This is the transcript of USC President Pat Whelan’s “State of the USC” speech, delivered on March 27th to students, administrators, employees, and community members. His speech focused on learning as definitive of the student experience. The USC should thus continue to prioritize student learning within the organisation while advocating for a broader definition of learning everywhere at Western. Your Real Education outlines the themes of this speech.
Good morning everyone!
Thank you all so much for coming here today. I know it’s a busy time of the year–final exams, essays, school, applications for next year’s extracurriculars, and, you know…writing speeches. So thanks for taking a break, and coming to engage with your student government.
Today, I want us to talk about learning. Admittedly a broad topic, but I will ask you to allow me to use it as a rhetorical tool to talk about the state of our student government.
As a student government, in past years we have been scared to comment about learning. Maybe not consciously scared, but it was easier not to make a statement. We stuck to big business–retail, food, beverage, mall-making–and insider baseball student politics stuff, playing in our little sandbox we created for ourselves, ignoring the world outside and the decisions being made for us. And we forgot why we are all here–to learn.
Learning is the only thing I can categorically say every student has in common. It connects us, it’s the first question I ask a Tinder match: “what program are you in?” It is the foundation of the community on campus.
This year, as a student government, we woke up. We started talking about our educational experience. We strengthened relationships, we made our voice heard in crucial decisions. We started being a voice for the future of student learning.
I believe that students should expect innovative teaching at our university. Utilising the best researched methods of challenging and educating us and our classmates.
We expect faculty who continue to improve their ability to teach, and a university that offers supports to those educators. This year, the university continued its support of the Teaching Fellows Program, a program the USC has been advocating for and was introduced last year. The program incentivises and recognises great teaching, similar to how we recognize great research. But what it really does is encourages a culture of teaching at our university–even more so it creates a culture of excellent teaching–a culture where faculty will brag about student success, not only publications. This culture will put students top of mind amongst our faculty.
Broader Learning Experience
The conversation about our education is broadening–we know it isn’t just in the classroom. I’m sure you heard it when you arrived here at Western, whether it be from your sophs, club mates, or friends in upper years, about learning outside of the classroom, about the need to “get involved”. Increasingly in Canada, we have taken a long look at the floating, warm-and-fuzzy, hard-to-explain-benefit of “getting involved,” realizing that these experiences are legitimate learning opportunities that are fundamental to a university education. We like to call these “out of the classroom” learning opportunities the broader learning environment or co-curricular experiences.
This has been a huge priority for our USC executive this year, from the election all the way until today. The need for a more deliberate and coordinated approach to the co-curricular experiences of students is a necessity for the future success of our classmates, our university, and our society. I’m going to take some time to talk about the different priorities we think Western should focus on.
First and foremost is the implementation of the Co-Curricular Record. This was something we talked about on our platform: essentially, it is a tool that can record the experiential learning experiences we all have while we are here. Think of it as the other half of the transcript. But even more important than this tool itself is the message it sends to our students. The moment the class of 2018 steps on to this campus in September, they will hear loud and clear that getting involved outside of the classroom is a part of–not an addition to–your education. It is essential to the Western degree.
The Co-Curricular Record encourages community service and volunteerism, which we know have potential to provide high-impact learning opportunities. This kind of service is integral to our culture at Western: it’s nearly the first thing you do when you arrive as a first year, even before you go to class. Think about waking up to go out and Shine for Cystic Fibrosis. We all take part in service to our community. This year’s cohort raised $122,000 for charity during the first week of school.
I’m proud to say the USC is practicing what it preaches. This year, as per our platform, we have introduced the Volunteer Services function of the USC: designed to ensure that every single volunteer at the USC will have meaningful, high-impact experience and that they will leave with skills and lessons that they can take anywhere. We want to ensure that while they are here, they can expect support, training, and appreciation for their service to students.
Entrepreneurship is another beneficial learning opportunity deserving of our attention. At the USC, we built BizInc with our partners in the city to encourage student innovation and entrepreneurship, a place where a student from any faculty, with any skill set, could come with an idea and be supported and coached as their idea became a plan. It was the first of its kind at Western, but this year its grant funding was coming to an end. We have advocated for Western to take on this great learning experience and ensure entrepreneurial support and education will be sustainable and successful on this campus for the long-haul. Future Zuckerburgs take note.
