The Students’ Union President oversees their fellow executives and acts as the organization’s main spokesperson. They sit on the Board of Governors, General Faculties Council, and advocates for students at the university level and all levels of government. They’re responsible for a large range of tasks, including overseeing Students’ Union strategy, operations, and employees.
The following interviews have been condensed and simplified for clarity. Full recordings can be heard on SoundCloud.
Donut the Cat
The Gateway: Why are you running?
Marina Banister: I’m running for president because I’ve had the chance to sit on every level of student governance, whether that’s my departmental association, faculty association, Senate, Students’ Council, and the UASU VP (Academic). I’ve gotten a great appreciation for what good student advocacy can do for people. If I’m elected president, I know that I will get that opportunity to implement my ideas outlined in my platform, and that can really make students have a better time on campus and have less to worry about, whether that’s financial need, their experience, or their rights.
Bashir Mohamed: I ran three years ago and back then I wasn’t elected. Since then, I took a lot of time for myself, I worked in the university, government, and became involved in my community. Now I’m back for my last semester and I noticed a lot of the things I cared about back then still haven’t changed. Issues specifically like tuition, the international differential fee, but also smaller things like childcare and how wait times are still up to two years. This is my last semester and I wanted to give it another shot because I think there’s a lot of opportunity with the new government and with a new university administration.
Donut the Cat’s translator: Donut decided to run after seeing the exuberant price of tuna in SUBMart. It is $2.50 for a can of tuna and, frankly, that’s outrageous. So she wants to step in and make a difference.
Give us a brief overview of your platform.
Banister: I’m running on seven main points which can be found in more detail at my website: votemarina.ca. One is implementing a student charter of rights. We have a code of conduct, but we don’t have a charter of rights specific to students at the U of A. So if a student is in a situation where something isn’t going their way, they can point to the students’ charter of rights and say, “As a member of this community this is what I’m entitled to.” The second thing I’m really passionate about is increasing specialized mental health services on campus. I’ve talked to community members, including international students and indigenous students, about barriers to accessing services. Many students have told me the U of A and the Students’ Union do a good job of offering broad things, but we don’t necessarily offer enough specialized support. I want to work with the International Students’ Association to offer more specialized programming to international students, specifically those in the LGBTQ community. I’d also like to work with the Native Studies Students’ Association and the Aboriginal Students’ Council to invite more elders to campus. My last priority is making sure post-secondary is affordable. I want to work with the Vice-President (External) to advocate to the province for more financial aid, scholarships, and bursaries for people from a low-income background.
Mohamed: The general theme is around accessibility — being able to be a student without worrying about too many weights. I guess that’s a buzzword but there are a few key areas I want to focus on. With tuition, it’s important to notice that it’s gone up 360 per cent since 1990 but inflation’ s only gone up 60 per cent. One of the key things I want to push is the Ontario and New Brunswick model, where tuition is fully subsidized for low and middle-income students. On international students, we talk a lot about the differential fee — I think most candidates probably have something about regulating it. I want to go a step further and review the principle behind the true cost of post-secondary. There’s also points on representation and ensuring that there’s international student voices on council. Another major point is childcare. I ran on this previously but I think it’s even more pressing now because the need and because the new government really emphasized childcare. There’s a lot of opportunity there to take advantage of that and ensure progress is being made.
Cat translator: Aside from lowering the price of tuna in SUBMart, Donut is very passionate about rescues. She is a rescue cat from Infinite Woofs Rescue and she would like to see Students’ Union money going towards local animal shelters. Donut would also be an advocate for therapy animals on campus. So having more cats — we see a lot of therapy dogs — but we don’t see many therapy cats. So those are the main pillars of her platform. And more napping spaces on campus.
What is unique about your experience that makes you an ideal candidate?
Banister: I’ve really dedicated my time on campus to serving students. I’ve taken my time and done my due-diligence talking to students one-on-one, but also through my lived experience as someone who’s been involved from day one on campus, including my experience as president of my departmental association, volunteering for orientation, being on the U of A Senate, and now being the Students’ Union VP (Academic). I have an excellent understanding of how the university works internally, within larger society, and how it pertains to the government. That knowledge makes me an ideal candidate for president because on day one, I can start working on the things I was elected to do, and start supporting my vice-presidents. Being a vice-president, and working under I think a great president this year, I’ve really gotten a good understanding of what it takes to support VPs. Having that lived experience, I think I can really put myself in their shoes next year and support them when times get tough, and help them celebrate successes.
Mohamed: I would have to challenge the whole idea of an “ideal candidate.” I think everybody who’s running has the necessary qualifications. Beyond that, I think the most obvious thing is I don’t think there’s really been a non-VP who’s ran for president in the last five years, or at least the last time I ran in 2014. I think that’s the biggest difference, but I don’t think students should feel discouraged because I have the same level of student governance experience as other candidates. I’ve worked in the university as an ombudsperson and I’ve even worked in government. The thing that separates me is I don’t have that expected traditional experience, but beyond that think I have a wide range of experience both in the university and outside the university that will bring a lot perspective to the position. For me the most important thing is to see things in many different ways and I think that’s where I’m at and what makes me different.
Cat translator: As a rescue, Donut did live for about six months as a stray after her previous owners abandoned her. She has a lot of street smarts; living in the cold winter conditions really built her character. She’s very strong and won’t back down if the university or government isn’t responding to student demands.
The President has a seat on the Board of Governors, which annually approves residence rates, meal plans, tuition, and other charges to students. Walk us through what you would do to find what students think of upcoming board motions and how you’d communicate your findings to the board.
