Your VP Education takes his last bow

Matthew Gerrits
Matthew Gerrits
VP Education
Fri, 05/01/2020 - 10:30

The world of student union executives is not one of gods. It is at best, one of flawed heroes, and at worst, one of quixotic ones. Too often people, students included, put Executive on pedestals, expect near infallibility, expertise on day one, and a seamless transition from politician in elections to a position that is far more that of a functionary than of a Prime Minister or legislator. These pressures are ones that executive are warned of and so too, vulnerability is not something that comes naturally to executive, who are expected to project their proficiency and dedication constantly.  

If you couldn’t tell by the timing of this post, this is my exit blog. Now that I am on my way out, I wanted to engage in that same vulnerability, by sharing some of my successes and failures, as well as some lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Success and failure

 If you want to hear me talk at greater length about successes and failures, I have detailed some in Sections II & III of my final Council report. I would however, like to share a short and special list of some of these accomplishments with you here.

This year, we saw some massive accomplishments, including the expansion of the federal portion of OSAP in the Liberal election platform, after asking for almost the exact same policies and amounts in years past. The federal government took many of our recommendations from the report we put together with URCU, that ultimately helped secure the Canada Emergency Student Benefit. We also advocated successfully for the fix to international co-op student tuition to save many international students thousands over the course of their degrees. WUSA’s work, and perhaps 1000 dollars in direct WUSA fees at most over the course of your time at the University of Waterloo, can truly show amazing returns. This summer, by their support of our work, many of our members have turned their investments into five thousand or more dollars in government action. 

I'm not going to downplay them; these accomplishments are huge! Like with any victory however, they do come with their share of blunders, embarrassment, shortcomings, miniature breakdowns, and doubts. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to put my name on multi-million dollar advocacy wins, but am acutely aware not every executive gets to deliver things of this magnitude, and its not by any lack of calibre on their part. I detail some of those in that report too, but have other regrets, including not doing more to identify and resolve issues of marginalized students on campus. Not doing so clashed with the values I’ve tried to live by in this role, and for that, I am sorry. 

Values

Values or virtues are something you should look for in your leaders. Even the most technocratic and competent are worse than useless if their motivations are suspect or their moral compass isn’t true. What virtues leaders emphasize can look different from person to person, and no one focus within virtues is necessarily a winning one. With that in mind, I wanted to share the values by which I've tried to abide, or at least some of the more prominent ones I’ve tried to curate in my time as an Executive. 

I have tried to be honest. This is a truly difficult feat for a student politician, who often has to answer emails from students who don’t have the privilege I did in my position, of knowing why certain situations are the way they are. Whether speaking to students, politicians or media, framing is key. Drawing the line of demarcation between framing something favourably or being disingenuous is one that can prove difficult. If posed with my past statements I’m sure there are places where I might rephrase, but I do think I approached my words with honesty overall. Honesty is also difficult when it means saying no, or saying that I don’t believe a certain course of direction is the right one. It has taken time for me not to be cowed by disagreement, and to have the confidence to say how I feel. This is something I still truly struggle with, but am grateful to have grown in my confidence to speak the truth while holding this position. 

I have also tried to approach the role with openness and empathy - being open to new ideas, and other points of view. A VP Education has to interact with government, with university administrators, internally elected Councillors and Directors, staff, and you, our WUSA members. A true difficulty in this role is that the victories we get are entirely driven by soft power and persuasion. To do so means trying to convince politicians and university staff who have the power to make decisions to see your point of view. Empathy is critical to all of this, which perhaps at times, has meant I have been more empathetic to the university’s views than some of our membership might expect of me. But even as we expect others to be open to being convinced by our arguments (and they often are), I felt it was important to come from an openness to being convinced myself.  

I have tried to bring humility to what I do. Imposter syndrome is wildly prevalent in the student union world, and I am no exception. It has taken time and experience to move from indiscriminate imposter syndrome toward true and genuine humility. Genuine humility means acknowledging others, not inflating the value of achievements, and not resting upon laurels. These are all difficult, especially in the era of opt-out fees, where we want to showcase our value, our roles, and create steady narratives about big achievements rather than jumping from message to message. While I know I was not perfect in any of these respects, I do believe we're getting better. 

