With the 2015-2016 academic year coming to an end, Arthur interviewed Alaine Spiwak, the TCSA president for a second term, about her experience and what issues the TCSA plans to actively address going forward.
Why did you decide to come back and do a second term as president of the TCSA?
This is a question I struggle with. Honestly, I think I knew a month before elections. I just thought about my time in office and the relationships I built not only with the office staff, but with the Trent administration and students as well.
I enjoy doing this job so much. I really did want to do it again. I built so many great relationships that I knew I was in a good position to hit the ground running for a second term. Coming in as a first year executive you spend a lot of your summer preparing and I already had the work done. I thought that would be beneficial to Trent students.
I want to mention for all executive [positions], you make a lot of sacrifices, I had to go part-time [with classes], and you work full time in the office, so it really is a different kind of lifestyle. But I wouldn’t trade this job for the world. I think it the best job at Trent and I would recommend this job for anyone.
Was any part of the decision to come back due to feeling there was unfinished business?
I had this conversation with a lot of people on staff and I think that’s the feeling you get at the end of any term. There’s always more you want to do, something you figured out, something you started, but wanted to finish. There is nothing in particular that comes to mind, but there is a general of there’s more you can do, more you can work on. And you have the experience so that really motivates you do another term.
This year will be your third year as a part of the TCSA, how do you think your previous year as Ethical Standards Commissioner and TCSA president has prepared you for a second term?
So ethical standards commissioner was a great first step, there is a big difference between commissioner and executive. But its great experience, going to board meetings, seeing how they work, planning events, using our budgets, filling out expense forms, building friendships and relationships in the TCSA because a lot of people move on to new roles in the TCSA year to year, but they stay within the TCSA. So I’m always really glad I was a commissioner before jumping to president, it was a big jump. But I’m thankful for the experience and getting to experience the lifestyle of working at a student union.
I was definitely at an advantage because I had the year to build those relationships working with clubs and groups, regional groups and those sorts of things. I definitely had a large connection with students. I have always been involved since my time at Trent, working at the gym and working with clubs and groups. I’ve had that connection with students. It does help that I have those relationships and the fact that we saved $60,000 a year in the transit budget. We were able to eliminate our exam bus schedule because we were able to save so much money. So that’s a fantastic win for students. They don’t have to worry about time their bus is coming for exams. It’s just regular service until the end of the year and that’s a goal we have been trying to reach for a while.
Reporter’s Note: The $60,000 dollars saved that Alaine Spiwak and I are discussing is $60,000 that the TCSA was paying for snow removal on campus. That $60,000 for snow removal is now in Trent University’s parking budget.
Last time we talked you had said that money was being saved, but now you are planning to spend it?
Yes, so we actually came in under budget for transit, so I think it was close to $80,000. We were looking to be under budget and that included the $60,000 so it doesn’t make sense to just save it, that’s not our surplus pool of money, that’s just us being under budget. So we want to be spending as close to zero as possible so that we are utilizing that money for students in the best way we can. So we are spending it on eliminating on exam schedule bussing, some has been allocated to the summer bus schedule and we still have a pool of surplus, which is fantastic.
It actually came up in the debate, a student was concerned about the summer bus schedule. Is that something that is on the TCSA looking into improving?
In the summer it gets tricky, but we don’t have many students here and you can’t put all your money in a service not as many students will be using. We do have students and faculty that use the buses though, so we did expand our West Bank schedule. There used to be large gaps in the schedule, sometimes up to two hours. Now we are changing the West Bank to every 40 minutes. The East Bank schedule is still pretty sparse, in my opinion, for a summer schedule. We have made improvements to it. But we got rid of the exam schedule and are revamping the West Bank summer schedule because that is the most feedback we have gotten from students.
With this year’s campaign, what was your message and how do you think it resonated with students?
I think the message that resonated was student voice, honesty and integrity. It was great that I could show that I worked really hard this year to represent students and be there for them, and to act always in the best intention for students. I think that message is really comforting. I also think we had a great year and I think it’s great to show that to students.
You mentioned student voice and that seems to always on the topic of conversation surrounding the TCSA, how do you think you can better represent student voice?
Student voice is the ultimate goal. Student unions always talk about it; different organizations always talk about the voice of the customer, whether it be students or whomever. It’s a very difficult thing. But I think if you look at what we did this year…we put suggestion boxes around campus. Then there is also just getting out there going to different events, different clubs and groups and just talking to students. You just have to be accessible to people. It’s hard if you are an executive and spend all your time in the office. You are just going to be a name; you have to get yourself out there. In terms of student voice, tabling is important, social media is really important because that’s where most of our interactions with students occur. That’s just today’s day and age.
A constant criticism of the TCSA and student unions at large is that they are party-throwing organization. Obviously as president you see a lot more behind the scenes. How can you make students more aware of what are you doing and break the stigma of party throwers?
