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Why the UTSU can’t do without you

A message to the student body from a UTSU presidential candidate

Why the UTSU can’t do without you

My name is Bryan Liceralde, and I ran for president in the 2019 University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections. First, I want to congratulate the executives and directors for their impeccable victories in the spring elections. The UTSU is going to face many challenges this year, especially when it confronts issues caused by the policies of both U of T and the Ford government. Going forward, President Joshua Bowman must face the biggest issue in student democracies: voter apathy.

When I looked over the by-election positions in April, it was heartbreaking to see how many seats — both of Directors and Vice-Presidents (VP) — were vacant. It was all the more heartbreaking when I found that the election’s turnout rate stood at just 4.2 per cent.

From my brief experience in student politics, I can surmise that this lack of engagement is the fault of both the UTSU and the student body. It is our fault as student voters for ignoring the issues that will affect us, and it is the UTSU’s fault for not sufficiently promoting its elections.

If we collectively do not get our act together, students may choose to opt-out of UTSU fees through the Student Choice Initiative, greatly hindering the abilities of student governance. As a result, there would potentially be no organized student body to defend students from potentially harmful U of T policies. Had the UTSU done a better job in promoting its elections, the three VP positions left vacant from the elections may have been filled by March 25.

In an interview with The Varsity, Bowman said that the UTSU has “a lot of relationship-building to do.” He is right. The UTSU must do a better job marketing the clubs it funds and the services it provides to all students, not just to those in first year.

The UTSU VPs must make themselves more relatable to the student populace through engagement on social media. Of course, the executives reserve the right to keep some aspects of their lives private. Nevertheless, they should try to socialize with their constituents as much as possible. Doing so would bring us closer to realizing outgoing president Anne Boucher’s goal of making UTSU “more human.”

More importantly, the UTSU should demand changes to the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which, according to The Varsity, currently “allows the university to place students on a nonpunitive, but mandatory, leave of absence from U of T if their mental health either poses a risk of harm to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies.” If U of T refuses to amend the university-mandated leave of absence policy, the UTSU must demand its repeal.

On U of T’s part, it should increase funding to its mental health services and do more to encourage its students to use these resources. Any changes to the university-mandated leave of absence policy should be approved by both the UTSU and the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Overall, the UTSU must work in tandem with the U of T administration to make our campus a more welcoming place.

As for students, the most important duty we have is to vote to keep our student democracy alive and our rights protected. I also strongly encourage students to run in the UTSU elections. We are all prepared for any UTSU position through our shared campus experiences — including both the struggles and triumphs that all students face. I know that we all have creative solutions to the most pressing problems in our student lives, so step up to the plate and run. We must confront a campus environment of ignorance with a spirit of optimism. Overall, we must reform student politics today so yesterday’s mistakes will not be repeated tomorrow.

Before I end off, I’d like to thank all the students who inspired me to run. Although I faced defeat, I’ll forever appreciate the support you gave me. As long as I’m a student here, I’ll always be on your side.

For 118 years, the UTSU has always been a beacon of hope for students. It is thus our responsibility to ensure that it keeps on burning.

Bryan Liceralde is a fourth-year Political Science student at St. Michael’s College. He was a presidential candidate in the 2019 UTSU executive elections.

UTSU to donate $100,000 to Hart House to improve accessibility

Incoming UTSU Board strikes finance, ad-hoc mental health committees

UTSU to donate $100,000 to Hart House to improve accessibility

Representatives from the outgoing University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors voted on April 28 to donate $100,000 from its Accessibility Resources Fund to Hart House. The donation aims to make it easier for people with disabilities to access the building.

The grant will contribute to the construction of a universal washroom at Hart House, which would be designed to minimize boundaries and restrictions for occupants with disabilities.  

The outgoing Board also voted to approve the UTSU’s 20192024 Strategic Plan, with changes, following criticism of the plan by directors in a previous Board meeting on April 4.

The intention of the plan is to provide a clear long-term direction and vision for the union, as well as improve continuity of key initiatives between each turnover of directors and executives.