Finally, I wanted to be earnest; to exercise good faith. This is difficult to elaborate on, and while I have sometimes strained either to understand what the right decision was, or struggled not to choose the easy path, I succeeded much more often than I failed, and hope others around me would say the same. 

Lessons

I’d like to impart some mutual lessons. For each I think there is a lesson for both student executives and for students.  

First, avoid putting Executives on pedestals. They are not infallible, they are human. They make mistakes and deserve patience as they learn to navigate a multi-million dollar organization, often while being no older than 21. For Executive, I urge that you take the role with all the seriousness it deserves, but avoid taking yourself too seriously. This time will end faster than you think, and it is far too fast to turn your nose up and look down on anyone. The position is an honour, a gift, and a trust, but it does not abdicate you from your duties to service, humility and empathy.  

Second, to avoid the quixotic destiny I alluded to in my first line (quixotic meaning fruitless and hopeless tenacity), we need to balance the ambition of our agenda with realpolitik, and aim for what can realistically be done, but wouldn’t happen without our intervention and advocacy. This is an art, rather than a science. There is no formula for assessing effective advocacy, at least not one that I can think of that can take in the complexities of unmeasurable progress, averted disasters, whether something was going to happen anyway, or whether it is your work that actually led to an action. To students I say, please talk to your Councillors and Executive, let them know if they’ve done a good job, let them know if they’re not doing enough or haven’t realized an issue. Along with that though, exercise empathy when your executive don’t advocate for free tuition, for a $0 co-op fee, or the end of academic freedom. Those endeavours are large, and our political capital and organizational resources are both limited. Keep this in mind before writing vitriolic letters or emails. Practice empathy and assume the best in people to start, and the world of WUSA will likely be a better place.  

Finally, mental health is difficult, for most students, for most student executives, and for me. We all cope differently, but we share common experiences. For executive it is a culture of overwork, imposter syndrome, shifting goalposts, critical students, limited organizational capacity to achieve all their platform points and lack of time to spend on hobbies and with loved ones. Not to mention, underlying depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse or other issues that Executive either bring to the job or develop. I would encourage every Executive to set their goalposts realistically, remember that some people will always be critical, and to fight the culture of overwork wherever and whenever possible. To students, especially those who are friends with executive, please watch out for them. In a time of crisis or criticism, a kind word can mean a lot, a check-in may be sorely wanted in a time where executive can drift apart from graduated peers. Also practice empathy for the fallibility of executive, and when you can, ask whether they acted in good faith. Don’t demand overwork, and listen to their complaints if they say they are overworked or that something would make their life more difficult. 

Thank you and goodnight

As with any role, acknowledgements are in order. I’d like to thank my support network of my partner, my friends and my family, for caring so deeply about my own wellbeing even when I have neglected it. I’d like to thank the staff of WUSA, who are truly necessary to get work done, to give me expert advice, and who have provided a workplace that has felt like home over the last two years. I’d finally like to thank my colleagues in the almost monastic guild of student union executives, both at Waterloo and across the country. I have learned from you and grown alongside you, while facing two of the most turbulent years in our history. Having you available to talk to, whether online or just one office down the hall, has been the reassurance I’ve needed on many occasions.  

To close, I want to say that in the age of COVID-19, community is more important than ever. I’m happy WUSA has been mine over the past number of years, but that community is bigger than just Executive and staff; it can be a community for all undergraduates at Waterloo. I have optimism for the organization and for our incoming executives, who undoubtedly make history, not only as the first Executive team fully comprised of women, but also the Executive team whose year will be almost entirely defined by COVID. I know they are good people, and though they are not gods, I hope they can become legends. Community is critical, this organization has been mine, and it never would have been if students had not given me the chance. As I turn the page on this most turbulent, exciting and exhausting chapter, I humbly thank you all for the opportunity to serve.