Letter to a New Student Leader

Congratulations! You’re the new voice for hundreds, or thousands, of students on your campus. Being elected to your students’ union is one of the greatest opportunities you’ll have during your university career. The countless hours you’ll spend attending student events, the late nights you’ll have at the office making plans to see your platform fulfilled, and the challenges you don’t even know are coming yet are going to keep you busier than you’ll know. I’ve spoken with my fellow outgoing student union executive members, and we have some advice for you.

You only have 365 days to leave your mark; it’s time to get to work.

It’s a big transition from being a student who is responsible for getting to class on time to being responsible for a multi-million dollar organization. If you’re breathing into a paper bag, just know that’s a normal reaction, and will subside eventually. Luckily, your student union staff have probably been there for years. They’ll tell you stories and make you laugh about previous student leaders being just as nervous as you. They will answer your questions, and will support you if you let them.

Let them.

The best advice I was given was to build a support network around yourself. During my two years as President of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, I surrounded myself with mentors who became anchors throughout my terms. They were city councillors, community organizers, former student leaders, activists, professors, people I disagreed with, people who agreed with me too often, and students from every college. I wouldn’t have been able to do the job without them. Many knew me and my values before I was elected and held me accountable when they felt I was not being true to those values.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Many students are disconnected from student politics and ballooning egos don’t help that. I’ve heard more than once that “student politics is the nastiest level of politics and gets the least amount done.” Though I’ve been in my fair share of what I now know were pointless fights, I challenge that idea. Give students a reason to resonate with you. Talk with people about their ideas. Don’t underestimate the power of a single conversation. Most importantly, bring change.

You’ll run campaigns around affordability of postsecondary, getting out the vote, and social justice issues, but you won’t be able to do it alone. Bring in students from across all disciplines who are passionate about these issues, but haven’t thought of being involved in the student’s union before. Being the leader doesn’t mean that you wait for people to come to you—it’s the opposite.

What are you hoping to accomplish by this time next year? You were elected because students believed in your ideas. How are you going to see them through? Are you looking for practical and measurable changes or are you looking to spark revolutionary dialogue? We’ve seen the power of radical student mobilization in Quebec, and the power of working with government or university administration to bring about meaningful change for students. There are countless avenues and tactics for you to make a meaningful contribution to the student movement. It’s your role to determine the best way to do it.

Take the summer to get comfortable in your new role. You have a lot of homework to do. University administrators who have been around for years have seen both effective and ineffective student leadership. If you’re going to be successful in championing student interests, you’ll have to show the government and university administration that you’re worth their time. University administrators have such heavy workloads that without some motivation, they may not bother to work on your initiatives. Give them the reason. Show that you’re worth their time.  Understand how your university works.

You’ve been given an opportunity to make meaningful change, to make the university a better place for students. Many people don’t get that chance.

You’ve been given an opportunity to make meaningful change, to make the university a better place for students. Many people don’t get that chance. If you’re as lucky as I have been, you’ll provide a strong voice for your members, meet students who will inspire you with their service to community and university, and hopefully leave the student union a little bit better than what you’re finding today.  

Be proud of your victory, but know that there have been many student leaders before you, and that there will be many after you. This time is precious—don’t waste it. I’m confident leaving the President’s office now knowing that you can, and will, change the landscape of post-secondary education. It’s time to get to work.

Max FineDay is nêhiyaw (Cree) from Sweetgrass First Nation and is serving his second term as the President of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, representing 18,000 undergraduate students.

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