Reflections on “Student Leadership”

DISCLAIMER: This reflection is not on the individuals who work tirelessly to foster community-building, safe and inclusive spaces and respectful language. On the contrary, I greatly value, respect and appreciate the staff that I have worked with during my time at UBC; they have been inspirational, captivating and some have been profoundly life-altering. My concerns and criticism rest, rather, with a system that stresses student leadership but actually leaves students little freedom, power or agency, to which we are all victims.

As a “student leader”, I am constantly and continually celebrated for my contributions to the university. As soon as I signed up to  “give back”  (the trademark slogan of involving yourself with supervisor-led campus involvement) through the Peer Programs/student involvement departments, I could feel myself and my peers being subtly molded into narrow roles that constitute a pre-determined notion of the term “student leader”. This is not to say that I have not felt worthy and important as a student leader on campus, nor that these groups do not do excellent work. It is to say that I have come to both question my own independence within the initiative and also to suspect that there are hidden agendas at play.

Peer Programs is a subset of students services that aims to provide “exceptional peer to peer support to enhance student life and learning”. The programs attempt to cover most aspects of student life, from physical wellness to environmental sustainability. Being a Peer Programs “student leader”, while a great opportunity to meet other students and boost your resume, comes with personal sacrifices of your voice, autonomy and creativity.

On my gazillionth time attending a Peer Programs-wide training day, I began to question and evaluate the information I was receiving. As I watched yet another presentation on a navy blue and white background that dictated official UBC policies in the Whitney typeface, I contemplated my role as an individual and my creative worth in a room of 500 students. Are we really “leaders” if we are receiving and regurgitating information to fit a mold the university has created? Are we really “leaders” when we have no control over the projects we produce? It seems ironic to me that “student leaders” are placed on a pedestal when our contributions are minimal in comparison to those of other students, and when we are given very little freedom to spearhead our own projects without the watchful eye of UBC staff.

For example, a former Wellness Peer remarked that on several occasions she suggested more “edgy” workshop themes such as “non-traditional relationship structures, safety with psychedelics and prescription drugs, or eating-disorders” but her ideas were dismissed because, she feels, the staff-led nature of the system requires the Wellness Centre to be “mundane and sanitized”. She also mentioned that when students came to the centre with genuine mental health concerns they could only refer them to counselling or give “restricted” advice like “eat your veggies and get eight hours sleep a night”.

Another student commented that “student leaders” are given an illusion of creative freedom within their program, only to be later overruled. He and his team spent several weeks planning and preparing a campaign only for their aesthetic, theme and content to be completely changed after staff moderation. This resulted in a project that did not reflect the students’ vision at all, leading them to become disillusioned with their program. This, one student believes, leads to an element of “disproportionate self-congratulation” – not because the intentions of the students and staff are not good, but because the actual impact Peer Programs “student leaders” are allowed to have, is very minimal.

A student in the Equity Ambassadors program commented that while she thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being able to connect with enthusiastic staff members and students, she felt frustrated at the repetitive nature of the programs. Reflecting on the program-wide training days, she said “there was little room for discussion”, and the dialogue that does occur is tailored to garner specific and pre-constructed results. She acknowledges that staff members are very passionate about training us in building respectful communities but feels that systemic and time constraints make for uninspiring sessions.

A few former program members surmised that were students to have actual input in their respective projects, there would be much greater student turnout and response. Most likely, some students commented, the university has a pre-existing vision for a project or event and simply involves students in the creation to save face and increase productivity. Perhaps original intentions were great – peer to peer support is an invaluable resource but the lack of genuine student input has resulted in superficial services that draw little enthusiasm from both the “student leaders” and the rest of the student body.

To give some more context, my reflections have also led me to make comparisons between Peer Program “student leaders” and those involved with AMS clubs and other campus initiatives. Despite the fact that we are so revered as free-thinkers and change-makers, we are among the only group of students whose ideas and actions are monitored and moderated by staff members. While the completely student-run executive team of the UBC Feminist Club or the UBC Intercultural Alliance, for example, develop ideas, create programming, market their brand, promote their ideals, hold events, collaborate, entertain, engage and teach with no direction or input from staff members, “student leaders” whose programs fall into the Centre for Student Involvement follow guidelines, orders and instructions to an extent that their events, services, and programs are not a result of their own creativity but of a university agenda. Are we just machines programmed to fulfil quotas and promote institutional ideals?

The premise of our “leadership” is that we are all indebted to UBC and therefore we must “give back”. This premise comes with little or no recognition of how the university is indebted to the land and its owners, the Coast Salish peoples, as one example. Furthermore, the emphasis on the “give back” mandate is completely at odds with the individualistic paradigm focused on personal achievement and “resume-boosting” that is stressed by the exact same department.

At the aforementioned training workshops, we are constantly reminded of our responsibilities and duties as “student leaders”: how we must be role models and educators to our peers (are they really peers if they are not equal to us?). Though UBC posits itself as a place of innovation, inspiration, and mind, all my experiences have convinced me that the university perpetuates out-dated, inflexible, and traditional conceptions of what leadership looks like.

Leadership is not exclusively about authority and power. Yes, I am a leader with authority and decision-making power in some of my roles at UBC, but as a queer woman of colour, power dynamics usually do not favour me. For me, then, taking a leadership role is a deeply personal endeavour that cannot be taught through slide-shows or long Saturdays spent in Buchanan lecture halls.

One can be a leader in their own right by simply enacting practices that reflect their own values, principles, beliefs and so on in order to create communities where each individual feels respected and their needs are adhered to. In its best form, leadership is personal, diverse and inclusive.

Often, I find myself frustrated at levels of student apathy and therefore urging students to take more control over their surroundings. However, anecdotal evidence has shown me that there are many students willing and excited to make real and radical change as well as have lasting and profound impact on their campus but are increasingly snubbed by bureaucracy.

Therefore, my urge this time is for the university to acknowledge and celebrate the variety of student leaders on campus and allow creative freedom and control to students whose passions lie in student services. UBC, it’s time for you to “give back”.


  • blackstar

    Awesome article.

    I was actually one of the staff who coordinated one of the peer programs at UBC.

    And you know what? You’re right, there really isn’t that much room for creativity. It’s because we can’t afford to be creative.

    Creativity takes risks and especially when the budget that you have for your program is so small, you really can’t afford to take any risks. Not only that, in order to “break the mold”, time and resources need to be spent thinking about it. Again, because most peer programs are underfunded and understaffed, we can’t afford to take too much risk.

    But that’s kind of a bullshit excuse anyways.

    Truth it, a lot of people within UBC hates change. Change is scary. If there is a choice to stick to “what’s been done before”, we do that because we know that it kind of works (until we’re proven catastrophically wrong.) So doing new thing is kind of scary because we don’t know what the result will be and the university has been dealing with enough legal battle already.

    How do you change that?

    You just have to keep trying. The student senator who introduced Credit/D/Fail system actually stayed an extra year she didn’t have to just to make sure that was introduced. It will seem frustrating but unless if you continuously try, not a whole lot can change.