It really is a stigma. I get the same phrase, ‘oh isn’t the student union a party throwing organization,’ every year. It’s frustrating being on this side of the table, like you said; we can see all the different things we do. Maybe it’s because we throw an annual party in the parking lot and that’s what people associate us with. But I really want to stress all the different services and advocacy campaigns we do for students. For example our Direct2U health benefits prescription service is number one in Canada, and it has been like that for years. So we do a fantastic health and benefits plan. We run the Trent express bus services through the office and I guarantee most students take the bus every day, plus we have a really great service that we can run every 10 minutes. That’s something to be really proud of.
As far as advocacy goes, I am at every Trent Board of Governors meeting advocating for lower tuition rates or more affordable post-secondary education, for mental health initiatives, for sexual consent on campus, all those different kinds of things. We are here for students in every capacity.
The TCSA has made voting fairly simple. It is online and sent to the Trent e-mail address, yet the turnout is still very small. What can be done to improve voter turnout for TCSA elections?
I find it interesting, so let’s talk about this year’s election. We had 24.3 per cent turnout.
Which, historically is pretty good.
Yes, it is actually well above the national average, as well, in terms of post-secondary elections. Arguably, we are doing well at Trent, and I would actually argue and say our students are really involved. Even if you looked outside the TCSA at the TISA and regional group elections, they have been really well publicized and attended. In the past two years, there has been a spur of student involvement in these kinds of groups, which is amazing. You can always do better, but I would argue we have some really engaged students and that’s fantastic.
As far as student involvement goes, it seems that international students are always engaged. During the TCSA presidential debate, regulation of international student tuition was an important issue and one that separated you from the other candidate in that you promised to continue advocating for regulated increases in international student tuition. How will you be advocating for international students? Do you think there is a chance we can see their tuition increases regulated?
It is interesting now with the new funding from the government about the under $50,000 family income free tuition, you know there is going to be different stipulations as your family income goes up. There are different kinds of grants you can get now, so the cap on the domestic student tuition will be lifted and we will be looking at a completely different situation. I think what’s important is stressing the importance of affordable post-secondary education and what that means for all students, not just domestic students. The core of what I am saying to the Board of Governors is that it’s not fair if domestic student tuition goes up three per cent and you are lacking money in the budget, so international student tuition goes up 10 per cent. There has been no cap on international student tuition and it’s not fair, it’s been like that because they want to be able to fill gaps in their budget.
Students are not cash cows. I don’t care if you are a domestic or international student, you are here, and you are already paying your fair share of tuition into the system. They don’t deserve to be used like that. I also am not trying to be one student speaking for international students, they need to be advocating for themselves and they have been, they have been fantastic.
Shifting a bit now, it was brought up during the election that there are a lot of gender inclusive washrooms around campus, but they may not be well marked. How does the TCSA plan to address this?
The elections again sparked this, we were also talking about our water fountains and how we need to improve them and [indicate where they are]. So, I was going to contact the app developer and see if the map on the app can be used to mark where the different gender inclusive washrooms are, along with water fountains. I think that would be really cool. I don’t know if we have the technology to support this right now, but it could be one tool students could use that is easy and accessible.
Something I am really proud of, working on the Student Centre, is that all the bathrooms are [going to be] gender-inclusive. There will be no gendered washrooms in the Student Centre. That’s going to be really innovative and something that is really special to Trent, so I’m excited for that too.
The Student Centre is has been a contentious issue on campus. Some students are bothered that they have to pay a levy fee for a building they will never use. What do you think about that?
It’s hard, levies will always be that point of contention. What are you paying for? What is this going into? But the example I always use is look at the Athletic Centre. Students pay a levy for the athletic centre and now we get to use this beautiful centre. And its benefiting the university overall.
Unfortunately, $90 is a lot of money. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s only $90. But we are investing into a whole new building and it’s not just a building. It’s a student centre. We got to design it, we got to pick the architecture and we get to dictate what happens in our spaces. There are a ton of student spaces that are going to be there.
The students coming to Trent in the future are going to have this spectacular building, and we’ll be able to come back and see the work we put into it. We are going to have more space. I hear a lot of students complain about Bata Library during it exams, saying it is too full. We can’t complain about it and not doing anything about it. The Student Centre is going to be a great solution for that.
The app was something I heard a bit about during elections, but I wasn’t really aware of it until then. How come?
It was a project looked at by previous executives that never got put into action. But we did a lot of work on it in terms of editing its privacy policies for Trent. We used it for orientation week for students. So we actually had students using the app before they arrived on campus. They were interacting with dons and orientation staff, asking them what they should bring, what to expect, that sort of thing. The reason why I don’t think it got pushed to the larger student body was because we focused it to first-year students. Next year I really want to look at re-vamping the app and promoting it across campus to the whole student body.
What was the actual download rate?
Over 1,500 people have registered. But there may be more [unregistered] users than that.
Are there any campaigns or issues you would like to see spearheaded by the TCSA next year?
I can have ideas and suggestions, but I think it’s important that we realize that it depends on what students want; that’s what we want to pursue.
Thank you for your time, Alaine.