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SU Elections 2021 Q&A: vice-president (student life)

Meet the two vice-president (student life) candidates hoping to earn your vote.

Events planning, student wellness, and representing students living in residence falls onto the vice-president (student life). While some of it is fun and games, the vice-president (student life) also works closely with Residence Services, and is responsible for organizing internal mental health initiatives.

This year there are two candidates hoping to get students’ votes: Daniela Carbajal, a third-year psychology student and the Augustana councillor on Students’ Council — and Talia Dixon, a third-year student double majoring in women’s and gender studies and political science and an arts councillor for Students’ Council.  

Follow these links to watch their candidates pitch videos: Daniela Carbajal, Talia Dixon.

The following interviews has been condensed and simplified for clarity.

In 1 minute or less, can you tell us why you are running for the position of Students’ Union vice-president (student life)?

Daniela Carbajal: There have been so many issues that have gone unaddressed by the Students’ Union, and this has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of people run for election on their own personal agendas. That’s why a lot of people don’t have trust in the Students’ Union, and you can see it anywhere, both on social media and in person.

I want to run — not on my own personal agenda — but on issues. I have consulted with over 100 team leaders, and my platform is formed by them for them, not on my own. I have a really diverse platform, and I really want to make sure that people gain back trust in the Students’ Union. I want to run for the students.

Talia Dixon: Starting four years ago, I got super involved on campus. From living, working, volunteering, and doing activism work on campus, as well as within Edmonton, I built a community for myself, and I also learned about a lot of issues that were impacting students. I think that previous executives have done a good job, but there are a lot of things that we often shy away from as a Students Union, and we don’t take enough direct action and enough intense action in some cases.

The reason I’m running for this position is because I really want to change things affecting communities I’m a part of, as well as ones that I am not, that I don’t think the SU has addressed fully yet —to really see change across this campus for everyone, regardless of their unique identity. 

Can you briefly and concisely describe your platform?

Carbajal: I have four big points.  For the first one, issues that impact all students, that’s obviously mental health, community, and sexual violence. That includes wanting to create more sense of community. A lot of students have advocated for the creation of the Week of Welcome for upper years. But also continuing the efforts for Indigenous and international students with online classes. I also want to address how the university currently lacks cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity in terms of mental health resources. Also, addressing the ways students in residences who experience sexual violence are disregarded by the university. This year, there’s been a lot of steps forward, but there’s still a lot to be done. 

For Campus Saint-Jean and French accessibility, I want to advocate for a translation of the Students’ Union website, and all the social media posts in French. Also, Bear Tracks should also be translated into French and the Dean of Students should have a French speaking staff member. This is more specific to their campus, but supporting Campus Saint-Jean students in making the gender neutral washroom more accessible. 

For ensuring inclusivity, I’m focused on Indigenous and international students. A lot of the time Indigenous students go unrepresented in the Students’ Union. I want to work with the Students’ Union vice-president (operations and finance) to advocate for action in the Maskwa House of Learning, which the Students’ Union has been very silent on. I want to advocate for more spaces for Muslim students to pray throughout campus. There’s over 3000 Muslim students and they have gone unheard. I want to work with the International Students’ Association (ISA) to create comprehensive and free international student orientations. I want to also support ISA’s effort to obtain an office on campus, which is a continuous struggle they’re going through right now.

Lastly, protecting students in residences. I want to ensure that students are not evicted or without any kind of support system if they’re struggling with their mental health. I also want to address health hazards in residence, like students being served inedible food. I want to create more inclusive dining options. Right now in Lister Hall there’s no halal food option. 

With my platform, my big thing is I want to address issues and not buzzwords. A lot of the time people spend their whole term trying to find out what these issues are, without consultation with students. I also want to make sure consultation does not end when a term begins, which is often what happens and what makes students feel disconnected from the Students’ Union.

Dixon: The first one is addressing sexual assault on campus. Under that point, I have three key points that I think will help to prevent sexual assault, as well as help to support survivors. That includes creating a campus wide sexual assault prevention training program, improving support for survivors, and preventing and responding to sexual assault in residence. 

