The Acadia Students’ Union is already back and busy. In September, as students once again flooded into the town of Wolfville, they were met with a lineup of welcome activities, a new pizza spot in the Student Union Building, and a Homecoming concert in the works. With the semester beginning, many students are getting their first glimpses of the new Acadia Students’ Union executive team in action.
This week I had the chance to meet with Sadie McAlear and learn about the new team of student union executives. Her office is a welcoming space with an open door and upbeat music playing softly in the background. If you look closely you can see the names of past presidents of the Acadia Students’ Union on the wall. While the space is welcoming, it isn’t necessarily accessible. The Student Union Building, familiarly referred to as the SUB, does not have an elevator, and there’s a flight of stairs between the street and the student executive offices (as well as the Athenaeum office).
A lack of accessibility isn’t an issue that’s going to be addressed on its own; it’s something that needs active engagement. When it comes to issues like this, having a student union to voice the needs of students is essential. Sadie explained to me that this kind of advocacy is something that the executive team wants to center on in their approach to student governance.
As Sadie told me: “on an institutional level, municipal, provincial, and federal, [advocacy is] so key, that’s what a union is supposed to do … we do that through advocating for [students’] experience here and making sure that it’s accessible for them and that it’s a good time too.”
Mental health and financial need are two long-term issues that are at the top of the list of priorities according to Sadie. While neither of these issues will ever disappear, working to build a community with better supports and resources for students is an important step in addressing their impact.
Another priority is to address the housing crisis. Many students are feeling the impact of limited housing availability and high prices. It doesn’t help that many students are in vulnerable positions and don’t have the resources or power to address the situation on their own. This is where the union comes in. Finding ways to help students access affordable and safe housing as well as helping them know their rights when dealing with landlords is a goal for the student union. For Sadie, this goal isn’t just about improving the lives of current students, but also about developing a better student environment for years to come.
Advocacy is a wide-reaching goal. There is no clear-cut path for how to best address the needs of the student body, so over the summer, Sadie and the rest of the team began the process of learning how to advocate for students. Part of this process involves making important connections with other student-focused organizations. Sadie specifically highlighted the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and Students Nova Scotia as valuable networks.
Advocacy work is not something that can be wholly centered within the executive team, though. Part of their role is to provide students with tools to be able to advocate for themselves. Students know the issues that they’re facing better than anyone, so having the resources, knowledge, and support to address these problems is essential. When it comes to problems that students cannot address on their own, communication with the student government is key. This may be through emailing the relevant representatives, or by engaging with feedback from students. Members of the campus community should keep an eye out for opportunities to engage directly with the union and share their feedback.
While it is an essential function of the union, advocating for students is only one part of what they do. Over the summer, they also worked to establish a set of values that are designed to guide their plans for the year. Through collaboration, they arrived at six core values, each listed on the wall outside of the offices. Unsurprisingly, advocacy is listed among these values, along with building trust through integrity and transparency, equitable academic and personal support, excellence through innovation and sustainability, open communication and engagement, and creating a memorable experience for students.
The student experience seems to be at the heart of these goals. The actions of the student union play an important role in building a rewarding experience for Acadia students. In such a small, close-knit community, shared experiences and collaboration are what give a place meaning.
At the beginning of September, students had the opportunity to experience a taste of life in Wolfville at the street fair, an event that the ASU worked on with the town of Wolfville. It’s the kind of event that puts all the charm of Wolfville on display. For Sadie, the street fair was important because “small things usually are the things you realize you really love about Wolfville and what makes this such a homey place … [getting those hidden gems] out to students when they first come, and really making them feel like this is a home for them is a big goal in that kind of programming.”
The upcoming Homecoming concert is another part of the ASU programming that students might be looking forward to. Every student is entitled to one free ticket (which can be picked up at the Union Market) for the three-act lineup which will take the stage at President’s Field on October 15th. According to Sadie, the goal is to “give students something to be excited for at the end of the night.”
The new team of student representatives has entered the scene at the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had undeniable implications in their approach to student governance. Students going into their fourth year at Acadia have had a turbulent experience, as they have not had a single academic year without the burden of COVID-19. From rushing home at the dawn of the pandemic to an endless stream of online classes, COVID-19 brought a dramatic shift to what it meant to attend university. Addressing the pandemic was unavoidable, as its impact on the student experience has been significant. Sadie acknowledged that “throughout our time at university [the pandemic has been] what student unions have had to advocate on.”
While it’s still too early to rule out the dangers of COVID-19 and its impacts on the campus, this is the first year that it isn’t the number one issue that needs to be addressed. The new student government now has a unique opportunity to help rebuild a campus community that has been forced apart for two years by the pandemic.
Sadie is conscious of the way the world is opening up for students this year. In her own words: “this year we have a lot more opportunity and new experiences, we’re almost in a rebuilding phase, and hopefully setting the groundwork for next year for whoever does step into our roles.”
The team is entering into a new phase, with their core values in mind. They are currently working on finishing an annual plan that will be available on the ASU website in the coming months. The goals that they are working towards this year are a team effort, not just between the executive team and the staff of the ASU, but with the student body as a whole.
*Some quotes have been edited for clarity.