Working as a student is a reality for a lot of us, but we believe that meaningful work can be a learning opportunity–not just a means to an end, but the end itself. We at the USC are striving to make our internship and part-time job opportunities larger and more sophisticated to provide more avenues for learning. Whether it be through the mentorship of interns, the leadership opportunities of supervising the Wave floor, or the ability to learn hard skills in Creative Services or Productions, the USC needs to consider learning a principal outcome of its members, not a happy bonus.
When we were asked to participate in Western’s Strategic Plan, we made a submission targeting student enrichment: international experiences, being involved in research as an undergraduate, a broad internship program, and dozens of unique opportunities for students to learn out of the classroom. Every student should be able to study abroad, every student should try their hand at the research process, every student should have the opportunity to learn in a work environment. Regardless of financial barriers, the option should be there. Our successors will have a duty on your behalf to continue to advocate to ensure these opportunities materialize in the best way for students.
The next step in enriching our broader learning environment is to be deliberate and reflective about how we place value into experiential learning. We are challenging the providers of these opportunities to develop the intended learning outcomes. It’s like asking a professor to write a syllabus, but for the broader learning environment.
Student Support and Access
So if learning is our shared goal, what are the things that get in the way of our potential to learn? We have a shared responsibility to improve access to these opportunities for our classmates, both the in the classroom and the broader learning environment. I’m talking about financial barriers, cultural barriers, and the necessary support and counselling on campus to ensure each and everyone of us is in a place to succeed in this broader world of education.
The cost of education and its strain on students is a reality that can never be passively accepted by a student government, and must instead be constantly re-examined and re-negotiated. This year we advocated to the government to address unfair fees and policies that directly impact costs to Western students. A year ago, I spoke about this on the stage next door during the USC’s presidential debates and today we can say that it’s been accomplished: deferral fees and per-credit tuition have been made more fair for students.
We also need to advocate to ensure the cost of the co-curriculars involvement is similarly fair and accessible. Currently, students pay for nearly the whole cost of these opportunities through ancillary fees versus the half-and-half formula of your tuition–where government pays about half and you pay the other. If we believe that an investment in our students is an investment in our collective future, and if we believe that experiential and broader learning are vital elements of student development, we need to continue to find ways of prioritizing the accessibility of our (broader) education.
Support. This has been an important and ongoing conversation in Western student affairs for decades, but we need to make sure that in its constant use, the word support does not become an old buzzword but instead a renewed promise. We at the USC must continually champion the need for student support–be it academic counselling, career counselling, mental health support, or access to a flu shot. The university is a community, a mini-city, and we need the support that comes with a community that lives, works, and plays here on campus.
We have made huge progress on this front in recent months. The USC has advocated consistently and passionately for the creation of an Associate Vice-President Student Experience in Western’s administration. This position was confirmed in recent weeks and our new “AVPSE” will be hitting the ground running very soon. This person has been given the mandate to have a vision for support and out of the classroom experiences for our students. This person will be someone who will wake up and go to sleep thinking about how to make the “best student experience” a reality for each of us. This leader will need to understand that a student’s wellness should not be a necessary sacrifice for their success, but rather that Western’s success is in ensuring the wellness of its student population. This person will be a natural partner to student government, and I am so proud to have been vocal about the importance of this position. We have a lot of the right pieces at Western, but now we can take those pieces and create a cohesive vision: a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. But it’s also the beginning of a culture change, one where student priorities are always Western’s priorities.
As the USC, we have done and will continue to improve upon the learning available at this university. We will continue to have a significant role in shaping these learning experiences and ensuring they are of the highest quality.
Here’s the thing we know: we know that students want to learn.
Sure, you won’t see a lot of smiles around Weldon come exam time but what I have seen so clearly in recent months is the dedication that students show in bettering themselves and their surroundings.
We are busy here at Western. Busy-ness is not a badge of honor, it’s the baseline. We are all busy, between school work, working part-time to pay for school, keeping up with family and personal commitments, and especially now at the end of March.
What blows me away about working in student government is witnessing, over and over again, that despite the demands of school, work, family(, the Ceeps) is that students choose so consistently and enthusiastically to use their energy and time to give back to their community. Last night, the newly-elected councillors came and passionately debated for what they believed in during a 5-hour council meeting. On Monday, we thanked the leaders of the USC’s (approximately) 200 clubs for their countless hours making our school more vibrant. These people care about their community and they care about their peers–no one is the President of the Knitting Club for a resume! Last week, the leaders of the soph teams spent dozens of hours interviewing candidates because more people wanted to serve as a soph then were needed. On Saturday, this building was bursting at the seams with hundreds of students, staying up all night, raising $62,000 for oncology research.
