This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Stephanie Gordon
The majority respond to anything student government related with apathy, if not outright criticism. “They’re just doing this for their resume.” “They can’t actually make a change.” “This doesn’t matter outside of school.” The impression of student government is sometimes overpowered by the “government” aspect instead of the student one. Bureaucratic, slow to change, hierarchical. But in reality, the student aspect takes precedence. I had the privilege to speak to multiple students involved with the USC, and in particular pick the brains of your VP External, Jen Carter, and your VP Communications, Emerson Tithecott. I encourage those that pride themselves on critical thinking, to think differently about student government; with some compassion instead of cynicism.
The initial reason to join student government is probably selfish. However, why they choose to stay isn’t. For Emerson, he realized “in future years, it wasn’t just about me learning and about me developing, it became about actually helping others, and I started to realize that someone who’s in a position at the USC can really make a big difference on campus.” For most of the students on USC executive, they’ve been part of different councils throughout their time here. This leads to the inference that councils are exclusive and prefer familiar over fresh faces. I can’t speak for faculty councils, but when it comes to a level such as USC executive – would you want someone without any prior council experience? The application process for most fields, not just the USC, privilege experience over ideas, but that’s not to say that people with only ideas can’t get through. For Jen, it was surprising to hear that she had a fairly negative experience with the USC and “The reason why I ran for the USC was because I didn’t like the USC…the USC was never in my plans.” She ran because she thought she could do a little bit better than those before her.
Your relationship with the USC varies from student to student. It was very clear from Jen’s letter to The Gazette about what she is doing in terms of improving transit in response to all the criticism that a lot of students are unaware of what the USC is doing for them. Beyond advocating, USC is responsible for maintaining several services on campus whether it be The Spoke or Creative Services. This was a common sentiment during the interview and a point of frustration that “students don’t understand what we’re actually able to do for them.” In particular reference to the little things, Jen shared a story about helping a student on which grad school programs were eligible for financial aid – “something as simple as that, that’s what we’re paid to do.” Even though their positions oversee higher level decisions, Emerson remarked that “when students come up to our office, we’ll drop everything and talk to them, we’re not too busy for them.”
Communication is a two-way street
However, Jen also remarked that it’s “difficult with a campus this large to communicate that we actually have the tools to help them and that’s what we’re here for” while Emerson added that “it’s not like a 5 step solution to telling students this information, it’s more of a systematic thing. So when you have a group of students in the USC…who want to help people and have different levels of expertise, different education, a different understanding of what student government is and should be, it becomes very complicated to mobilize that group systematically in a way that’s actually effective. And we struggle with that every day.” Although Jen said that they “need to do a better job communicating that we can help with the little things,” she also acknowledged that “students need to feel more comfortable coming to us with those questions.” The student government and its effectiveness is highly dependent on the students who it is supposed to represent. Their position is only bettered by your involvement. Jen summarizes this point when she says “every story that a student has better informs what we do, and makes us a better organization, it’s definitely a partnership in us reaching out to those students and those students coming to us.”
With or Without Apathy
That being said, it’s not always about recognition of the USC services. Emerson remarks that “if students are getting their bus pass and they’re having no problems and they’re happy with that situation, they don’t necessarily need to know or care that it’s us.” This attitude – doing things that benefit students without expecting anything in return, is admirable and is probably one that is adopted by those that thrive in student government. Anyone “doing it for their resume” and who is not intrinsically motivated will have harder time getting through the banal aspects of the position. For Emerson, “it’s not so much about making people care about student government or forcing people to care about the USC and us and all the things that we care about – it’s about no matter what your interests are at Western, no matter what you want to do with your life, or what you do on campus, just knowing that when they need help we can help them and that’s our number one priority.”
It can be seen that the USC is obligated to serve students regardless whether they appreciate it or not, but at the same time the USC’s ability to serve is only helped by students. Student apathy “can be challenging and draining, but we appreciate that the onus is not on them to have the knowledge, the onus is on them to tell us how they feel about things and think things through and think about them clearly.” The USC doesn’t have to be all “administration” or “organization,” it can be students helping students if we commit to communicating.
Now when it comes to the relationship between students and the USC administration, it’s not really an Us vs. Them dynamic but more of a partnership. The administration offers institutional and general support, but it should be noted that Western’s administration and USC administration are two separate things. With reference to the USC Emerson contributed, “They understand that we are the decision makers as elected by students to act on what students want to see from their government and they really respect that boundary but they also don’t hesitate to provide recommendations when they think it’s appropriate because for a lot of these people they have been involved…for over a decade, and that’s incredibly valuable to people like us who are in their early twenties and still figure this stuff out.” Jen offers a more holistic perspective, “So the USC has 60 full time staff, and even more part-time staff, and what ends up happening is that you now lead the direction of that corporation for an entire year. So on our staff, you also have to recognize that it can be challenging because every year they have a different leadership coming in. So kind of what I’ve learned from my experience is that as an elected official it comes with a certain amount of responsibility to make sure that your staff are happy in the workplace because they are the ones that are the institutional memory, they are the ones that allow us to be successful and say this is what went really well and this is what went badly…so it’s also a lot of responsibility on the [USC] executive members do everything they have to do on a day-to-day basis as well as make sure there is a positive and empowering workplace where you take the opinion of the people that work with you…into account and make them feel empowered in their own jobs even though it is you that ends up making the final decision anyway. It’s a really kind of challenging role to navigate.” Both of them also reflected on their experiences on affiliate councils and noted that in a smaller environment there was less bureaucracy, so they were able to represent students in a way that is harder in the USC.
Final Year, Don’t Care
On a final note, those who are leaving university or see no application of student government outside of Western, it could be valuable to think about student government as a precursor to civic engagement. Jen sums this point up when she says “If you don’t vote because the politicians aren’t talking about what you want to see, that will continue. For me, it’s not just about voting in the USC, that mentality translates into voting in any election period… It’s a value that sadly our culture has lost, not just students.” It’s also as simple as helping out those who have yet to go through university. Emerson touches on this, “when you’re fourth year and you’re leaving, someone is in first year and someone is going through the same things you were going through… When you were in first year you would have appreciated someone who is generally interested in the community thinking about these things to improve your experience.” Those who have the least to benefit from the new executive are those that have the most to offer in terms of knowledge of the system.
Essentially, nothing is black and white. Not even student government. Everything discussed in this article doesn’t reveal the whole story either. What you think of the USC is dependent on you, just don’t take the easy apathetic route. Think of it complexity, critically, and compassionately.