UTSU President Joshua Bowman, who assumed the presidency following the end of the outgoing Board’s meeting, explained in an email to The Varsity the notable changes to the plan since the previous Board meeting.

The first was to recommend that the UTSU’s communications will “strive to comply with AODA [Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act] regulations.”

The second was to recommend that UTSU representatives view decision-makers as “partners”, rather than “representatives.”

“This is an important alteration,” wrote Bowman, “as the title of ally implicitly states that decision-makers would be working in our best interest, which is not always true especially given recent events.”

The third change was to highlight campus groups — including clubs, student societies, and levy groups — as a focus for the UTSU to foster relationships and to strengthen relations and engagement with students.

Incoming Board strikes ad-hoc mental health committee, finance committee

The incoming Board of Directors for 201920 held its first meeting, shortly after the last outgoing board meeting on the same day.

The new Board struck an ad-hoc mental health committee, which Bowman explained would meet and discuss “solutions that we see from our own individual lived experiences, and the communities that we come from.”

Long-term goals of the committee are to gather responses from U of T students through surveys; interact with various student societies, divisional faculties, and equity-seeking communities; and ultimately submit a report to U of T’s Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health.

Academic Director of Humanities Keenan Krause; Faculty of Dentistry Director Lucia Santos; University College Director Lina Maragha; Director of Applied Sciences and Engineering Jeremy Sharapov; and Victoria College Director Thomas Siddall were elected by the Board to serve on the mental health committee.

The Board also struck its Finance Committee, which will oversee the union’s budget and finances.

The directors on the committee are Academic Director of Mathematical and Physical Sciences Michael Morris; St. Michael’s College Director Neeharika Hemrajani; Director of Applied Science and Engineering Harrison Chan; Woodsworth College Director Andrea Chiappetta; and Professional Faculties at-large Directors Katharina Vrolijik and Hasma Habibiy.

One Year On: Checking campaign pledges by UTSU executives, part two

Reviewing work of President, Vice-Presidents Operations, University Affairs

One Year On: Checking campaign pledges by UTSU executives, part two

At the end of April, the 20182019 University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) term came to an end. In this second article of a two-part series, The Varsity reviews the work that the outgoing executives have done to fulfil their pledges.

President Anne Boucher

The role of President is to act as the chief executive of the UTSU and set the overall tone and direction of the union.

In her profile with The Varsity, Boucher pledged to ensure that the transition to the Student Commons is smooth and successful, lobby “to reintroduce the federal transit tax credit and to increase transit subsidies for students,” and change the Associate Membership Agreement (AMA) between the UTSU and University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU).

The Student Commons is a planned student-run hub previously expected to open last September, but it has been repeatedly delayed due to issues with construction.

From Boucher’s executive reports this year, she has consulted with U of T’s University Advancement division and conducted planning to manage the opening of the Student Commons. However, construction issues have prevented the opening of the building during her term.

She wrote that she was “glad… to contribute to the project, in ways that should help smooth the opening of the building for the incoming executives.”

On lobbying in favour of reintroducing a federal transit tax credit and increasing transit subsidies for students, Boucher wrote that her “lobby work happens through [the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU)].” However, the UCRU has not made either objective a priority to lobby for this year.

Since assuming office, the AMA between the UTSU and the UTMSU has dissolved, resulting in the UTMSU’s independence from the UTSU.

“I’m happy that UTM students now benefit from a student union that can serve them fully, and that UTSG students benefit from a UTSU that will have the ability to work fully for St George students,” wrote Boucher.

In addition to her pledges, highlights of Boucher’s work include starting a Peers with Ears program which “connects peers who have struggled with mental illness with those currently experiencing similar hardships.” She also developed the union’s 2019-2024 Strategic Plan, which will support the “long term health” of the organization, she wrote.

Boucher has further led consultations with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities with respect to the Student Choice Initiative, which may result in a loss of funding for clubs and the union. To date, the results of the consultations are unclear.

Boucher did not respond to requests for comment on consultations between the UTSU and the ministry.

Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm

The Vice-President Operations manages the union’s finances, coordinates its full-time staff, and oversees the services that the UTSU provides to students.

