Before the Events, There Was Student Advocacy

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Eddy Avila
OUSA Executive Director
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 13:45

Guest post by Eddy Avila, Executive Director of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA)

Every student’s post-secondary education experience is different. Each student will have their own aspirations and unique lived experiences. And while all will be enrolled in courses, their university or college experience will be defined by much more than academics. Some will become involved in campus clubs, some will participate in intramural sports, some will become orientation volunteers, and some will help out at their local peer support centre. Many of these experiences will be made possible not directly by their institution’s administration but by their student association. Student associations make campus life vibrant. They significantly improve the overall student experience.

With this is mind, it’s important to remember that student associations were created with the primary goal of representing students and advocating on their behalf. Over the years, these organizations have grown and expanded their mandate, providing essential services and running programs to enhance the educational experience of students. Yet student advocacy and representation remains at the core of every student association or student council – and we can’t forget that.

Over the years, these organizations have grown and expanded their mandate, providing essential services and running programs to enhance the educational experience of students. Yet student advocacy and representation remains at the core of every student association or student council – and we can’t forget that.

So how did student associations move from strictly being student advocates to becoming programmers, service providers, and event planners?

At their core, student associations have a good sense of student life on campus. That’s part of the reason they exist – to represent and advocate on behalf of students. They see the struggles that students face and hear the challenges that students overcome. Often, this awareness is what prompts student associations to coordinate with stakeholders like university administration to address problems and work towards solutions. However, complex issues like improving supports for student mental health on campus or providing adequate supports for marginalized students are not solved through a single solution; they often take time.

This is where the intersection between advocacy and service provision comes into play. Historically, student associations have often taken charge in responding to student needs and filled in the gaps that their institutions have not addressed. The primary constituents of student associations are the students – unlike university or college administrations, who must consider faculty and staff, campus stakeholders, and other organizations.

Additionally, student associations are considerably less bureaucratic than university or college administrations, allowing them to be more responsive and address concerns faster. This ability has turned student associations into providers of large amounts of essential student services, programs, and events.

Student association-run services and programs help support students and supplement the overall student experience. Examples include peer support centres, orientation week, clubs systems, student food banks, and walk-home services. The role of the student association has grown and they have taken on more responsibilities than advocacy alone. They have become a critical part of student life on campus.

So that’s where we are now. Student associations impact the lives of students on campus every day, both through the services they provide and the advocacy they lead.

And while advocacy and representation for students is at the core of all student associations, they tend to be viewed more as student-centric service providers and event planners. However, it’s also important for students, university administration, elected representatives, and sector stakeholders to understand how powerful strong student advocacy can be in making meaningful change for students in Ontario.

As OUSA’s Executive Director, and as a former President of Western’s University Students’ Council, I have seen the impact that student advocacy groups and individual student associations can have through strong advocacy efforts.

I have seen the impact that student advocacy groups and individual student associations can have through strong advocacy efforts.

I have seen many student associations work collaboratively with their institution’s administration to implement a Fall Reading Week that allows students to recharge and provides respite during a stressful midterm season. I have seen student leaders advocate at the provincial level for affordable, accessible post-secondary education and transform the student financial aid system to better support students who need it most. I have seen students highlight the importance of workintegrated learning opportunities to the federal government and secure dedicated funding to enhance this type of experiential learning. Student advocacy has the power to make systemic change and improve the lives of large groups of students.

But that’s not to say that the everyday services and programs that student associations oversee aren’t important. It’s about balance. Understandably, students are more aware of the services and programs student associations provide than they are of their student advocacy wins. That’s not the fault of the student – it’s just a reality that student organizations must come to terms with. Students interact with these services everyday; they are tangible and create meaningful experiences. Student advocacy is longer-term and less tangible. It can often take several years and many cohorts of student leaders to accomplish a policy change within the university or see the government dedicate funding to a student-friendly initiative.

That’s why student associations need to get better at explaining who they are and the value they bring to the campus life. They need to remind students of the advocacy student associations do on their behalf. With the government’s recent introduction of the Student Choice Initiative, students will be given the opportunity to choose where their ancillary fees are allocated. There has never been a more important time for student associations and student organizations – who are primarily funded through ancillary fees – to show students the value they add to the overall educational experience. If large numbers of students opt out of student association fees, many services that students rely on may not be available or may operate at reduced service levels. The clubs and orientation weeks that become staples of a students’ time at university or college may be in jeopardy. Additionally – and just as importantly – there may be significant negative impacts on student advocacy and representation.

Now more than ever, student leaders, student associations, and student advocacy organizations like OUSA need to make a case for the importance of student advocacy. They need to respect the reality that not all students may understand, stay engaged, or prioritize student advocacy. However, it is the responsibility of student associations to be transparent and accountable and to engage in ongoing outreach to show students the value of these activities. Every student association is responsible for balancing their priorities between student advocacy and the student services and events they provide. It’s not about which is more important; it’s about understanding that both are critical to the short- and longterm success of the overall student experience.