supported in small communities and engaged with the students’ union and the overall student movement, and these clubs require dedicated support. To put things in perspective, consider that the Mississauga campus hired a Clubs Coordinator to meet their needs — and the St. George campus has approximately three times as many clubs. To assume the St. George campus could manage without such a position is indicative of how out of touch with student needs the new UTSU executive is.

The UTSU claims that neither the Health and Dental Plan coverage nor the clubs and service groups funding will change. But what good is it for services to exist if there aren’t adequate resources to facilitate students understanding and accessing them in a timely, efficient manner? 

Moreover, under section 5.02 of the collective agreement with CUPE 1281, the work provided by these two staff members cannot be sub-contracted out. This is a basic principle of job security and an important part of the UTSU’s responsibility to be a fair employer that supports stable, good-quality jobs for everyone, including its own staff. With the work of these two staff members essentially going unreplaced, the quality of services provided will surely suffer.

The saddest part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We could have a students’ union with the vision to do more for students, not less. Imagine a UTSU running strong campaigns on the issues that matter most to students, such as tuition fees, affordable housing, and unemployment; a UTSU that engages with its members through regular outreach so that they are aware of what the union offers, and supports grassroots student activism in tangible ways. All of this is possible, but it requires a fundamental shift in the vision and strategy of the union, as well as the support of full-time staff to provide quality services.

The UTSU needs to grow from a small club for the privileged into a union that supports the most marginalized on campus. Without bold strides in this direction, incoming students at U of T might come to see the current executive’s austerity measures as the only option, and forget that something better is possible.  

Many students on campus are concerned that Memmel is perpetuating the same elitist, self-serving “clique of student politicians” standard he vowed to dismantle. When members are left in the dark and then bullied out of discussions that directly affect them, everyone — regardless of how they may feel about the layoffs — should question just whose interests the UTSU has at heart. Students shouldn’t demand better, they should demand nothing but the best.

 

Amanda Harvey-Sánchez is an incoming fourth-year student at Trinity College studying Environmental Studies, Social Cultural Anthropology, and Equity Studies. She is the UTSU Social Sciences Director and a member of the Save our Services, Support our Staff campaign.

José Wilson is an incoming fifth-year student at UTM studying Accounting. He is the Vice-President External at the UTMSU and also serves as the UTM Designate on the UTSU Executive Committee.

New Year’s Fitness Resolutions

How to ensure another resolution doesn’t go out the door by mid-February

New Year’s Fitness Resolutions

Now that it is the end of January, many of us will have realized that the resolutions we made in the lazy haze of the holidays aren’t exactly coming to fruition: the chances of someone following through with their New Year’s resolution for an entire year is slim. The most commonly broken resolution is losing weight. At U of T it’s easy to fall into a routine of going to class, studying, eating out, and staying up late — conditions that aren’t exactly conducive to keeping up a health-related resolution.

If you’re serious about improving your health and bettering yourself for next year, while still maintaining a steady GPA, here are some tips and tricks to help you make the most of your 2016:   

1) Join a fitness class

It’s okay to step out of your comfort zone by joining a new club or fitness class to change up your workout routine. U of T’s athletic facilities offer different types of classes like: kickboxing, yoga, Zumba, pilates, and many more. Changing up the traditional free weight and cardio machine workouts can also help your body resist plateauing, and if you take a Zumba class, you may even dance away with some new moves to show-off the next time you go out.

2) Hire a personal trainer

If you’re excited about working out but the thought of going into the gym without knowing what to do sounds about as appealing as cutting your own arm off, then U of T’s personal training services can help. U of T athletic services offer one-on-one sessions with personal trainers who are certified, and usually U of T students. Their job is to help you develop a workout routine that suits your personal needs and goals. They will also show you how to use the different machines in the weight room, guide you through cardio exercises, and give you pointers on eating better, and help you adjust to a healthier lifestyle.   

3) Say no to junk food

Probably the biggest hindrance to your weight loss and fitness goal is your diet, so cutting back on buying fast food is crucial. Although this is probably one of the hardest changes to make, eating healthier doesn’t have to constitute a complete dietary overhaul. Try packing a lunch or a few snacks that will come in handy when you have a long day on campus. Start off with once or twice a week, and work your way up to packing a lunch daily. Invest in a good quality water bottle and take it everywhere; this will help you cut back on sodas and juices, plus you can make use of U of T’s hydration stations. 

4) Set goals 

There’s a difference between a resolution and a goal. Resolutions are more generic — for example, lose weight or become fitter — whereas goals are smaller milestones you can set in order to fulfill your resolution. Achieving small goals makes your resolution more attainable, because seeing regular progress can be the best form of encouragement. It can also be helpful to keep track of your progress by using a fitness app or journal; writing down your progress will get you that much closer to achieving your goals. Talking about your future goals with people that are close to you can also help you keep them.

5) Buy workout clothes

A trick that works especially well for broke university students is investing in workout clothes. For most university students, money is scarce and OSAP is cruel, so the thought of wasting money is sickening. Buying workout clothes will motivate you to go to the gym — not because you’ll look good, but because you don’t want to waste the money you spent on those Lululemon or Nike leggings. A good workout apparel starter-kit includes: running shoes, thick socks, leggings, and a T-shirt.