In his profile with The Varsity, Biswurm pledged to improve the union’s financial transparency by publishing a “human readable” budget, prevent the disengagement of directors by altering the bylaws and internal structure of the union’s Board of Directors, and allocate 50 per cent of the human resources costs of the Student Commons project to student jobs.

Biswurm oversaw the publication of a newly formatted budget that was aimed to be more accessible than in previous years.

Addressing his pledge to prevent director disengagement, Biswurm wrote to The Varsity that he successfully “passed several amendments revamping the bylaws of the UTSU that govern director attendance,” to clarify expectations and enforcement, while also being “more forgiving of absences arising from exceptional circumstances.”

With regards to changes to the board’s internal structure, Biswurm wrote that he “will admit that the project of restructuring the board will not come to fruition in the 201819 term.”

He did note, however, that “a significant deal of thought and planning has gone into the project to date,” citing the union’s recent “all-encompassing governance review,” as well as a formulation of initial “recommendations and models” for restructuring.

Addressing his pledge to allocate human resource costs to student jobs in the Student Commons, he noted that the delay of the building’s opening has prevented him from fully implementing his pledge.

Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin

The role of the Vice-President University Affairs is to advocate on behalf of students to the university administration, as well as represent the union on several university bodies.

In his profile with The Varsity, Grondin pledged to lobby against the university-mandated leave of absence policy. He further pledged to lobby to introduce a grade forgiveness program, as well as improve accommodations for students affected by mental health problems.

Grondin fulfilled all his pledges to lobby for these policy changes but noted that these efforts were met with varying degrees of success.

He has spoken against the leave of absence policy at key governance meetings, including the University Affairs Board, Business Board, and Governing Council. Drawing on his own experiences with mental health challenges, he appealed personally to members of the boards to vote against the policy. Despite his lobbying, the policy passed and came into effect in July.

Since then, Grondin has written a guide to the policy in language easier for students to understand, highlighting rights, resources, and frequently asked questions. He has distributed the list to every college and faculty society.

His advocacy for the grade forgiveness program “never got as far as [he] originally intended.” He and his assistant began “a thorough review of similar policies and procedures in other universities” at the start of his term, which resulted in “a 12-page summary of [their] findings and recommendations.” They also worked with administrative officials from the Faculty of Arts & Science to collect data specific to U of T.

However, he found that Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) representatives were already pushing a similar proposal. To respect the autonomy of ASSU, which already had strong ties with administrative officials in the faculty, he decided to defer advocacy to ASSU.

Referring to his advocacy to improve accommodations for students affected by mental health problems, he wrote that he has worked extensively to improve supports. A significant achievement includes how he and his assistant “pushed for the expansion of hours in the Health and Wellness Centre,” which led to its current hours lasting “until 7pm three days of the week.”

He also worked with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students to lobby for 24-hour counseling services to be available at Robarts Library and in the Bahen Centre.

In addition to his pledges, Grondin has noted that the “bulk of [his] work throughout the year came from beyond [his] initial pledges.”

Highlights of his work include his help with coordinating much of the UTSU’s Pride programming for LGBTQ2S+ students, lobbying “for the provision of free menstrual products with students from various college societies,” creating a task force on sexual violence in the UTSU, and working on a report on microtransactions and Digital Learning Services, which has been presented to the Vice-Provost, Innovation in Undergraduate Education.

Ameera Karim, Dermot Gordon O’Halloran, Michael Junior Samakayi win UTSU by-election executive positions

Arjun Kaul wins uncontested Vice-President Operations race

Ameera Karim, Dermot Gordon O’Halloran, Michael Junior Samakayi win UTSU by-election executive positions

After no candidates ran in the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Spring Election for a large number of executive and director positions, Ameera Karim, Arjun Kaul, Dermot Gordon O’Halloran, and Michael Junior Samakayi have won the positions of Vice-Presidents Student Life, Operations, Professional Faculties, and Equity, respectively.

The VP Equity race was uncontested in the initial election but delayed due to outstanding appeals to the Elections and Referenda Committee.

The by-election saw 1,071 voters, a turnout of 2.9 per cent — 531 fewer voters than the 4.2 per cent turnout of the Spring Election.