The second big theme is improving mental health supports on campus. There’s four points around this that I hope will improve our access, as well as make our existing supports actually meaningful for students. The first one is making mental health support culturally supportive and sensitive. The second is advocating to improve counselling and clinical services in accessibility. Addressing mental health in residence is the third one, and then the final one is creating a mental health awareness campaign. 

The third main topic is hosting meaningful events. Under this, I want to host RezFest, as well as other fun events like it. I want to make our events and programming 100 per cent zero waste. And finally, I want to create Aboriginal Awareness Week which is under the Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Committee (ARRC) recommendations. 

The fourth broad theme is fighting for students in residence. The first point is lowering the cost of residence and making it worth students’ money. The second is revolutionising the meal plan. 

The fifth topic is making campus more inclusive, which I think is the point to me that I’m super excited about. This includes four main points, which is increasing childcare options on campus, advocating for the creation of more religious and spiritual spaces, creating a pronoun campaign, and providing sustainable menstrual products on campus. 

I think that it’s important to have a lot of platform points, because for all of them, I have a plan for how I would like to see them accomplished, and I’ve done a lot of research on all of them. I think that this will help to at least make sure that everybody on campus has something within my platform that is for them, and we’ll fight for them to improve campus for everyone, because that’s my main goal.

If school remains online for another year, how will you adapt Week of Welcome (WOW) for an online format?

Carbajal: I’ve had a lot of conversations with student leaders from student groups who wish that they’d have more of a role in WOW. That would include having specific events or just days where they can kind of cater to the demographics that they want to. For example, Chinese students may want to have more of a WOW that’s catered to their specific needs. Right now, WOW is still approached as if everyone is under one umbrella. 

Making sure we’re including all students is very important. I can’t give an umbrella description for adapting online, because if I have some kind of live session, that excludes international students. If I have something recorded, that would exclude students who want to have a live session. But I would also have passive events — not always active events — because again, not everyone can attend them, and there’s people who may have social anxiety and don’t want to have their camera on or may live in a situation where they don’t feel comfortable. So it’s really a mix of everything that I would do.

Dixon: I thought a lot about how we can improve our events, to transfer them into an online environment. I think it’s a lot about just trying to make sure that we are doing educational pieces that are easier to do online, but I also think it’s about trying to use different platforms to host events that help to build community, whether that be music events online, or different community-building events, because people can still be a part of those when they are in their homes. For example, as a part of the Political Science Undergraduate Association executive, we host a bunch of events online, and they’re actually super well attended and help to build community. It’s all just about taking the same events and thinking about how we can transfer them onto an online format.

I do think it’ll be hard though, to replicate the exact same kind of energy that WOW brings for students, but I’ve also thought about how we can host maybe more events in the winter semester of next year, because it’s more likely that fall will be online, and then winter will be in person. This will allow first and second years to actually get that university experience, that they’re currently lacking in my opinion, because they haven’t had the full university experience yet. That’s why I also want to host things like RezFest, as well as the Aboriginal Awareness Week in the winter semester. So, I’ve already planned to do those for then, so that hopefully they can be in person.

Last semester there was a COVID-19 outbreak in one of the university’s residences. How will you help ensure students staying in campus residences are safe?

Carbajal: This is actually an issue that a Residence Association brought up in Lister Hall. They’ve been struggling with how their students don’t feel safe because they have people coming in and out, like Resident Assistants (RAs) that are not from Lister. So, in terms of COVID-19, it’s making sure that only people from Lister are allowed to be there, regardless of whether they’re RAs or not, and really making that community stay in their bubble to ensure that no new people are introducing anything.

We need to listen to the people that are in those residences because they know what’s best, and they have been advocating for more safety protocols. Their calls have been going unaddressed, so we need to work with them to meet each of their needs, to make sure that their residents are safe, and that they’re not living every day in fear of having someone come in that may or may not have COVID-19.

Dixon: There’s a lot to be said about COVID in relation to residence. I think the first thing that I want to flag is dealing with students who are coming from other countries, and they need to quarantine in residence. Right now, it’s a difficult and expensive process and I would really like to work with the university to make sure that that can be a free service provided to international students. I do think it’s important in relation to residence and quarantine.