This is not a lazy generation.
This is a generation that values community, that gives back when they can. It gives me so much hope that this is what is coming out into the #realworld. Western, as a community and institution, is proud, proud that this is a place that rewards that generosity, one that is mature enough to say you can be selfish with your learning, while being selfless with your time.
President Lincoln delivered his most famous speech in under 2 minutes; I’m sorry I couldn’t be so succinct. He also said this: “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.”
What kind of philosophy can you want more than those who are committed to self improvement through learning and the improvement of the community through service for the future leaders of our society?
Role of Student Government
I’m going to take a brief moment to talk about the value of student government, the reason we are all in the room today. The USC has a unique role on campus–we are the only elected voice for students. We are here, not because of senate appointment committees or HR process–we are here because of you. Students gave me their trust for just 12 months: to bring their voices to the table, to listen to those who speak loudly and softly and represent the interest of all 30,000 students.
We have a duty to represent you, but that doesn’t mean we are perfect. We have the power of the people, but that doesn’t mean we always know how to wield it. I said earlier we have been scared to talk about learning in the past, to engage in the conversations surrounding our education. With that trepidation came the lack of scaffolding necessary to represent a constituency the size of ours. But we are getting better.
We need our system of government to be more accountable by having a smaller council with more authority: we have a council bigger than most provincial legislatures and seven times the city council here in London.
We need to continue to re-evaluate the structure of our executive: we have changed that structure to meet the needs of students and we shouldn’t be afraid to continue to modify it.
We need to give our elected representatives the tools and training to succeed, because they too deserve to learn in their role.
I want to take a moment and thank the 74 councillors who worked to represent you in 2013-2014. They brought in a new policy process for the way we advocate, they made tough decisions about where we focus our time and resources, and they pushed the organization to be even more serious about how we budget. Thank you for your time and commitment to representing students.
I have an analogy I use a lot in my job that I think demonstrates what it means to be a good President at the USC. Each student government, through its many intricacies of elected officials, staff, volunteers, and executives, gets a chance to move a bunch of really big rocks a very short distance–every year getting closer and closer to that elusive state of “perfect learning”. I’m speaking metaphorically of course (don’t worry, your student dollars don’t go into acquiring enormous chunks of granite), what I mean is that there are issues and projects that are bigger than any individual or any one year.
What I am proud to say is that with a few of those rocks, we pushed them meters this year. It was a good year, and a strong year.
I promised to unveil the state of the USC, now would seem an appropriate time: it’s strong. It’s stronger than it ever has been and, you know what, I’m going to steal Matt Helfand’s thunder a year in advance and say, “It’ll be stronger next year”. We will always improve in our ability to represent and serve our peers.
Now I’m going to be selfish for a few minutes, just a few, so please indulge me. I’m going to talk about your executive, my team. They are unbelievably dedicated and caring. They are first-ones-in, last-ones-out kind of people.
Adam Smith, our VP Student Events, ran one of the most successful and engaging orientation program ever. He facilitated community building all year through our clubs system and diverse programming.
Jas Irwin, our VP Communications, listened to students, but even more importantly enshrined the need to listen into the USC’s DNA.
Spencer Brown, our VP Finance, brought us, as an organization, to a place where we can be strategic about our growth. He engaged students in the budget in a new way, and laid the groundwork for budget reform here at the USC. (If I do say so, this was the best damn budget ever.)
Amir Eftekarpour, our VP External, fought for the financial accessibility of our university, making paying for Western more fair. He made us a force in the city of London and in the province of Ontario.
Sam Krishnapillai, our VP Internal, put mental wellness on everyone’s agenda, putting forward a comprehensive, coordinated and critical strategy for mental health of our classmates.
Their work may not always make headlines every day, but I can tell you, from a front-row perspective, their impact on the USC and our campus is remarkable.
And we have learned a lot together along the way.
We learned to lead, we learned to follow.
We learned to help, and we learned we can hurt even when we were trying to help.
We learned to put aside personal opinions and differences in order to govern, to be President and Vice-Presidents first.
We learned to be friends.
We learned to listen, to each other, to students, to partners and to staff.
We learned to dig in and we learned to let go.
We learned to prioritize…eventually.
We learned to understand the difference between “I think” and “I feel”
Most importantly, we learned to learn, and we all can, because isn’t that the whole point of university anyway?
Thank you for letting me serve as your President this year. It has been a remarkable privilege and an incredible honor.