Born in Vancouver, Carissa Taylor moved to Winnipeg when she was three, and then from the Manitoba capital to Roblin when she was 11. Now 21, she’s completed three years of an arts degree at BU, and is currently president of the Brandon University Students’ Union. It’s a salaried position, for which she receives $20,000 a year and at which she has to work a minimum of 40 hours a week. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD / BRANDON SUN)
So being president sounds like a huge undertaking! Are you finished your degree yet? Why did you take this on?
I just finished my third year of school — I’m an English major with minors in theatre and philosophy — and so I’d be entering my fourth year. But BUSU, because it’s a full-time job, has a stipulation that you can’t take more than four classes a year. So I took one over the spring, and I’ll be taking three more this year and then I’ll have another half-year to go next year.
Why I ran for this position? My first year of university, I didn’t really know much about BUSU and what BUSU did. My second year of university, I got a job at the Students’ Union as office staff and kept that job for two years. I saw the things that the Students’ Union did, thought of ways that it could be improved, and so it came to the point where I wanted to be someone who could direct and implement change. And that’s why I decided to run, because I think we can do amazing things if students get involved and if we can actually represent the things students want.
What do you think it is students want?
There are a lot of things. Students, I think, have changed a lot over the past few years. I think university is now something that’s a necessity for students if they want a decent job in the workforce. And even with a university degree, it doesn’t guarantee you a job. So students have changed a lot and there are people who think we’re apathetic because we’re not necessarily engaged in university life like people were in the past. Students have to work, so they’re not spending a lot of time on campus. But it doesn’t mean we don’t care about issues because we absolutely do. Students have identified more concrete things they’d liked changed — things like residence food and more study space on campus. So they have those tangible concerns. And there are a lot of ways we can improve the university setting. I hate to bring up the strike, but that was one of the things that really engaged students.
Engaged them in a positive or a negative way?
Both ways. They just showed that they really cared about the future of this university. And I think that our university’s very unique in that people are very committed to BU. I know that I love it here and I will always have a special place in my heart for BU, because you do have connections with people that you wouldn’t have at other universities.
Because of its relatively small size?
Because of the size and because we just really have awesome people here. We have great students, we have amazing faculty, we have great administration, and awesome staff, and everybody genuinely cares about students and wants to see students do well. And I think people need to realize how lucky we are here. I have friends who work at other students’ unions in the province and in the country. And they can’t believe that faculty members talk to you outside of class, and that you don’t have write a letter a month ahead of time to request a meeting with a member of the administration.
It’s so different that I don’t think that people who don’t have any perspective other than BU understand how lucky we are here. It’s just amazing!
What is the role of BUSU in the university community?
We provide services to students, so we put out an orientation magazine. We have a food bank, we have a student travel fund, we run clubs on campus — services like that. We also run campaigns, so we have local campaigns as well as campaigns that are run through CFS — the Canadian Federation of Students, of which we are a member. So, for instance, some of the CFS campaigns are No Means No, which focuses on sexual violence, and Education Is A Right, which focuses on education as a fundamental right and having affordable post-secondary education.
We also run local campaigns, so we have campaigns about campus food and improving food on campus. We have campaigns on sustainability. We are in the process — this is kind of a campaign — of coming up with a student rights document that would go through Senate and would outline rights of students. So, for instance, course syllabi should be contracts, and they have legally stood up as contracts across the country, but it’s not something that’s currently in writing.
So we do campaigns, and we also run events. We are currently planning a mental health awareness week which will happen in October, which is something that we’re really looking forward to. And advocacy is the last and, in my mind, most important thing we do. If students have concerns about things that are academically related, or non-academically related, we advocate on their behalf. We let them know the options they have and work with them every step along the way to help them out with that.
On the topic of advocacy, BUSU has representatives on most committees around campus — Senate, Board of Governors, Faculty Council, Curriculum and Academic Planning — we represent students on all those levels.
What do you hope to do down the line once you have your degree?
I don’t know. I’m not very concerned. When I came to university, I thought I was going into education. I don’t think I’m going to anymore. I want to keep an open mind this year because I don’t know how this experience in the Students’ Union will change my perspective and will change the kinds of things I’m interested in. People keep telling me I should be a politician. I could never be a politician because I need more of a separation between work and my personal life. And you don’t get that, even in this role. But this is a year — it’s not my entire life. I think it’s important to have that separation, have more of a balance. So I could never do politics.
So then why did you want be BUSU prez in the first place?
I really care about students. And I really think that I can contribute something to this university. So I saw this as a way to help create some positive change. I have seen some other Students’ Union presidents do a lot of things that I really agreed with, and a lot of things that I didn’t agree with. And I’m not the kind of person to sit back and complain and not come up with any better suggestions. So I thought, ‘If I’m going to criticize a job that other people are doing, let’s see if I can do something that’s better.’
Are you affiliated with any political party?
I was a member of the NDP — I think my political views align most with NDP. But I am more of the kind of person who votes based on the candidate than based on the party.
I was a Jack Layton NDP. He ignited my love of politics. I remember when I was in high school and watching elections on TV, because he was just a great leader and charismatic.
You said you have no political aspirations, yet I know it can get fairly political at the university. Is this just kind of dipping your toe in the water?
The way I approach it is that I try to make sure, in everything I do, that I’m representing students and not representing my own personal interests. And if it means I’m making decisions that I, as an individual, don’t agree with but that students want, then I’m comfortable doing that. I’m trying to engage students as much as I can in the process and in my everyday choices, so that they’re actually being represented rather than me using this as a platform for my own career, because I don’t think I’m an effective leader if that’s my motivation to get into it.
You said Jack Layton ignited your love of politics. What is it about politics that you love?
I just think that it’s important to take an interest in the people who are going to be leaders, and to hold people accountable. That’s one of the things that can kind of get me in trouble, because I hold people accountable. Because I think if you’re making promises, you should be able to follow through on them. I’m not the kind of person who makes promises I don’t intend to keep. So I think that it’s important to hold people accountable. And I suppose, more than anything, that’s why I love politics. I’m not really into the scandals — that doesn’t interest me. And I’m not really a fan of criticizing people’s leadership because of what they do as individuals, but rather holding them accountable for the decisions that they’re making that affect everyone.
We often hear people say that the youth of today are not engaged in politics — they don’t seem to feel politics is relevant to them? What’s your take on that?
I think that university is an interesting time, because students come here and they’re individualizing themselves — they’re separating themselves from their parents and what their parents thought. I think that now is a time when students are coming into their own and forming their own ideas. I don’t think they’re any less engaged — I just think that it’s a time where they’re finding out who they are and what they really believe in, and trying to think of the global context rather than their own individual experiences.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 15, 2012