Karim won the most contested executive race, garnering 344 votes and beating out runner-up Spencer Robertson by 94 votes. There were 410 abstentions, accounting for 38.3 per cent of votes cast in this race.

Kaul ran uncontested and received a yes vote from 89.2 per cent of participating students, with 377 students abstaining and 75 voting no.

O’Halloran’s competition, Muskan Sethi, withdrew from the race midway. Therefore, O’Halloran was elected Vice-President Professional Faculties with 130 votes. There were 120 abstentions in this race, totalling 46.5 per cent of votes.

Samakayi won by the largest margin of the contested executive elections — 376 votes were cast in his favour over the 164 votes cast for runner-up Hanya Wahdan. There were 531 abstentions, equalling to 49.6 per cent of the vote.

The UTSU Board of Directors also saw 16 positions filled, still leaving two seats unfilled.

UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on orientation, mental health, equity

Crowded by-election playing field comes after minimal engagement in general election

UTSU executive candidates debate focuses on orientation, mental health, equity

Issues of transparency, club funding, mental health, and equity took centre stage at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) by-election executive candidates debate on April 11. Candidates for Vice-President Student Life, Vice-President Equity, Vice-President Professional Faculties, and Vice-President Operations competed for votes in a crowded election.

The debate was moderated by Board of Directors Chair Eric Bryce and began with a land acknowledgement and equity statement given by current Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin.

VP Student Life

The VP Student Life election is the most contested race of both the general and the by-election period, with four candidates running. The three candidates at the debate were Ameera Karim, Spencer Robertson, and Bhanu Priya Sharma. Miharu Ho was unable to attend due to an academic conflict.

Robertson also previously ran for Vice-President External Affairs in the general election, but ultimately lost to Innis College Director Lucas Granger. He also ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for VP Campus Life, which is now called Student Life.

Candidates were asked about the Student Choice Initiative — the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September — and how they would make up for a loss in funding.

Sharma emphasized the importance of creating an open discussion between students and herself, suggesting that this could be a possible way to not have students opt out.

Karim suggested the possibility of holding training sessions for club leaders in order to help them gain corporate sponsorships. She also proposed holding drop-in hours at the UTSU office, helping clubs find cheaper alternatives for their needs, and making the Student Commons bookable for clubs.

The Student Commons is a planned student-run hub to be located at 230 College Street that is a decade in the making, whose much-delayed opening is set for June.

Robertson hopes to open the door to more constructive criticism from club leaders. He also wants to make the Student Commons bookable and reduce the amount of time that non-U of T clubs can use the space.

Candidates were also asked how they plan to better involve clubs and groups in orientation going forward.

Sharma plans to implement bimonthly video chats with club leaders. For orientation, she wants an action plan for emergencies, a water station, and a booth for international students to get help.

Karim wants the Clubs Carnival to feel like less like a “filler event.” She hopes to use this position to collaborate with colleges and to train them to make orientation feel more special.

Robertson described this year’s orientation as a “nightmare,” adding that he wants to create a space where students can give feedback and assess where orientation can improve.

One audience member asked if candidates would grant funding to anti-abortion groups, and all three adamantly said that they would not.

“The answer is a hard no,” said Robertson. “We shouldn’t fund clubs that take away the rights or safety of students.”

Karim agreed, stating that these clubs create an unsafe atmosphere on campus, and that the VP Student Life should listen to students concerns about these groups.

“There’s clearly a line between freedom of expression and hate speech,” she said.

Sharma concurred with both candidates as well, saying, “While every student has the freedom to voice their opinion, it would also be a hard no for me to give them funding or space at the Clubs Carnival in which they could promote a hurtful topic.”

Another audience member asked about corporate sponsorships and where the candidates would draw the line in allowing clubs to attain corporate sponsorships from controversial or socially irresponsible companies.

Robertson said that he hopes to be in a financial position where he could decline money from unethical companies, saying there are times when the UTSU needs to draw the line.

Karim said that she would not want to take money from any company that creates or promotes an unsafe environment, and hopes to work with club leaders to help them find money from ethical sources.

