Multiple Staff | Special Report
The presidential forum for the IGNITE student union elections took place on a wintry Wednesday afternoon, and it saw Monica Khosla looking to defend her presidency and current Board Director Margarita Bader challenging it.
There was seating in-person at the election event in the Student Centre at Humber College’s North and Lakeshore Campuses but most of the audience watched it online via IGNITE’s Facebook page.
Technical difficulties often interrupted the speaking but most of it was decipherable.
Link: Elections 2019
Both candidates dove into what made them unique in terms of character, experience and platform — but there was also some overlap in what they said. Both candidates expressed their willingness to work hard and effectively.
Both candidates are not new to IGNITE governance: Margarita Bader was elected to the Board of Directors last year by a wide margin and Monica Khosla won a tight race for president in the same election.
In her opening remarks, Margarita Bader said she wanted to make “really positive changes for all the campuses” as president and specifically pointed out the University of Guelph-Humber.
She also brought up following IGNITE’s strategic plan and putting students first, saying that “anytime there is a decision” she and the other elected executives should ask themselves “is really benefitting the students”.
After she introduced herself as a third year business student, Monica Khosla said “I feel like my work is not done, I feel like a lot can still be done to improve the students experience here on campus”, and also brought up the IGNITE strategic plan.
“I’m someone who’s super outgoing and very hard-working,” Khosla continued, explaining that she often “works out of office” and is so committed to good communication that she responds to inquires from students outside of usual hours.
The IGNITE strategic plan, which was created by using the results of a survey sent out to students last year, was a basis for the questions that came forward by the host to the two candidates.
The topics that were explored included making life on campus more enjoyable and comfortable for students, improving the academic experience, improving health and wellness, exposing students to experiences and people that can enrich their lives and developing skills students can not learn in the classroom.
Bader wants to make use of campus spaces efficiently and noted that “for years now” IGNITE has been trying to open up new spaces for students, but offered a solution in the form of using empty classrooms and a system for knowing if they are in use.
Khosla said she would continue IGNITE’s events to provide the social opportunities for students to connect and stated that she would also continue to look at spaces on campus and how they are being used, maximizing space with careful student input.
Both Bader and Khosla brought up improving accessibility for IGNITE events and around campus: Bader suggested accessibility supports for students when guest speakers come and Khosla said “test runs” are important for accessible spaces.
On the topic of improving the academic experience, Bader said she wants to take surveys on textbook costs she helped carry out on the Board of Directors this school year and “do some good with them next year”.
As president, Bader wants to have more students using free and open textbooks, hold faculty accountable to eliminating non-essential course materials and ensure that any purchases made for courses are absolutely necessary.
“I think it’s time that, as a student union, we step in, we help everyone re-evaluate where we’re at and look for a more digitally-friendly campus,” Bader added, saying she sees a “growing need” for Humber College to take a step in “that digital direction.”
Khosla noted that purchasing course materials “can really add up” and, like Bader, wants to consult with faculty to reduce unnecessary costs and says, if she is re-elected, she will look at alternative methods for textbooks.
“It’s time we look at alternatives so all students can have the same access to education with no problems,” Khosla added.
On health and wellness, Khosla said there is “already a lot of great things” IGNITE does on campus including the “stressbuster”, sip and paint and mix and mingle events that she said “we do a lot”, but noted there is always more “we can do”.
“Health and wellness means something different for everybody,” Khosla said, giving the example that some students may benefit from “more greenery” so they don’t feel like they’re inside walls all the time at school.
If re-elected, the president said she wants to delve into what this means for different groups of students, saying that “at this point, it’s kinda 50/50” and she would seek clarity on more ways to improve health and wellness on campus.
Margarita Bader said that IGNITE “does a good job” with wellness weeks but wants to take it “a step further”, and suggested that the student union could offer a mobile healthy food cart that wanders the halls staffed by an individual that students could talk with and give feedback on campus life.
As well, I think we really need to strengthen our community here at Humber and ensure that we’re helping all students,” Bader continued, adding that IGNITE has a role to play in getting students ready for post-college life.
She also talked about the “high stress times” in post-secondary life when the student union can be there for students, giving the examples of first year’s coming into the college for the first time and during the high-stress midterm season .
On exposing students to experiences and people that can enrich their lives, Khosla cited the IGNITE LinkedIn mobile events where students can get professional photographs taken for free, though it is not clear if she was the executive who initiated that project.
