A Love Letter to Student Politics
// Gurpreet Kambo

“Student politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

Student union politics is an alternately frustrating and rewarding beast. It has the power to leave you feeling incredibly empowered, but, simultaneously, terribly jaded and disenfranchised. The above quote, commonly attributed to Henry Kissinger (though it’s authorship is debated), speaks to what is often the experience of those involved in student politics. It is the first brush with power that those enterprising individuals have; and, though in real terms the stakes are actually quite small (as Kissinger so aptly pointed out), they feel huge precisely because many in those positions have never had the opportunity to wield such power before.

Student union budgets stem from a mandatory levy issued on every student attending that post-secondary institution, and result in a budget that can be anywhere from a few hundred thousand (the CSU’s annual budget is about a half million dollars), to millions of dollars at larger institutions. How often does the average person (let alone the average 18-year-old first-year student) get to have this kind of decision-making power that potentially affects thousands of people?

My personal experience with student union politics has largely been a positive one. With some sadness, I recently retired from my long-standing position at the CSU. Three years isn’t a long time for most people to stay in a job, but in student union terms, I was certainly getting to be a dinosaur and was close to becoming burnt out.

When the enticing opportunity to write for the Capilano Courier came up, it became apparent that my political career had run its course, and that I needed a new venue to grow myself in different ways. With some trepidation, I quit the job which I’d gotten to know so well in the past three years to venture into something far outside my comfort zone.

At the time, I was a wide-eyed recent high school graduate, who had floated around local social justice groups. These organizations were full of passionate, dedicated activists who had been advocating for social justice issues for years or decades. Therefore, for me it was a bit like jumping in the deep end of a swimming pool while still learning to do the starfish. I still had to learn my political ABCs, and these organizations often weren’t built to provide ‘learning experiences’ – it slowed them down, at least in the short term. It was in the student politics world that I cut my political teeth, with the help of student union staff, and more experienced board members who are accustomed to helping rookie student politicians learn the ropes every year.
Unlike the social justice groups that I was involved with, student unions are highly malleable organizations, as broad-based mandatory-membership organizations should be, and this makes them fantastic learning tools. While many of them have a leftist orientation, as many of my previous experiences had had as well, this isn’t inherently the case. Their malleability allows elected politicians, and the students who are involved in the student union, to use the considerable resources of the organization to pursue whatever interests them. One of my favourite parts was the debate – if you were effective at making your point, it could change the direction of the organization, and so what you said had serious consequences.

One of the greatest things about being involved in the student union is that a student is able to do the type of high-level work and given the type of responsibility that would take years to get to in an organization after graduation. Over several years, the accomplishments that I have had cover a broad range of areas, including negotiating contracts with various levels of government (including the new U-Pass contract, which affects hundreds of thousands of students across BC); negotiating with the University and with other organizations; taking a construction project from start to finish; organizing public rallies; and planning and participating in local and national campaigns advocating for students, among many other things. The skills and experience I gained are immeasurable, and on a tangible level, very transferable to future employment.

So, here is Studentpolitik, a bi-weekly column in which I’ll be bringing you the latest and greatest dirty laundry in the wacky world of Student Politics. This will primarily include commentary on the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU), the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), and the affairs of the Capilano University administration, though other student-focused organizations have plenty of dirty laundry that may be of interest as well (looking at you, Kwantlen Students’ Association!). I spent many years navigating the ins and outs of the world of student politics, including serving three years as the Students of Colour Liaison on the CSU board, and for one of those three as the Chairperson. I also served on the board of the Canadian Federation of Students B.C., as the representative for the CSU. As such, I will be bringing you commentary with an insider’s perspective.

Student politics certainly has its ups and downs. The greatest thing that I take with me, though, is the people that I met, and my interactions with them. Admittedly, for many of these people (including myself), student politics is partly an exercise in vanity. The rush of recognition that you get for doing something that benefits students, or the headiness of hitting the ground and convincing students to vote for you are quite amazing. Much to my chagrin, I am now the person writing about those doing these things, not the person being written about.

As you may notice from the occasional scandals that appear in the news, there are some people involved in student politics who may not have the best of methods or intentions (after all, it is politics, through and through), the vast majority of people that I met are extraordinarily passionate and dedicated people who have done incredible things to advocate for the rights of students. I haven’t always agreed with the methods or specific goals of the people I’ve met, or the organizations that I’ve found myself involved in; however, there is no doubt that these people give a shit about you, and that they accept long hours and low pay to advocate for people who they don’t know.

The student movement has achieved some great things, from having a hand in stopping the Vietnam War, to taking a front-line stand in the fight for women’s equality, civil rights and gay rights, and to continually advocating for lower tuition fees and greater accessibility for all students. Students have the power to create change, and have successfully done so. And that is why you should care about the world of student politics.

// Gurpreet Kambo
Columnist & News Editor

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