When I was covering the Students’ Union elections for The Gateway for the first time, I attended a candidates’ forum in Lister Centre…
It was 2016. Vivian Kwan, who was the vice-president (student life) of the University of Alberta’s Students’ Union that year, was moderating the forum. I sat down at one of the cafeteria tables and I heard the guy next to me scoff: “What is she wearing?” Her dress was tight and above the knee. I thought it was a nice dress, and I told him so, but he just rolled his eyes.
As the vice-president (student life) of the Students’ Union, Kwan’s job included advocating to solve campus residence issues, planning events, and supporting student groups. She spent long days voicing the needs of students, as well as going to meetings, committees, and boards. That didn’t seem to mean anything to the guy sitting next to me.
Between 2005 and 2016, 25 per cent of the candidates in SU executive elections were female. This year, there are six women running for executive positions — it’s the most to run in the last 10 years.
This year, researchers from the Students’ Union released a report called “Identity Matters!” that lays out the differences between the experiences of candidates. They surveyed 1,957 undergraduate students, as well as targeted surveying of faculty association executives and councillors. The project also did 15 interviews with Students’ Union executives from the last five years. The researchers tried to uncover how gender, race, sexuality, and the intersections of these identities influence students’ confidence, desire to seek office, and experience as student leaders. They found that gender and race had the largest impact on students in governance, working together and apart to affect students.
It took Kwan a long time before she even felt prepared to run for an executive position in the first place. She was a science councillor and helped run two student life campaigns before putting her own name on the ballot. “It’s kind of funny looking back,” she recalls. “It took me a good two years and a bit to think that, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll look at running for a student executive position.’”
At the time, her hesitancy didn’t seem strange. She used to think she was just nervous to be responsible for 30,000 undergraduates and only wanted to be completely confident in her ability to represent them. However, once she started talking to her male colleagues, she found that confidence didn’t seem to be as much as an issue for them; they would say, “I decided to run because someone said I should.” Their decisions were spontaneous — not calculated.
When Kwan would tell people she was planning to run for the SU, people asked: “Aren’t you worried that you’ll be seen as too aggressive?” They would comment, “Running for (an executive position) is a lot of responsibility, are you sure you’re ready for that?” Even her mother doubted her ability to win.
“There are a lot of factors that plays into the lack of confidence, especially when your closest family would tell you ‘I don’t think you can do it.”
For Kwan, the hurdles didn’t stop after elections night. As a woman of colour in a leadership position, she says she found that the university’s administration didn’t value her opinions and ideas as much as those of her white executive colleagues. “I don’t want to put it that way, but that was the experience I had,” she says. She would go into meetings with senior university administrators where they would ask a question and Kwan would respond, but the administrators would repeat the question to her male colleagues. This happened almost daily.
“Asking your male colleague who’s white to confirm what you said was true was basically insulting,” she says.
Two years later, Kwan now works as an undergraduate program advisor for the Faculty of Science. Being on campus makes her an accessible resource for other leadership-oriented students looking for campaign advice. Women who are considering running in elections will come to her and talk about experiences that made them feel uncomfortable. Such experiences include comments about their clothes, their appearances, and their voices. “But this is normal, right?” they ask her, unsure if they have grounds to be upset. Her answer: what they were feeling was valid.
Questions about how to navigate elections take Kwan back to her 2015 campaign for the vice-president (student life) seat. While on the campaign trail, her team had her redo her poster photos — they said her pants were too tight in her original campaign poster photoshoot. Guys she talked to while campaigning said they’d vote for her because she’s cute. Remembering how normalized these comments were, Kwan tells women who are running their feelings of discomfort “should always be true.”
Cody Bondarchuk was one of Kwan’s colleagues. He was vice-president (operations and finance) in 2015-16 with Kwan. He also ran for president the next year, but lost.
When Bondarchuk talked to me about his experience as a Students’ Union executive, he mostly talked about his allyship and support. As a gay man, he’s experienced his fair share of discrimination, but campus had at least felt like a bit of a bubble. As a candidate, he didn’t feel like his sexuality stood in his way — in fact, there have been many LGBTQ students who have ran in, and won, Students’ Union executive elections. Success in leadership by openly gay men isn’t even limited to the Students’ Union at the U of A: the university’s chancellor, Doug Stollery, and board chair, Michael Phair, are openly gay men.
Bondarchuk’s feelings echo the findings of the “Identity Matters!” report, which found that sexual orientation didn’t significantly affect students’ confidence or desire to seek leadership positions. The report speculates, and Bondarchuk agrees, that this could be because sexual orientation isn’t something as visible as race or gender. Sexual orientation can be hidden or masked — not that it should be. Bondarchuk said he never felt the need to conceal that part of his identity during campaigning or as an executive.
As a candidate, and as an executive, he struggled more with how to be a white male wanting to make the university a more inclusive place for other genders and races. He wanted to talk about equity but didn’t want to pretend or claim to have the answers.
“It was weird to do class talks and try to say, ‘Hey you should elect me because then I can raise women’s voices and find a way to elect more women.’ And the answer would be: Why don’t we just elect more women and not elect you? And that’s a very fair point.”
One thing the “Identity Matters!” report didn’t cover is the experience of international students, who despite making up about 20 per cent of U of A’s student population, have never held an executive position in the Students’ Union. This doesn’t mean international students never run for positions, though. Last year, Rabib Alam, an international student from Bangladesh, was one of three candidates in the vice-president (student life) campaign. It was a race that he ultimately lost.