Banister: I would first see what motion was coming forward at the board, analyze it, read it, figure out what my own personal perspective was. I would then go to different bodies such as Students’ Council, faculty associations, student groups, I would utilize social media and the Students’ Union newsletter to communicate with students in the most effective ways possible and to get that feedback before it went to the board for a vote. Taking that feedback into consideration really helps formulate what the best way forward is for students. I’m only one person, I don’t have the lived experience of every student on campus and asking students who have those experiences is of utmost importance. For example, if an issue with residence is coming about it’s important to talk to the Residence Halls Association and the representative associations for each residence to make sure that their feedback is heard.
Mohamed: The most important thing is to change the way we do advocacy because the current model is for the executives to do engagement. Besides the emails and the podcasts, we need a more personal connection with students. For example, the only time the Students’ Union really bugs people is during the election. There’s a lot of opportunity to utilize class talks to get that message out. Beyond that, I think also really pushing on issues that directly matter to students. A main reason students are apathetic is because they don’t see issues they care about being reflected by the executives. Beyond that, the most important thing is to show the Board of Governors that I have the support of 30,000 undergraduates. I think that’s going to be our biggest strength and that’s done through engagement, higher election turnouts, but also data, getting surveys from students and seeing what they really think about these issues. Obviously I think most students would oppose increases to the cost of education, but that data driven aspect is really important.
Cat translator: Donut will spend a lot of time engaging with students individually. This summer she’s going to be working towards getting certification as a therapy animal so she will be spending lots of time with students in libraries and classrooms to get student feedback. To communicate with the board, she will she will scratch it out onto the table in the middle of the Board of Governors in the Council Chambers. A permanent mark like that will get the message across.
If elected President, how would you connect with your 7,000 international constituents and how would you advocate on their behalf?
Banister: International students are a huge stakeholder in campus life at the U of A. One of my priorities if elected President is working with the VP (External) to regulate international tuition. I’ve had many conversations in my year as VP (Academic) and in this election time with international students and I’ve heard that regulation and predictability is the most important thing to them. Listening to them, taking their feedback, and applying that in our advocacy is important. I also think the International Students’ Association is a great resource that we should be consulting with. The ISA is not currently a formally-recognized student representative association on campus. I’ve worked this year with Discover Governance to start that journey with them and make them an official student representative association. I feel very confident that I can continue to work with those student leaders and make sure that the International Students’ Association gets recognition to be a very successful advocacy body.
Mohamed: Ever since I’ve been involved in student politics, international students have been a major aspect of how I do things. There are three key areas I’m focusing on. With tuition, I’m advocating for the regulation of that fee but also a review of that fee because the university sees international students as a burden. I think that’s why they offload the entire unsubsidized cost upon them rather than seeing them as a contribution, as there’s this idea that they don’t pay taxes but they do. If they work, they pay tax on that salary, and if they buy stuff here during their four years that all comes back to government. Regarding representation, I think we should follow the Augustana Students’ Association; they have an international student officer on their council and that really brings that international student perspective. I think a lot of the time in Students’ Council, not many really understand the perspective of having to pay three times as much as any domestic student, leave their country, and deal with unpredictable increases. Finally, I think supports are a big aspect with bursaries. As it stands now you can only apply for the bursary once — you can apply a second time but it’s more difficult to get it. We need to remove the cap on bursaries because international tuition can go up maybe two or three times during their degrees. Beyond that, I’ll advocate best for international students because I’ve been saying the same stuff for the past five years and also because my platform has very specific ways to accomplish the things I’m advocating on.
Cat translator: Donut is a Canadian cat so she doesn’t have that lived experience of being an international student, but she really wants to engage directly with students. She’s not in it to promote her own interests, she’s in it to promote the interests of her constituents. So she’s definitely going to spend a lot time with international students.
JOKE: Hypothetical situation: you’re a teacher and you are supervising 32 children in a playground. One “lone wolf” child calls out the class bully for their actions, but then the class bully rallies the rest of the class to pick on the loner. How do you handle this?
Banister: I would sit down with the bully and ask them what’s going on. I know from experience and research that most of the time when children are bullied, something is going on in their life. It’s hard, kids are kids, but finding out why that person is aggressive and trying to explain that you don’t need to be aggressive to other people because you’re experiencing that yourself. After that conversation, I’d talk to the other children about being bystanders and being the person they want to be. These bystanders may be friends with both the person calling out the bully and the bully and they may feel like they’re in a tricky spot, so I’d talk to them about how they don’t need to follow what this one person is saying at the expense of another individual. Lastly, I’d commend the individual who called out the bullying and say, “I’m happy you stood up for yourself and said that that’s unacceptable, and I’m sorry is how the class reacted but this is what we’ve done to mitigate the situation and hopefully it doesn’t happen again.’”
Mohamed: I would stop recess immediately and bring the students into the classroom and talk about the issue and try to work towards some sort of reconciliation. Knowing bullies, they don’t come from a bad place and there’s usually other issues, so I think the best thing would be to bring everyone into a circle and try to find what the root issue is. Obviously it differs if someone was hit but I’m assuming for this situation they were verbal, so in that case, I’d use restorative justice and everyone into a circle and figure out a way to resolve this. Like with any conflict, there’s a misunderstanding or there’s something deeper happening and I think the best way to solve that is to talk about it. Punishment, I don’t really think that’s the best way to discipline youth.
Cat translator: Donut would probably go take a nap and let them go sort it out between for themselves.