Interviewing Colten Yamagishi and Eric Martin, SU and LHSA Presidents | By Sansitny Ruth

This week, a slew of changes were announced to Lister residence life at the University of Alberta. Among the changes are restructuring to the floor coordinator positions, with these representatives no longer reporting to the Lister Hall Students’ Association; the creation of a first-year residence beginning in September 2013, where the “classic Lister” towers are comprised almost uniquely of first-year students (with the exception of several upper-year resident assistants); removing Lister floor lounges as areas for the consumption of alcohol.

The Wanderer Online’s Sansitny Ruth led an interview (with Emerson Csorba of The Wanderer Online and the Students’ Union’s Simon Yackulic present as well) on Tuesday July 24, with Students’ Union President  Colten Yamagishi and Lister Hall Students’ Association President Eric Martin. The goal of this interview, as well as the additional interview with Deborah Eerkes of the Dean of Students Office, is to provide a meaningful contribution to the public discussion regarding the Lister issue.

Sansitny: What problems were these changes targeted at? What were they trying to resolve?

Eric: Frank Robinson has really stressed that most of these changes are for health and safety for the residents at Lister.

Colten: For the most part, their concern was the fact that they believed unsafe things were happening in residence. They wanted more control of the residence system and wanted to make sure that the floor coordinators would turn into RAs which would only be accountable to the university. They were unhappy with the joint report to the LHSA and to the university. More or less with any residence you are going to have safety concerns. Any community of 1800 young people, emergencies are going to happen. But the university is using this as their method to crack down on dangerous situations. Do we agree that this is the solution to the problems? Definitely not. But that’s why they have put the changes forward. I’m sure there could be a multitude of other reasons that may go unspoken.

Sansitny: You’ve both been residents of Lister. From a personal perspective, how do you feel about the changes? How do you think they would affect the quality of living at Lister?

Eric: As you said, me and Colten are both residents or ex-residents of Lister, both were floor coordinators in the past. It’s upsetting to see this split. As the LHSA President,  it’s very unfortunate. Me and my executives were heading into this year with really high hopes of strengthening the bond between us and resident services. We actually sent the new ADRL a letter about a week ago expressing, “You know, can we meet? We really want this year to be great.” She never replied, unfortunately and then this news came. It’s really disheartening to see that they’ve almost completely given up on any possibility of this role existing. I believe we feel that we can make it work and unfortunately they have just decided that it can’t. It’s especially frustrating to not be involved in any of the implementation or the designing of the implementation process they have. I think everyone is very frustrated with how we heard about this.

Colten: Personally for me, I find it almost insulting, being a former resident of Lister for three years, being a former floor coordinator, being someone who I think has a very good grasp on residence issues and what’s happening on the ground level for the students who live there. For the university to disrespect the LHSA and the Students’ Union’s judgment by not consulting us on these changes and trying to roll us over, not only is it insulting but it’s straight-up wrong. In a governance system where they are tasked with looking out for the best interests of students and their residences, not talking with us is completely negligent. They’re pushing for ideas and issues that they’ve been proposing for years and that the students’ associations have been consistently denying.

There’s good reasons for arguments why these changes shouldn’t be made. And just because that when they have meetings with us and have consultations on these ideas, that we don’t agree with them and haven’t agreed with them in the past, doesn’t mean that they can ignore this and just roll over the new changes that they want. The worst part of this to me is the fact that not only did they hide it from us but that they told us this was all happening as the news release was coming out. This makes student representatives completely ineffective in that it doesn’t gives us an opportunity to advocate for the students we represent. The reason that we are striking back so hard on this proposal and having so much media attention come towards it, is because we need to make sure whether the university wants us to or not, that our voice is heard and students have representation when big changes are being made in our university.

Emerson: So you guys heard the news just before the press release?

Colten: We met with them at 11:30 after the LHSA. And the news release had come out during the meeting at 12:08 pm. So we were still in the meeting room talking to them. We actually encouraged them not to send out the news release because we thought that there was a lot more discussion that needed to be had before they put it out. We told them that it was an “institutional risk” to put this out. But by the time we left the meeting it was already sent.

Emerson: When did you get notice of the meeting?

Eric: It’s very frustrating for us because we actually got an email on Friday that was asking “Hey could you attend this meeting at 10:30 on Monday, we will be discussing significant issues regarding Lister Center.” So I asked Frank’s secretary, and I asked Frank what the meeting was about, they wouldn’t tell me essentially until the meeting. We basically walked in and just got blindsided by all these changes.

Colten: I got a phone call when I was at New Brunswick on Friday from Frank that said we need to meet with the entire SU exec on Monday morning about Lister, and he couldn’t tell me what it was about at that time and we were blindsided by what happened. It’s really troubling for us because in our second meeting at 2 pm with the acting Provost and some others who weren’t at the initial meeting. They described to us that the reason that it came so quickly was because it was an emergency situation. And the fact that they said they couldn’t tell us about this until the Monday was because they had to make sure that everything was ready and good to go. The fact that they didn’t trust us enough to let us in on those initial meetings is really troubling to us because it’s our students that they’re talking about here. The fact that they called it an emergency I don’t agree with. All of these things have been happening for years in Lister. And just because they were looking to steamroll in all these changes they decided that categorizing it as an emergency situation would give them the veto they need to go past talking to students about this, talking to major university stakeholders, talking to the Board of Governers. It’s outrageous!

Sansitny: How do you perceive these changes will affect the general Lister population?

