Student government: then & now

Outgoing executives outlined lessons learned for election hopefuls

Student advocacy has been one of the AMS's focal points.
Student advocacy has been one of the AMS's focal points.
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Student government has struggled to maintain a balance between legacy building projects and day-to-day work since its inception on the Queen’s campus in the 1850s.

Continuing shifts in student government, accompanied with changes in student needs and interests, has required a constant need to re-balance between the core objectives of student governance and projects geared towards dramatic improvements on campus. 

“Many student leaders get interested in their roles because they have the impression that they understand student issues and want to solve them. This attitude is dangerous, because some leaders may get so focused on solving the problems that they are aware of that they forget that there exist many problems on campus they may not face personally,” Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) President Chris Cochrane said during a recent interview with The Journal

Both the SGPS and the AMS contend with finding a middle ground between the projects they envision going into their positions and the reality of student government. A tendency to focus too strongly on one or the other — daily work or projects that live on beyond their term — has been a problem for both groups in the past.  

“We’ve had a lot of great, big moments, from building Grant Hall, which the AMS was at the forefront of — students were at the forefront of — to creating the Oil Thigh, to creating Tricolour. These are all great moments that I think we’re all proud of and we remember,” current AMS President Kanivanan Chinniah said. 

“I think one of the pitfalls that many AMS [governments] do is sometimes they chase those moments. They want those moments to be replicated year over year, and I think that’s wrong.”

The AMS began in 1858, when it transformed from an on-campus debating society into a student court system. By the 1960s, it had undergone another shift and began to focus on providing social activities for students on campus. 

Even before the society became a corporation in 1969, the AMS was involved in major projects on campus, including the selection of what would become the Queen’s Tricolour colours and the establishment of AMS Housing Services in 1968.  

As the AMS’s priorities shifted towards student advocacy, the University acknowledged its new roles by providing opportunities for students to engage in decisions made by the Queen’s administration. Students were given the opportunity to elect representatives to speak for their interests in the Senate and the Board of Trustees, setting the AMS up as a liaison between the administration and the students. 

However, while the AMS continued to expand and evolve, so did the student body. Increasing enrolment was accompanied by growing interest in graduate studies, and the differing needs of undergraduate and graduate students caused student government to split up into the AMS and the SGPS in 1981.

In the battle for voter turnout and student involvement in campus politics, student governments have had to constantly demonstrate their relevance to constituents — that is, to students. While marketable projects focused on sustainability and refurbishment of university services make for good election promises, they’re not always in the best interests of the student body.  

“Each year, a team comes out, or a new individual wants to get in the job, and they think of five or 10 different ways for things to be kind of expanded upon or [to] do more, or I can change this because this way is going to be better for students,” Vice President (Operations) Kyle Beaudry said in an interview of the AMS executive by The Journal

“But in actuality … what we’ve come to learn is that the institution that is the AMS needs to remain stable going forward and that these shifts every year — they don’t serve us well when we try to advocate for students.” 

That’s why the current AMS executive says they’ve done their best to open up channels of communication between themselves and their constituents, which creates a forum for feedback for projects that the executive has prioritized. They said this resulted in both the delivery of necessary student services, such as the increase in walk-in clinic hours through the Student Wellness Center, and the creation of a bank of statistical data that future student governments can use to better address students’ major concerns. 

The AMS executive listed this year’s ReUnion Festival, the clearing of sidewalks in the University District and the ongoing conversation surrounding a potential Fall Reading Break as some of their major positive contributions. 

“It’s about making sure that we continue engaging students every day,” Chinniah said. 

“And you do that not by having a laundry list of the things that you want to do, but it’s about constantly re-engaging with students by acknowledging that first, we don’t have monopoly on student leadership, and second, we can’t be everything to everyone and third, we can’t try to chase moments year over year.” 

SGPS president Chris Cochrane agreed, adding that a student government’s central goals revolve around essential services and student engagement.  

“The most personally rewarding accomplishments that I’ve had in my term are in assisting individuals to get things done,” Cochrane said.

He said helping students who came to him with problems was one of his most positive experiences on the SGPS executive. He used his strong relationship with the administration to address difficult problems facing students, Cochrane said, and found himself on the ground level of student advocacy. 

He added that initiatives such as the Graduate Student Advisor program are exceptionally beneficial to students and meet the primary objective of graduate student government — the provision of core services which directly benefit graduate students. 

Lorne Beswick, Vice President of Campaigns and Community Affairs for the SGPS, has been with the SGPS for two terms. He said setting realistic goals and addressing solvable issues is what made his second term more rewarding than the first. 

“The first year I got elected, and I think everyone does this when they first get involved in student government, but I came in with these high-minded ideals. And all of my plans were really well-meaning but almost entirely unfeasible considering the resources available,” he said. 

Beswick said he found it difficult during his first term at the SGPS to address some of the broadly defined, overarching problems he faced. 

“Quite a few of the things were very vague or abstract, kind of like ‘improve and increase the profile of mental health on this campus’. Which is a laudable task, but I don’t know how I could necessarily measure that.”

Coming into his second term, he said he found it useful to look at the issues and find realistic ways to address these types of issues by focusing on smaller, achievable solutions to existing problems. 

Some of the initiatives he’s seen through this past year include the creation of a parenting room on campus, a ‘Drop and Shop’ initiative to encourage the re-distribution of items during move out and a collaborative project with AMS Social Issues Commissioner Alex Cheung on an out-of-city medical bursary. 

The role of student government on campus is bound to shift further in the coming years. But both the AMS and SGPS executive agreed that the interests of the student body need to remain at the forefront of student politics, and that there’s an inherent interest in setting up a system that encourages student engagement on pressing issues. 

“It’s about prioritizing talking to [students], and making sure they buy into the initiatives that we want,” AMS President Kanivanan Chinniah said. “Because we’re playing the long game that delivers the practical and achievable results that students want, day after day.”

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