Don’t forget to put students first

The impact you’ll leave as a student leader will be with those who don’t mirror your campus experience

Dave Walker outside of the John Deutsch University Centre.
Dave Walker outside of the John Deutsch University Centre.

Looking back at my term as Vice President (Operations) last year, there were countless times where I sat at my desk in the AMS offices and wondered if I was actually bettering anyone’s student experience. This wasn’t because I didn’t believe in the magnitude of influence students can have on each other, but more, the kind of influence I was having. 

November might be known as  the time when mid-terms are wrapping up, but for some, this is when they put together teams to run for the elections in January. When I ran two years ago, this month was just the beginning of the long hours we spent to discuss our vision for the AMS, choose slogans and campaign colours. Ultimately, it was the time where we began to believe that we could better our student body.

For those of you considering to run, I’ll be very honest with you, it’s not easy and it won’t always be fun. But is it worth it? Absolutely. 

There’s a certain level of apathy when it comes to student leadership and I don’t believe it’s a problem where we can place blame on the student community.  Rather, it’s on those of us who are trying to represent it to work to engage all students in our conversations.  

I’m not writing this opinion piece to reflect on my time in the AMS, but rather to give my advice to those who may be thinking of running in the upcoming elections. I hope you can learn a few things much sooner than I did. 

As a former elected leader myself, it took me a while to understand why students were quicker to jump on our mistakes than they were to celebrate our successes. I found myself constantly questioning why people always expected the worst of us. I mean, it was those students who elected us to represent them in the first place, right? 

The reality was, we were a team that won by a slim margin of 41 votes. This meant that not only did a lot of people not believe in our vision, but they didn’t think we could represent their views.

Even though I’m forever grateful for every person who believed in our vision and publicly supported us, I’m equally as grateful for those who challenged it, because it was those students who made me want to be a better leader. 

You might not be aware of this early in the process, but the most important impact you’ll have on Queen’s won’t be with those who mirror your experiences on campus, it will be with the students who don’t. 

Students must be able to criticize their elected leaders without fear of consequence when they believe they’re failing to represent them. Without accountability, we risk losing the opportunity to move forward and progress as a community. 

I’m by no means placing blame  on or singling out any individual or team for a lack of accountability. I understand that often it becomes the default strategy of retreating into the JDUC when things get tough, and I’m certainly not excluding myself from this. 

Whether I agree with other student leaders’ viewpoints or beliefs at all, I applaud every person who has put themselves forward to represent students. It’s undoubtedly a privilege to participate in any election and it’s an experience that only a few of us  have had or will have.  

If we can understand that those of us who get elected aren’t an accurate representation of every Queen’s student, we will be one step closer to making decisions that benefit all members of our student body, rather than only a few. 

During your campaign and hopefully your time in office, it will be your job to represent every student at Queen’s. To do this, you’ll find yourself questioning your own viewpoints, beliefs and confronting the biases that youll unintentionally bring to the offices. I promise you, this will be the most difficult, stressful and rewarding obstacle you’ll confront. 

As you begin writing your platform, consulting with fellow students and making promises, I encourage you to think about the impact you can have on your peers. By virtue of participating in the election process, you’ll open yourself up to all students. You’ll have the opportunity to amplify the voice of students who feel as if they aren’t being heard. 

It’s not fair or right to the Queen’s community if you only cater to those who support you. Knowing and understanding this will help make any candidate (or candidates) better suited to serve our campus. 

From my experience, I wouldn’t wait for students to seek you out. Find the opportunities — starting on the first day of campaigning until the last day in office — to learn and amplify all voices on campus.  

I wasn’t free of mistakes during my term, but neither were those who came before me, nor are those who come after. It’s impossible to predict the challenges you’ll face, but it’s necessary to work hard in order to mitigate the self-created challenges from the choices you’re entrusted to make. 

I could’ve prevented a lot of the stresses I had if I remembered to step out of my office and ask others how they may be impacted by my decisions. That’s not to say everyone will be happy with your decisions, but remembering to consider all students would’ve left me better suited to actually represent all students. 

Let’s face it, no single person is always happy with their elected politicians. But trust me when I say it’ll be a lot easier to sleep at night knowing youve done your best to factor all students into a decision. 

As a campus, we’re constantly confronting difficult issues, engaging in debates on what is or isn’t best for the collective and challenging each other to be better. As a university community, we’re at a crossroads; one where we look to celebrate the success of our past, but one where we must recognize our failures and how we can learn from them in order to strive to be better at representing our entire campus. 

As both elected and non-elected student leaders, we must think hard about our student community, how we got here and where it is that we’re looking to go.

We must continue to question ourselves and think critically about our traditions and customs. Most importantly, we need to get better at listening to those students who may not always feel heard. 

As teams begin to form and ideas turn into promises, I encourage every candidate to ask themselves why they’re best suited to 

represent our campus; a campus diverse in beliefs, values and principles. Youll be able to better represent the student body come January if you can understand your own position on this campus and open yourself up to ideas and viewpoints you haven’t yet considered. 

Having a successful term in student government isn’t defined by the projects that will add a legacy — remembered by a few. These jobs aren’t just for resume-building, and they’re certainly not about self-interest. Theyre about hard work, a desire to progress and knowing the importance of leaving this campus in better shape than you found it. 

As I often heard from former student leaders at the beginning of my own term, each year is just one chapter in a much larger book. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to influence how it gets written. 

Dave is a fifth-year economics student and the former Vice President (Operations) of the AMS.

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