I think the next thing is also just trying to make sure that we have proper social distancing things in place. And as unfortunate as it is, that these things are enforced to a certain degree within residence and that there is more monitoring within residency, we do need to prioritize students’ health above all else. That means making sure that people are keeping up with social distancing, wearing masks in public spaces, as well as improving all of our cleaning and hygiene protocols to be in line with what the mandates of the government are, but also, to go beyond those if we don’t think that they’re expansive enough. As vice-president (student life) we don’t have direct control over residence, so that will be a lot of advocacy work to make sure that those things happen and continue to happen.

Online learning and the COVID-19 pandemic have been tough for students and many have shared that their mental health is deteriorating. If school continues to be online, how would you address this issue?

Carbajal: This is a little bit of an intricate one. One component would be addressing the fact that recording lectures is a very easy but controversial task at the university right now. For example, at Augustana, our professors already do that, so it’s not about it not being possible, but about professors wanting to do it. I would continue to advocate for that, but also take a collaborative stance because if we attack professors, it’s not really going to do much. We need to collaborate with them because we want to make sure that we’re getting to a point that will benefit students. If we just attack professors, then they’re just going to get defensive, and they’re not going to want to change. 

Additionally, it would be having those resources available for students. Right now there are mental health resources offered by the Students’ Union and the university, but these lack cultural, religious, and lingual diversity. That’s excluding a lot of students like the Black and Muslim students who don’t have a therapist or psychologist they can go to. The university says that university therapists are all trained in cultural diversity, but that does not mean that someone will necessarily understand the issues that specific students go through. 

French students at Campus Saint-Jean don’t have access to resources in their first language. So again, it’s about addressing the fact that the resources that are there are not comprehensive and inclusive and this limits accessibility.

Dixon: I’m super excited that you asked that question. The first thing is, with the mental health awareness campaign, one of the big things that happened this year was that Empower Me got put in place. It’s a service that allows students to access comprehensive mental health supports online, and we pay for it when we pay into our health and dental plan. But the problem is that most students don’t know that it exists, because it’s such a new service, so it’s super underutilized. One of the big things I want to do is have an awareness campaign, centred online, that comes out before people can opt-out of the plan, because once you opt-out, you can’t have this service. This campaign would also make sure people are accessing it, because one of the things I heard a lot from international students was they can’t access counselling and clinical services, but you can access Empower Me in 22 other countries abroad and that really helped a lot of students.

The other thing is working towards making sure that the Peer Support Center is fully equipped to provide supports online, but also that those supports are improved to be culturally inclusive and supportive, so that people can access them online and also have supports regardless of who they are, and wherever they are.

The university has agreed to hire a sexual violence coordinator if students pay for it. How will you work with the university to ensure that this position will actively address the issue of sexual violence on campus?

Carbajal: Going back to sexual violence in residences, it’s not an isolated incident of just one residence going through this, it’s multiple and it’s constantly students who have been sexually assaulted being told that they have to live with it. At the end of the day, there’s nothing being done. Time and time again, the person who assaulted the survivor is allowed to stay there, and that has led to people being scared to leave their rooms because they’re going to encounter their aggressor. So, it’s about ensuring that we work with the person in this position to also address residences, because I don’t think students should be afraid to leave their own home, or even just their own rooms. 

Beyond just addressing the culture around sexual violence, it’s about actually addressing policies and protocols that damage students. I don’t believe students should have to live with their aggressors. These students have been told, if you want to move, you can move, when the aggressor was the one that committed the action. So it’s about making sure that it’s not just words again, we need to actually address these issues actively and the big one will be addressing policies and protocol. 

Dixon: Sexual assault prevention is a huge portion of my platform. I would like to do advocacy towards making sure that the fee for this position can be lowered or completely taken on by the university. But that’s not a central part of my platform. The first thing that I want to do is work with the sexual assault prevention response coordinator to create a campus wide sexual assault prevention training program. This is done in other universities, and has been pretty successful at lowering the amount of sexual assaults that happen on campus. This will be a mandatory sexual assault prevention training program that students and staff need to receive. If we can’t get it to everybody on campus, I would like to start off with a pilot program that focuses on residence and Greek life, because those are two places where we see sexual assaults happening a lot on campus. This kind of program, which focuses on bystander intervention training as well as consent, will be truly effective at helping to reduce the amount of sexual assaults that happen.