President Khosla also called for more variety for “the types of events” IGNITE has on campus to “hit the interest of a lot of our students”.
When asked for more details on what variety Khosla wanted, she said “let’s look into the type of events students want, maybe the events we are currently putting on don’t reach out to as many students as we think it does, so let’s kinda take our students’ voice and really project it”, and ask students “is this what you’re looking for?”
IGNITE has a variety of events, from the major “Frosh” and “Frost” weeks to the Real Talks that usually feature prominent figures from left-wing media and the hip-hop world.
Khosla wants to continue making the events relevant to as many students as possible, saying “continuous improvement and a loop-for-feedback is important.
“I do think networking events are very important, however, I want to go in a different direction with them,” Bader said next, explaining she wants to shift the focus to “helping students find work” during their last year and right after graduation.
She said this is important especially in the context of the recent cuts made to the Ontario Student Assistance Program that includes eliminating the interest-free six month grace period for paying back loans right afterwards.
To achieve this, Bader wants IGNITE to partner with the Humber College Career Centre to have job fairs that function as more mingle-focused networking events so it is easier for students to connect with organizations and find work.
“If were to be elected as president, I would really want to ensure that we are reaching out to organizations that are interested in hiring college students,” Bader explained, saying that these are the next steps to bring students into Humber and that they are well equipped leaving college as well.
When pressed by the host for more information on networking events, Bader said that currently many job fairs are “very closed off” in regards to what organizations can attend along the lines of an institution’s programs.
Bader brought up her own experience as a Digital Communications major, saying she came into Humber College aware there were no networking events for her relatively newly established program — a problem she aims to fix across the board for all programs that are missing the focused events.
The final topic prepared ahead of time by IGNITE staff was on developing skills students cannot learn in the classroom. On this, both candidates were enthusiastic about empowering students
Bader said the topic was “extremely important” to her, explaining her aim as president would be “to increase the number of workshops that IGNITE provides for students” or “partnering with other departments on campus already hosting similar workshops”.
The president candidate said that when she was putting up campaign posters, students would ask her how she made the graphics for it and she would say “Photoshop” — a skill that not every student gets to learn in the classroom.
The third year suggested workshops for students that would teach them how to take advantage of the programs offered in the computer labs and First Aid training, among other life skills and training programs.
Asked about what workshops would have priority for her as president, Bader said that she would look to maintain variety as Humber is “very diverse” with the many programs it offers — “we definitely need a mix of every single one”, she added.
“A lot of what I do as president is talk to a lot of students”, Khosla said, explaining that many are in their last year and are nervous for the post-graduation life because they “did not get what they thought they would out of their program”.
“This is a problem that is growing and because it’s a growing we need to stop it,” she continued. To stop it, the president wants to “build a framework” to build up “core skills students should be leaving with no matter what their program is”.
Khosla also supported students learning how to use image and graphic editing program Adobe Photoshop before leaving Humber College, saying “yes, you may not use it, but having a basic understanding of it is very, very important.”
She noted that some programs, such as Microsoft Excel, that she learned in her first year of the business program did not come back into regular use later on despite being critical to her field of study.
“If I were to be elected again, I would be right in the middle of those conversations, I would question various stakeholders as to why they are choosing this skill over another skill and really find out what their reasoning is behind choosing a certain skill,” Khosla added, saying she is prepared to ask the “tough questions”.
The host asked both candidates that if there was one generic skill they could offer students before graduation.
Khosla responded with “communication”, saying students “don’t know how to do it well” and that there are fourth year’s who do not know how to “compose a professional email to their professor”.
She believes the informality in student communications comes about because they “just weren’t taught properly” or “maybe wasn’t instilled in you as much as we thought we were doing”. The Avro Post has reached out for clarification.
Khosla also added “computer skills” as a critical asset for students to gain outside the classroom so that they are prepared to use programs like Microsoft Excel in the workplace.
Bader responded with “public speaking” as a critical skill for students to have in varied environments so “that their voices are heard” and they are “able to feel confident and empowered with their decisions” and “live their life to their full potential” in terms of academics, employment and friendships.
Secondly, Bader cited leadership as an outside classroom skill. IGNITE currently offers several leadership-orientated programs ad events such as the regular leadership retreat that students attend.