Sharma stated that while she would recommend that club leaders refuse funding from organizations that would “take away the rights” of students, the decision would ultimately be left up to the club leaders as to where they get their funding.


VP Professional Faculties

The candidates for VP Professional Faculties — Dermot Gordon O’Halloran and Muskan Sethi — took the stage shortly after to discuss how they would represent and bring attention to students in their constituencies. O’Halloran is a music student and Sethi is in Chemical Engineering.

Sethi wants to engage with professional faculty students by being open to feedback and finding out what type of support they need from the UTSU.

O’Halloran pointed out that many professional faculty students do not realize that they are even a part of the UTSU. He echoed Sethi’s point that the UTSU needs to be more open to feedback, and wants to implement more physical advertising for the UTSU, pointing out that he never saw any campaigning in the Faculty of Music.

Both candidates said that they did not know that the first election was even happening, and O’Halloran only found out about the by-election by reading The Varsity.

An audience member asked about U of T’s new mental health task force and how the candidates plan to lobby the administration to make sure pro fac students are better represented.

This task force was proposed by U of T President Meric Gertler in response to student protests against perceived inaction on mental health issues.

In response, Sethi said that she wants to make students’ voices heard at Governing Council meetings and use available channels to advocate for all students.

O’Halloran took issue with the fact that there are only three student representatives on the task force but said that making resources available would alleviate many of those concerns.


VP Operations

Arjun Kaul is running uncontested for the VP Operations, and as such, his portion of the debate was structured as a “fireside chat” moderated by Bryce.

Kaul believes that, as VP Operations, he would have to split his time between managing finances and enforcing the governmental structure of the UTSU.

In terms of funding, Kaul believes that he can cut through unnecessary features of the role to help students directly. He cited the $301,000 the UTSU spends on the help desk and questioned how much this actually supports student wellness.

Outgoing VP Operations Tyler Biswurm said that no one is fully prepared for the role and that there is a steep learning process. Kaul responded that he intends to read over the bylaws in detail and seek public testimonials.


VP Equity

For the final portion of the debate, candidates for VP Equity Michael Junior Samakayi and Hanya Wahdan took the stage.

When asked about the best way to tackle issues of equity on campus, Wahdan said that she hopes to understand how the UTSU can work with different faculties on campus and how they can produce a more positive image. She also wishes for the UTSU to have a seat within each faculty and train members to create a more positive environment.

Samakayi pointed out that there were issues of representation that need attention, citing the mental health task force as an example. He said that it is impossible to represent 50,000 students, as the UTSU currently does, without diverse representation. Samakayi also added that he wants people to start thinking more about accessibility, and he hopes for students to feel welcome and not marginalized.

As for how the UTSU can better respond to issues of inequity, Wahdan said that mental health is a major priority and that she wants to look closer into why “recent events” on campus are recurring.

Samakayi agreed with this assessment and said that a more diverse and representative body is a solution. Both candidates were adamant that empathy is a key attribute to the ideal candidate and that everyone should be comfortable to speak out on issues of inequity.

Voting ends today at 5:00 pm and students can cast their ballots at

Candidate Profile: Michael Junior Samakayi

Vice-President Equity

Candidate Profile: Michael Junior Samakayi

Michael Junior Samakayi is a third-year Political Science student running for Vice-President Equity.

Through his experiences as the current UTSU Woodsworth College Director, former Accessibility Advisor at the Student Success Centre, and founding the U of T American Sign Language Club, Samakayi wrote that his eyes were opened to “the gaps in the system on campus which affects marginalized groups, students with disabilities, and women.”

Samakayi was motivated to run because of his desire to play a more active role in improving the lives of not only current students, but also of generations of students to come.

As a deaf student, Samakayi has witnessed the barriers that students with disabilities face in trying to succeed at this university. He hopes that, by supporting students from marginalized communities, all students will be lifted up in the process.

Samakayi’s platform incorporates a number of different initiatives, including improving mental health services. In order to achieve this, he plans to lobby U of T to review the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which he called a barrier to education.

He also believes that the UTSU has a key role to play in communicating with U of T administrators and various student societies on improving mental health services.

