The University of Toronto proudly promotes the notion that it is a diverse, multicultural, and innovative research-oriented institution. The institution has grown to be a symbolic manifestation of the values of openness, progressive thought, and inclusivity imbued in the very idea of Canada as a country.
To a large extent, this is true. Our university has one of the largest student bodies in Canada, with approximately 25 per cent registered as international students. Furthermore, the wide-ranging cultural and disciplinary backgrounds of academics and staff at U of T have allowed others to regard the institution as one promoting global thought leaders.
Yet it is imperative that all stakeholders at the university pay further attention to engaging with international students through more comprehensive platforms. International student fees remain uncapped and unregulated, which has resulted in the university having one of the highest nominal undergraduate fees in the country. Moreover, problems adjusting to language, religious customs, social engagements, and other socio-economic differences, in addition to a worryingly growing unease around mental health concerns such as homesickness, depression, and anxiety, have manifested in a lack of interest among international students in the university’s governance and student politics.
This is not to say that international students remain completely uninvolved in student life. In fact, U of T has one of the largest networks of globally themed student organizations in the world, which remains a testament to the desire for students from around the world or with an interest in global affairs, cross-cultural learning, and diversity to be active members of the student community. However, we as a university need to question what is holding these organizations or individuals back from partaking in student governance. Perhaps it is the volatile nature of student politics at our university. Perhaps it is the personalization of political choices by our student leaders. We leave that up to our constituents to decide.
With respect to student politics — and particularly with respect to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which I am a part of — international student issues have formed a key portion of our aim to be effective representatives of our constituents. Yet, for various reasons over the course of our history, we have fallen short with regard to putting international student issues front and centre. It is a collective failure for which there is little excuse. But we recognize that this issue exists, and we want to change it.
One of the platforms that the UTSU is developing is called the Global Dialogue Series (GDS). Engaging student organizations, academics, and other stakeholders in town hall-style, discussion-based events, the UTSU organized its first GDS through a series of four events during the fall semester, with a focus on immigration, migrant rights, and minority rights in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Canada. The collaborators were comprised of student clubs like the Bangladeshi Students’ Association, academics from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and even a filmmaker working with Rohingya children based in Canada. It seemed to me like a good starting point to push student-centred global issues to the forefront of the UTSU’s relationship with its constituents.
Keeping up with this philosophy, the UTSU is planning to continue its GDS series, with a primary focus in student activism and education in countries ranging from Turkey to the United States. While the planning of the event series is still in its preliminary process, with the active engagement of on-campus student clubs and external stakeholders, we hope to make this event — and, from a long-term perspective, the GDS in general — a permanent platform for student politicians to carry forward, irrespective of political differences.
I invite all interested parties to partake in this endeavour. Conversations spur conversations, which ultimately lead to a better informed student body — better informed about foreign cultures and varying ideologies and lifestyles. Maybe one day, we at the university will be able to say that rather than international students adjusting to the Toronto culture, we all should collectively adapt to and celebrate diversity. If we can do that, we will truly be able to call ourselves a comprehensively diverse institution, not just in terms of numbers, but in the way we talk about and represent ourselves.
For far too long, student politicians and activists at this university have engaged in hostile politics, sometimes just for the sake of doing so. Differences in ideologies will remain, but they do not give us the right to ignore core issues for students, including Islamophobia, mental health concerns, homophobia, and academic difficulties.
My demand as an international student is that we come together to project genuine internationalism, from engaging with platforms such as the GDS to participating in activities hosted by bodies like the Centre for International Experience. Let us put aside partisan disparities across political slates, socio-cultural organizations, and academic disciplines and unite in the spirit of putting issues affecting international students front and centre.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations. He is the Associate Vice President-University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.