Lessons in student politics from an ex-student politician


Coming to university, many students are unfamiliar with what student politics is — I sure didn’t know — or assume it functions like the party-planning student council of their high school. After four years at various levels, including 16 months as a full-time executive at the campus-wide Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA), I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about the system. Here are some key lessons about how it works, what it does, and how you can engage with it.

Student politics works at different levels on our campus.

At UW, it’s really important to understand the layered structure student government has. At your faculty level, you can count on your faculty society to support you in ways that are personalized to your particular program and faculty (same goes for your college or satellite campus!). Simultaneously, you’re able to turn to WUSA for higher-level support on issues that impact you as a student at UW in a broader sense, as WUSA operates in a larger scale better-suited for bigger projects like provincial and federal advocacy, as well as health, dental, and legal insurance plans.

Depending on your faculty, there might be smaller-scale organizing, too — program societies, year-based cohorts, program clubs, and the like. There are larger scales beyond WUSA as well: the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) and Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU) are coalitions of student associations across the province and country, respectively, that represent their collective student bodies to provincial and federal governments.

Scattered across campus you’ll also find other student representatives who aren’t affiliated with any student-run organizations — a lot of university departments, like Co-operative and Experiential Education, have their own advisory council of students, and the University Senate and Board of Governors have undergraduate voting members elected and appointed each year. These are all students who are tapped into different areas of governance on campus, and they’re all people to keep in mind when you’re looking for a representative to talk to about any specific issue.

Advocacy results can be subtle, but they’re there.

The unfortunate reality of a lot of advocacy is that it can be a slow process — a lot of initiatives take months to years to implement, and a lot of the people involved don’t get to see much of that concrete progress over the time they’re directly involved in a project. But if you know where to look, there have been a number of projects that have had great success in the last few years.

Advocacy work done during the 2021–22 year by student leaders Catherine Dong and Stephanie Ye-Mowe regarding gender-affirming care, which was most recently formalized in the WUSA report Transgender & Racialized Student Experiences with Campus Wellness at the University of Waterloo, contributed to the hiring of a clinical nurse specialist that students are able to self-refer to when booking an appointment. Over in the math faculty, the winter 2022 VP academic, Vincent Macri, was able to work with faculty and administrators during the course of a term to accelerate and complete the process of removing work term report requirements from co-op programs.

There are a lot of moving parts that go into a successful advocacy campaign, and it can be difficult to coordinate them all. A big part that is never seen is the many behind-the-scenes meetings that student leaders have with faculty members and administrators which often get deeper into policy and the intricacies of university governance. Sometimes these meetings are accompanied by widespread and vocal support from students, like in the case of work term reports, where students came out in droves to express dissatisfaction with the status quo. That type of engagement helps communicate the sense of importance and urgency from students’ points of view.

The barrier to making change is lower than you think.

You can get involved in student politics in big and small ways, and the barrier to entry is often quite low — here are my main pieces of advice.

1. The biggest tip for success is showing up.

I know meetings and surveys may seem boring, but showing up and participating in them really does make a difference.

When it came to eliminating work term reports or proposing a ban on online proctoring tools in the math faculty, support from students on the change was a huge part of speeding the process along. MathSoc received thousands of survey responses between the two initiatives where students shared their perspectives, as well as turnout at general meetings to discuss the subjects. The enthusiastic and genuine student engagement was cited by the Math faculty as a key part of what made the campaign successful, and it demonstrated the good-faith belief that the student body at-large had. This type of direct student engagement is an essential foundation for change, and it works.

This goes for personal success too — I ended up in my first student politics gig because no one else expressed interest in a committee seat and the other members happily showed me the ropes. That snowballed into my term as VP academic (basically the faculty society head for advocacy) at MathSoc. I became really invested in the conversations we were having and kept showing up, and it kept snowballing — into MathSoc president, WUSA VP operations & finance, undergraduate governor on the UW Board, student representative on the City of Waterloo’s economic development advisory committee, and most recently, running for city council myself.

None of those things would have happened if I hadn’t shown up to that first committee meeting, and for so many of them, the only thing I actually had to do to get involved was show up and be interested.

2. Your student representatives really can help you!

The first step in a lot of cases is to get in contact with the relevant student leader — they’re often going to know who to talk to, what hoops to jump through, or what approaches to try. They’ll probably also have some thoughts of their own on if you have a good idea or not, but they’ll often help point the way regardless and can support you with their skillset and knowledge.

If you’re looking for a level higher than that, getting involved in your faculty society is generally very approachable and a great way to get your feet wet in the student advocacy world. Running for your society council or VP academic on a platform of the issue you want to change is a great way to demonstrate support for your cause.

3. Being nice is pretty thankless and hidden, but it works wonders.

I’m not saying that I agree with every decision made by university and faculty administrations, but they’re really in some tough positions, and from every conversation I’ve had with any of them, I believe they care deeply about students. They’re also balancing all the complexities of a huge institution with four competing stakeholder associations (undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and faculty) that all love to disagree, along with variable funding from the province, donors, grants, and student fees, among many other considerations. It’s a lot to juggle, and approaching any conversation with them respectfully and with understanding goes a long way — you’ll usually find that they’re more than willing to collaborate on trying to find a workable solution to a tricky problem that students are facing, and that if they can’t immediately, they’ll leave the conversation still trying to figure it out.

Some of the best work I’ve seen happened when student leaders didn’t go in with weapons drawn or adversarial attitudes, because it meant that administrators were able to let their guards down too and work collaboratively to find real solutions.