“When we talk about the University of Toronto having an excellent reputation for quality education, that’s not possible if we don’t have the kinds of supports that we need in place to support students’ mental health,” he said through an interpreter.

On the topic of the UTSU’s accessibility, Samakayi hopes to reform the decision-making process for executives. He plans to do this by notifying the student population when the UTSU is about to make “crucial decisions,” so that students can voice their concerns and opinions prior to board meetings.

Samakayi believes that the UTSU has challenges with racism and accessibility, but he does not believe that the UTSU has intended to act in inequitable ways. He sees this as being part of a larger problem of people not realizing that their actions can inadvertently create barriers for others, something that he seeks to combat if elected.

— With files from Josie Kao

Candidate Profile: Miharu Ho

Vice-President Student Life

Candidate Profile: Miharu Ho

Miharu Ho is a first-year Rotman Commerce student and one of four candidates running for Vice-President Student Life.

Ho works at the Sidney Smith Commons, which she said has given her the chance to not only get to know other students, but also to learn more about different campus resources.

As a first-year student, Ho understands that her candidacy may raise some eyebrows. However, this has not stopped her from trying to be as involved in U of T campus life as possible, which she said is her reason for entering this race.

If elected, Ho would prioritize inclusivity and accessibility for orientation week. She sees the high cost of orientation and the fact that students may not be able to stay overnight in downtown as some of the barriers that first years face in participating. She aims to reach out to first years to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to enjoy the event that will “set off [their] whole year.”

Having participated in orientation week as an incoming student, Ho found that the wide variety of events helped appeal to a broad section of first years. When asked what she would change, Ho reiterated her commitment to promoting greater inclusivity. She also mentioned advertising to promote the event to first years.

On the topic of how the Student Choice Initiative might affect the UTSU’s ability to fund clubs, Ho emphasized the integral role that campus clubs play in creating a diverse environment for student life.

The Student Choice Initiative is the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September.

Ho added that matters of club funding should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis to ensure sustainability.

When asked how she would increase student engagement with the UTSU, Ho said that she hopes that her campaign as the only first year running for an executive position encourages more first years to get involved with the student union.

She also seeks to improve access to information about the UTSU, especially for first years, saying that “no matter what year we are, we can participate and we can be involved.”

Ho sees having only one year of campus life under her belt as a strength rather than a weakness, saying that her lack of experience “provides [her] with more of a drive and more of a passion to just really get into this position and use all the information [she] can get.”

Ho believes her commitment to staying up-to-date on the UTSU and campus news in general will help her manage the learning curve of filling an executive position.

With files from Andy Takagi

Candidate Profile: Bhanu Priya Sharma

Vice-President Student Life

Candidate Profile: Bhanu Priya Sharma

Bhanu Priya Sharma is a fourth-year Health Studies and Urban Studies student and one of four candidates running for Vice-President Student Life.

Sharma is currently the Events Coordinator for the Indian Students’ Society, the Outreach and Communications Coordinator for the High School Partnership Program subcommittee of the University of Toronto International Health Program, and the Upper-Year Representative for the Urban Studies Student Union.

When asked why she was running, Sharma told The Varsity that encouragement from current student politicians after the general election two weeks ago motivated her to begin her candidacy.

Sharma praised current VP Student Life Yolanda Alfaro’s work, saying that she hopes that she will not to be “extremely different,” but that she will have “different priorities.” Among them is addressing student funding for clubs in light of the Student Choice Initiative, which is the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September.

She advocated heavily for accessibility and equality in funding by treating all clubs equally in the application process for funding, “no matter what their club is, or how large it is, or how small it is.”

She also wants to prioritize the expansion of UTSU services like free feminine hygiene products, free snacks, and cheap coffee and to make them available to students all day instead of during the UTSU’s business hours only.

For increasing student engagement with the UTSU, particularly in the face of low turnout in the March elections, Sharma wants to create open hours for students to come and engage, particularly as she was someone who was relatively apathetic to student politics just a few weeks ago.

On the topic of orientation, the largest responsibility for the VP Student Life, Sharma hopes to reach out and better communicate with student societies, clubs, and unions — something that she feels was missing from the 2018 orientation week.