Undergraduate student trustee debate recap

Candidates field questions about priorities for the role

Four undergraduate trustee candidates fielded questions at Friday's online debate.
Journal File Photo

Undergraduate trustee candidates participated in a debate from the comfort of their homes on Friday evening, due to ongoing concerns about COVID-19.

Livestreamed on Facebook, four candidates, Aidan Turnbull (Comp ’21), Shoshanna Bennett Dwara (ArtSci ’21), Michael Zhang (ArtSci ’21), and Michael Fraser (ArtSci ’21), fielded questions about student engagement and advocacy.


Qualifications and experiences


Secretary of Internal Affairs Lucas Borchenko opened by asking the candidates what experience qualifies them for the role of undergraduate trustee.

Fraser, a new face to the AMS, said his absence of student government experience is an asset.

“I think I can bring an unbiased and completely outsourced approach as someone who’s had the opportunity to see what's been going on in the community to talk to different students across club lines across club borders, to meet with different communities and hear all of their points of view,” he said.

Fraser added he’s performed advocacy work within Queen’s International Affairs Association (QIAA) and a Queen’s Model UN team. “While that’s not 100 per cent relevant to the role, the trustee is based on [undergraduate student] voting and I would say that it shows my ability to advocate for a voice,” he said.

Zhang, co-president of the Queen’s Creative Writing club, echoed the same sentiment as Fraser when stating his experiences for the role.

“I’m also politically brand-new,” he said. “But I also believe that this is a strength, as we see with the rise of multiple new faces across both Canadian and international politics. You don’t need genuine political experience to become a voice for the community.”

While the two candidates categorized their lack of political experience as a strength, Turnbull, president of Queen’s Ski Club, said he’s qualified for the job just by being an undergraduate student.

“I live the same lives as all these other trustee candidates,” he said. “I’m a part of Queen’s Overheard, I read Queen’s U Confessions, [and] I live the undergrad experience as much as anyone.”

Bennett Dwara, the only female candidate, said she wishes to bring a different perspective to the Board of Trustees table.

“In terms of my extracurricular experiences, I am currently a faculty initiatives coordinator on the Queen’s Student Diversity Project, and I will be moving into the role of vice-president this upcoming year,” she said.


Queen’s students and the Board of Trustees


The candidates were asked how they plan to communicate student needs to the Board of Trustees.

Zhang said he will expand his outreach to include email and office hours to receive comments from students. He also said he’ll make minutes from Board meetings accessible to students.

Minutes from the Board of Trustees meetings are publicly available on the Queen’s governance portal.

“I would ensure making some additional documents,” he said. “After every trustee meeting, I will make sure students get a full view of what’s going on [on] campus.” 

In her response, Bennett Dwara said one of her pillars focuses on finding ways to increase student engagement at the undergraduate level. “I really am devoted to ensuring that the undergraduate student body gets a steady presence that will actively participate and commit to any matters discussed,” she said.

Some of the ways she plans to do that include allowing students to consistently contact her both electronically and in person.

“That will foster a direct line of communication,” she said. “That will allow a continuous exchange of information and ideas that really never has been present between undergraduate student body and individuals on the Board of Trustees.”

Fraser, on the other hand, emphasized the need to find unity in different faculties to voice all student opinions to the Board.

“I find after speaking to several students on campus from across faculties that they’re often polarized,” Fraser said. “The majority of undergraduate students didn’t even believe they could be nominated [for AMS positions] because they weren’t [in] Arts and Sciences.”

Finally, Turnbull echoed Zhang and Bennett Dwara, emphasizing the need to be as accessible to students as possible.


Priorities for the role


The debate moved on to asking the candidates which specific matters that directly affect students should be taken to the Board level.

Turnbull said he hopes to tackle the lengthy wait times in mental wellness services. “It is absolutely ridiculous that people who need help in January aren’t able to seek it until March,” he said.

Another interest Turnbull hopes to push forward is climate action and divestment from fossil fuel companies. “We’re the generation of climate change,” he said.

Following, Bennett Dwara said she wants to elevate voices of marginalized communities.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that we’re making decisions for those individuals, when the people present on the Board can’t speak on what those students want or need,” she said.

She added Queen’s policies need to represent its increasingly diverse community. “I believe we need more support for individuals of colour; we need more initiatives that are going to enable them to further their education, through different academic initiatives or mentorship programs.”

Bennett Dwara also said the University needs more actions from females. She brought up the recent sexual violence study and described the results as “out of this world” for Queen’s.

Zhang said mental health is his top priority if elected as the next undergraduate trustee, and his second priority is to advocate for marginalized groups. Zhang said since the COVID-19 outbreak, Chinese students at Queen’s have faced unfair discrimination and racism that should be addressed.

As the final speaker, Fraser addressed all the issues brought up by other candidates as “100 per cent real,” but added that Queen’s is a for-profit organization.

“The Board is there and they’re responsible to their stakeholders and the University has to stay profitable,” he said.

He said his number one goal as the undergraduate trustee is to show how certain financial matters and major decisions can still be aligned with social issues faced by students at the University, pointing to sustainability work as an example.

Students can vote in the undergraduate trustee election from March 24 to 25.   

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