There are significant roadblocks that keep most international students from running. To keep their study visas, they must be full-time students, which means they need to take at least three courses per semester. For a Students’ Union executive, whose Google calendars are usually a solid block of activity from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every working day, that’s nearly impossible. Most executives take one course per semester, and some even enroll and then drop this single course so that they’re still technically considered a student by administration.
International students sometimes face barriers that can make it harder and more intimidating to connect with students during the campaign period. It’s hard to come off as personable to domestic students, Alam says, when you aren’t perfectly fluent in English, or when you don’t have the same background to refer to. He says he always felt he “vibed” more with people of colour than with white students.
“I don’t know if the other candidates felt that way too, but I did,” he says. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe I’m able to connect with them, though I never really talked about butter chicken with another brown guy,” he laughs.
Alam doesn’t know how the Students’ Union could have helped with this barrier because “it starts at the roots,” he says. If international students arrive at the U of A and don’t feel comfortable leaving their cultural communities, he doesn’t see how their communication skills will improve, or how to get them involved with the general student population. This especially pertains to involvement with something like the SU.
It’s not that international students don’t care — many just choose to focus on their own communities. Alam points to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association elections. “They do a heck of a job,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve seen any other student group put on an election like the CSSA, so that should tell you (that) these guys do care about elections, and they care about democracy. But when it comes to another platform like the Students’ Union where it’s general students as opposed to their Chinese student body, that’s when the equation becomes a bit different.”
For Alam, it was the mental health issues and international student tuition hikes that drove him to become involved with student politics. And although he’s personable and speaks perfect English, he still lost when it came to student governance over and over. In his second year, he ran to be an Engineering Students’ Society executive and lost. He managed a campaign for Students’ Union vice-president (academic), and they lost. And he lost when he ran to be the vice-president (student life). “I would still encourage international students to run,” he says.
“You may not be the most confident about your speech, you may not be the most confident about connecting with someone, but you know what? That’s how you learn. You do it once and you lose, you get up and do it again.”
Most of all, Alam wants to see an international student in an executive position. “They’re the ones that feel the hit at the end of the day,” he says. “They’re the ones who can’t afford a ticket home when these international tuition hikes happen.” With domestic students in charge, Alam says he hasn’t seen changes for international students so far: tuition is still rising, and mental health is still deteriorating.
From 2010 to 2014, female students were in a similar position, with no women being on the Students’ Union’s executive. This meant that 56 per cent of the student population was not represented when it came to gender. In 2014, Navneet Khinda was elected the vice-president (external). She was a self-described “keener” who had ran for Students’ Council in her first year, with the encouragement of older students she’d met through student groups.
After a few years as a councillor, and a year away from Students’ Council, Khinda finally ran for an executive position in her fourth year. For years at this point, people had been asking her to run for the vice-president (external) seat, but she had always said no. She felt like she needed to wait until she was almost perfect to be able to run. “It was 100 per cent true for me that I over-prepared for everything,” she says.
“I wanted to make sure I knew all the facts so that no one could discredit me… I don’t want to say women are doing something wrong — maybe men should prepare more.”
But when Khinda actually started campaigning, she found people focused more on her appearance than her platform. “In elections you get a lot of comments, and it’s so off-hand,” she says. “In my first election, there was a campaign forum or something and someone in the hallways after stopped me and was like, ‘Hey Nav, maybe next time you shouldn’t wear a sleeveless top when you’re on stage.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck.’ That was really jarring… It’s kind of degrading. You put so much effort into research, analysis and your platform, and then someone talks to you about what you look like. It’s really disheartening.”
Khinda won that race, and the next year she was elected Students’ Union president for 2015-16. Holding office came with its own comments. “People would say, ‘Navneet’s too polished, or she’s too rehearsed.’ But if I don’t rehearse or prepare, then I’m unprepared or not professional,” she says. “There are instances where I was called ‘too nice’ and ‘too much of a doormat’ but at the same time ‘way too bossy.’ I’d hear people say, ‘She doesn’t take other’s opinions into account.’ It’s always hot and cold, there’s no in-between. You don’t really get to be a full person.”
As an executive, Khinda had to play multiple roles. She was involved with student governance, but at the same time she was advocating on behalf of students to the university’s administration, as well as the provincial and federal governments. In her early 20s, figuring out how to be respected and heard by senior administrators was a lot of work, but it was vital to doing her job as a student leader.
Bondarchuk, who served as an executive during Khinda’s presidency, told me that “women, and especially women of colour, have to prove so much.”
“It’s so frustrating to see someone like Navneet Khinda, who is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, be talked to in that way, especially at something like the Board of Governors,” he adds. “She could run circles around all of them and was likely the smartest person in that room and she carried it well too. That’s the problem, women are considered rude if they call out sexism, which is stupid obviously.”
The representation of women in the Students’ Union, and in the organization’s elections, has been well-documented. The same can’t be said for racial and sexual minorities. The “Identity Matters!” report is the first study of its kind to try to put together the puzzle pieces of gender, race, and sexuality when it comes to undergraduate student politics. It is just the first step.
There are many barriers to running for an executive position. They may have to do with identity, or fear, or the confines of a student visa. To anyone who feels like they could never be an executive, Khinda says they should ask themselves why they don’t want to run. If it’s because they don’t have the knowledge or network, she encourages them to get involved with a campaign. This glass ceiling, she says, gets baked in at the student politics level and only amplifies as one ascends the political ladder. If you lose, she says, so what? You’ll still learn something. And if you win, that’s even better.
“Someone has to call the shots,” she says. “So why can’t it be you?”