Every year, the student population — or at least enough of us to reach quorum — come together to exercise our collective power by electing representatives upon whom we place our dreams for lower tuition and free spaghetti. Those mysterious beings we call ‘student politicians’ are in the spotlight for a year — or two, or three — before falling off our radar forever, leaving behind only new bylaws and old Varsity articles.
What happens to these student politicians after they leave? Do they fade back into the general populace, or are they so irreversibly consumed by their stint in the spotlight that they choose it as a career path?
Unsurprisingly, many of them do end up having careers in similar areas. Former University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) President Nour Alideeb is now the Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O). Many former University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) presidents have also found themselves in relevant career paths after their tenures: 2013–2014 president Munib Sajjad is now the Executive Director at the UTMSU, 2008–2010 president Sandra Hudson was hired as the union’s Executive Director following her presidency, and 2006–2007 president Jen Hassum worked for the Ontario New Democratic Party before moving onto the United Steelworkers, where she currently works.
While there appears to be a trend among previous high-profile student politicians continuing to work within unions or student organizations post-U of T, there are also those who move far away from it. A stint in student politics, like a stint in any career, doesn’t steer a person’s life so much as guide it; while researching the successes of four previous student politicians, this became increasingly clear.
Former UTSU President Ben Coleman left the world of student politics behind and now works in the Government Relations & Philanthropy department of the Toronto International Film Festival. While his line of work now has little to do with student unions, he credits his time in politics as opening him up to new career possibilities.
“It taught me that I like doing things that are exciting. Doing the UTSU… [and] finding so much enjoyment doing things that are difficult and complicated and high-stress and exciting, I think I realized I wanted to do things that were more ambitious.”
A stint in student politics, like a stint in any career, doesn’t steer a person’s life so much as guide it; while researching the successes of four previous student politicians, this became increasingly clear.
Last year’s UTSU President Jasmine Wong Denike has also left student politics and currently works as the Operations Manager of Dropbike, a startup specializing in bike-sharing technology.
When asked whether she would consider getting involved in politics outside of university, Denike said, “I’m never getting into politics [again]. Ever.”
She said that her two years spent in student politics took a toll on her mental health. But despite what Denike described as the “toxicity” of student politics, she does not regret getting involved. “I learned so much and I got to experience so much. The opportunity was fantastic and I would not trade that for a lot of things,” she said.
Coleman’s thoughts were similar: “To say I enjoyed my experience is the wrong word,” he said. “It wasn’t a vacation [but] it was a worthwhile experience.”
Coleman and Denike are not alone in that sentiment. Ryan Gomes, who served as the UTSU’s 2015–2016 Vice-President Internal & Services and as Vice-President Professional Faculties the following year, echoed their statements.
While Gomes has also left the realm of student politics and is now working as a consultant at Deloitte Canada, he is thankful for what he got to do, albeit happy he is no longer involved with student politics.
“I definitely don’t ever regret going into student politics. It gave me a lot of wonderful things in my life… but god I’m glad I’m done with it now. It’s such a toxic headspace. It’s 24/7 toxicity. My life is much better now.”
Indeed, being involved in student politics is not calm, to say the least. Each student who decides to take the job of representing students will invariably experience some hardships, whether those are issues that pop up during the year or are inherited.
Coleman’s year as UTSU President had the latter problem. Before his slate won the 2015 election, he described the UTSU as being stuck in a trend of incumbent slates running unopposed. Gomes, who was a part of Coleman’s slate, portrayed it bluntly as “a students’ union that was essentially on fire.”
“That was the year they spent a lot of time fixing little things that weren’t as flashy or visible,” explained Denike. “I guess you could call it a foundational fixing year because the UTSU’s foundation wasn’t super solid [before that].”
During their time on the UTSU, the three of them worked alongside their team to update the proxy system, run surpluses, and reform the electoral system. Looking back on his time in the union, Coleman is proudest of the “little things, like the fact that after my year clubs could submit funding applications online.” Yet victories, even the small ones, are rarely achieved without some hardships.
Getting involved with the UTSU certainly immersed the three former executives deep into student politics. However, there is no single route for anything in life — other student politicians, like former Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) President Abdullah Shihipar, have had very different experiences. Unlike Denike, Coleman, and Gomes, Shihipar did not get involved in student politics through the UTSU; he served as ASSU President from 2014–2016.
“I think that ASSU’s unique in the sense that it kind of does something that no other student union does on campus,” said Shihipar. “It does academic advocacy… but it’s also very political and provides services just like the UTSU does.”
Shihipar now does communications work for a non-governmental organization and is a freelance writer. When he looks back on his tenure, he describes it in exceedingly positive terms compared to how the UTSU executives described their time in the spotlight. Implementing a fall reading week, advocating for student rights, and changing the university’s syllabus policies were all things that Shihipar looks back on as proud accomplishments. However, it was not all smooth sailing. Shihipar noted some disagreements with his team and circumstances he wishes he had handled differently.
But for the most part, he is satisfied with what he achieved and sees his experience as having a great impact on his life: “Your impact on an organization is minimal within that organization’s history,” he said. “My two years of being president, my four years of being an exec… is like a drop in the bucket. But ASSU’s effect on me as a person is much larger than my effect on it.”
Perhaps this is a truth that can be derived from a student’s time in politics; while their period in the public eye may be over for now, the time they spent working on behalf of students has opened them up to new ideas, experiences, and possibilities.