“Leadership comes in all different types of forms,” Bader added. She said that students do not have to be in front of a camera to be a leader, but it’s about “speaking up for what you believe in” and helping others.
“It’s pushing someone from behind not always leading from the front,” Bader explained.
After over an hour of speaking on the prepared topics, both candidates turned to the audiences in-person and online to answer questions from students and the student press.
The first question came from former Board of Directors candidate Amelia Savoie via Facebook for Monica Khosla and it asked: “Can you please explain and confirm what platform items you promised last year and have fulfilled?”
The president in response said her platform in 2018 concerned accessibility, communication and a third she does not remember.
She noted major strides in accessibility via focus groups held on campus that are leading to much-needed “changes on campus”.
“Regarding communication, I am an open book to an extent. I like to reply diligently to any inquires that come from students,” Khosla said, referencing again her after-hours communication work. Khosla, however, has ignored The Avro Post since the election campaign period a year ago.
Board of Directors candidate Afifa Abbaszadeh asked Bader about her plans to tackle incoming cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program and how she, as president, would find ways to help students set to be more financially burdened.
In response, Bader said that her plan to reduce costs of course materials or extra skills will look to ease financial burdens on students. The skill workshops, however, may or may not be funded by the optional student fees set to hit IGNITE this fall.
Bader was asked by North Campus Vice President Jeremy Alfonso what changes she would make as president to Wellness Week and mental health in general on campus, to which she replied that the student union needs to “go a little beyond peer-to-peer”.
The candidate said she wants to have more opportunities for mental health supports from professionals in the field via outside resources, saying that “let’s get help when we need it”, and build up the campus community.
Bader noted the animals and food on campus as well as people for students to talk to.
The Avro Post’s Emily Werginz asked both candidates how they will ensure IGNITE remains funded in the face of optional students set to come into play for the school year staring this fall amidst distrust in the student union from some students.
President Khosla responded by saying that it is important for students to know that candidates do not know what platform items they will be able to accomplish once they are elected into office — which is why she made no “concrete” promises last year.
However, Khosla did note that it is fair for students to know why a platform item is dropped, something that executives have never explained in response to inquires from The Avro Post after a platform plank is not followed through on.
Khosla said she fights to get an initiative as hard as she can before she receives a “final no”. The Avro Post has requested explanation on where the executives receive a response on platforms from.
“I think promising something to students and then breaking that, not only do you break the promise, but you do break the trust with students,” Khosla explained, saying she has worked hard in various positions on campus to “really, really build that trust with students”.
This year, Khosla said she is “going to go down the path of not promising anything” again this year “except for trying the hardest that I can and really stay in contact with you through a constant form of communication” so that students are updated on the states of platform items.
No executive from the current IGNITE administration has responded to multiple requests for several dropped platform items, including issues central to high-profile at least two campaigns for vice president.
Bader said she believes the executive needs a structure to be able to work more efficiently together.
She said she reached out to other candidates running for the vice president and the Board of Directors across campuses, and notes a lot of overlap in terms of what they are in favour for, which is “very, very good” because then they can play to their different strengths as well when elected.
“As a student union, we have to stick together, we have to be united,” Bader concluded.
Erika Caldwell asked both candidates what they believe the impact of student fees will be on the student union if students decide to opt-out.
Khosla said that if enough students opt-out of funding IGNITE with their fees, then they will notice a decrease in services. The president says she has been trying to tell students the union is “really good for your mental health and well-being”, and that opting out is risky.
“The amount of money that students pay to the fee for IGNITE is so, so little” in comparison to what they get in return from the student union, Bader said. The union supplies events, free tax return help, contests and more.
Bader noted that the some $75 fee paid to IGNITE by students every year is the price of “a sweater” that could be used to get so much more from the union, which operates on a $10 million budget year-to-year.
Healthcare insurance will not be affected at by the optional student fees initiative affecting universities and colleges across the province as it is an “essential” service, as a government official told The Avro Post in January.
However, on Wednesday evening a Board of Directors meeting presentation revealed that it could be that students who already have insurance may be able to opt-out.
The president candidate forum was part of the Mix and Mingle events put on by IGNITE that saw forums for president, vice president and Board of Directors candidates across the three major campuses introduce platforms, answer questions and meet students.
Image of the forum from The Avro Post.
Image of the forum from The Avro Post. Reported by Eli Ridder, Emily Werginz, Melissa Lopez