The other thing that I really want to do is work with this new position to make sure that RAs are getting the first responder training to sexual assault and abuse. Right now, a lot of RAs don’t get enough training on how to respond to sexual assault on campus, and yet they are first responders. This training will be much more comprehensive so that the RAs feel more competent in dealing with these things and have the support they need, as will the survivors when they go and report it to their RAs or speak with their RAs about it. 

If school remains online for another year, how do you plan to keep students engaged with the campus community?

Carbajal: A lot of student groups I spoke with told me that they feel it’s very hard to reach the students, because there’s really no good way to engage with student groups other than social media. So, I’ve actually started a project with some computer science students, designing a website allowing students to find groups that they would like through a quick quiz to see what their interests are. There are over 400 groups at the university and it’s hard to find what you like if you have no guidance. 

Again, also involving student groups in the WOW to a greater extent, and allowing them to play more of a role in orientations. At the end of the day, student groups are the part of the university that keeps the community going — they’re the ones that are having the events and ensuring that students are engaged. While the Students’ Union can have WOW, its student groups that carry that sense of community throughout the whole year. It’s about making sure that we’re working with student groups, not against them, as it does feel like they’re being worked against sometimes. 

Also, making sure the Students’ Union is communicating with students in a way where they can understand what’s happening. Another reason that students feel so disconnected is there’s a lack of proper communication, they don’t know what’s going on with their own Students’ Council or executives. So it’s about ensuring that we’re communicating. We know there’s a U-Pass referendum coming up, and a lot of people don’t even know that’s a thing right now.

Also, I want to involve more students in what the Students’ Union does. A lot of people also don’t like the Students’ Union for that reason. They don’t involve student groups, and student groups do make up a lot of the student population. 

Dixon:  I think it’s about creating a diversity of events that speak to various communities and trying to come up with new events that I think can be held in either in a socially distanced way, or solely online. For example, with Aboriginal Awareness Week, I spoke with Aboriginal Students’ Council about this, and I think it could be held either in person or online and still be really powerful, and include a good mix of education, as well as fun activities.

And then I would also work towards making sure that we have other things. For example, this is not my platform, but something that I would really like to work on is having a big drag show at the end of Pride Week and actually hiring a professional famous person who does drag. I think that’d be really fun because it’s a different community. So, I would look towards getting different events and not simply trying to take our same events and put them online because I think that what ends up happening. If they’re not going to be the same, there’s going to be a disconnect. So, we need to work on making new events that are specifically created for the online world or for socially distancing.

Fun Question: What social event would you hold for campus post-COVID pandemic if you had an unlimited budget and resources?

Carbajal: The first thing I would do is have prizes. In my position right now, I’m in charge of hosting events for my campus and faculty and people love prizes. I know beer gardens is a popular one, but I know a lot of people love casinos, so having a student casino would be really fun. That was one of the biggest events we had this semester. Students would win free prizes, play with free money, enjoy some time with friends. I would do that. It definitely would be a new thing, diverging from the typical beer gardens and WOW that take place each year.

Dixon: I would say RezFest, because it’s already in my platform. It is like a big concert— a fun event. It is for people in residence, but ideally, people who are not in residence would also come and it’s supposed to be a concert fundraiser. So maybe we can even fundraise for things surrounding COVID-19, which would be really great. But it’s supposed to be mainly just a party event, which I feel like a lot of people who are in first and second year and even in your upper years, are really missing right now. A lot of our educational events and our community-building events are translated online, but not this specific point of life for students. 

Rachel Narvey

Rachel is the Gateway's 2020-21 Staff Reporter. This summer, she will complete her MA program in English and Film studies before returning to the U of A in the fall as an Education student. In her spare time she writes poetry and watches Jeopardy. You can often find her sitting alone, eating a burrito.

Areeha Mahal

Areeha Mahal is The Gateway’s 2020-21 Deputy News Editor and a first-year Biological Sciences student. When she’s not learning the Krebs cycle for the millionth time, Areeha enjoys stargazing, baking pies, and stalking Chris Hadfield on Twitter.

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