Eric: Lister has about fifty years of tradition that is very well on the verge of disappearing. As we understand, on September 2013 it’ll be only [a] first-year residence. It’s incredibly hard for a very small group of returners to continue the floor’s tradition, especially when those returners may never have lived in residence, they may never have lived on the floor. They’re hired individuals, they could be from the general student body. I mean, there’s a lot of upset people right now, that these traditions are a huge, huge part of our culture. And they might have just disappeared.

We had elected our floor coordinators: this was a position that was chosen for the students by the students. We continuously have, reports I guess you could call it, that hired staff members have a much more difficult time on their floor with their residents being able to trust them, for that floor coordinator’s impact on the floor. That’s significantly lowered.

Colten: A few other things: the mentorship piece is huge in Lister, that when you come onto a floor as a first-year, there’s numerous second-years that have not only lived in Lister before, but they’ve been students for a full year. When I first moved to my floor, there were students who were second- and third-year, even fourth-years that I was meeting, and that made the transition to university so much easier. To come from Lethbridge knowing very few people who live up here and to find students who are not only in my peer group being first-years as well, but people who had come from the exact same situations, who knew what kinds of problems I would come across, and were able to mentor me into the best ways to handle those situations.

We’re worried that getting rid of alcohol in common areas, that it’s very dangerous for students to be drinking in their rooms where they could be behind the locked door. Something bad could happen. They could over-consume and not have anyone there to see this happen. If you over-consume in the lounge, there’s always going to be people going in and out who will definitely notice you and take care of you. They’re part of your community. They care that you’re ok.

There’s questions about what will happen with community. In Lister, the floor coordinators have huge amounts of respect that comes from their residents, because they’re elected. And because they’re chosen to represent not only the leadership piece from Residence Services, but also to be the leaders as part of the Lister Hall Students’ Association, which has a huge amount of credibility. It’s really troubling to see that they’re just trying to remove this community piece. A lot of students have already sent in messages, [and] incoming students, saying that they’re disappointed, because they were coming to see Lister, from the stories that they’d heard from the LHSA, and how great the community is, and how the floor coordinators help build this community. Especially with the second years.

I think a lot of incoming students are going to be very disappointed about this and the fact that, you know, fifty years of history, culture and community-building are just going out the window with these changes.

Sansitny: Do you feel that this is a problem the general student population should be concerned with, as well?

Colten: For sure. To see the university over-step students on anything, especially an event this significant, is extremely troubling for us, and especially the Students’ Union. If we allow the university to roll us over on an issue like this, what says that they can’t come in and levy new fees without us being aware, to make changes to academic policies and procedures? Any change of this level needs to go through student consultation, needs to go through the Board of Governors, needs to speak to all of the stakeholders involved. Just because people aren’t agreeing, doesn’t mean that you can over-run a decision just because you have power. Being a responsible leader, and being a good governor with the power that the university has, means listening to all of these voices and coming up with the best option. The SU’s here, our job is to defend students and to make sure that their voice is heard.

Their voice wasn’t heard, and we need to make sure that it is. It’s as simple as that. If we set a precedent that the university can roll us over, it’s going to keep happening time and time again. But we have a strong Students’ Union, and one of the best in the country. And the Lister Hall Students’ Association is one of the best residence students’ associations in all of the country. We’re not going to back down on this.

Sansitny: What do you feel like a university is obligated to provide for its students?

Colten: We come to university with the pursuit for academic knowledge, of earning a degree that can get us a future career that we’re looking for. Outside of the academic programs and academia, the university also needs to provide the support and services to make sure that students have a barrier-free education. That is things like the mental health services, health services, counseling, student success center. All of the services that are provided by the Dean of Students Office, the Students’ Union, Residence Services. They need to make sure that we don’t have these barriers to learning, and also the fact that we can have a true university experience. One of the things that makes the University of Alberta a great university, is aside from its academic prowess, that we provide a full student experience, from the first day that you step on campus and go to Orientation. That we’re giving you opportunities to make new friends, to learn from dynamics of your peer group, and learn life lessons. Not just academic lessons. And by removing second years, by holing people up in their rooms, by getting rid of one of the biggest leadership groups on campus and limiting their abilities, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Emerson: How do you think this affects dodgeball?

Eric: I think this greatly, greatly hinders the entire league. I mean, you come onto a floor, and you hear dodgeball… are you serious? Like, isn’t that high school? The floors will set up a practice or something, [and] you go. It’s this incredible bonding experience between the returners and the first-years. Explaining the game, teaching them these techniques, and the way it’s played. You don’t have that now; the entire floor is the first-year. And you have the one RA, or the two RAs, trying to get people pumped-up about something that sounds a little ridiculous to them at first.

It’s unfortunate that in the future we might not have nearly the same number of people involved in something that’s such a huge influence, and something so great and so unique to our residence.

Colten: Second-years are really important to teaching first-years how to play. Schaeffer is going to be an uber-power: they’re going to have all of the returners. When you’re in first-year, nobody’s that great at dodgeball in their first year. Everyone gets so much better in their second. So it shows a great leadership exercise, where second-years take the lead on [dodgeball]. Not only are they better players; they have to make sure that the entire team is contributing.

Eric: They have the right kind of attitude toward dodgeball. A lot of people come in, and they think it’s dumb, or they get way too involved – too aggressive – and are yelling at their teammates when they’re doing something wrong. But, you know, this is a fun experience that can be shared by everyone on that floor. The second-years really help create that mindset.

Colten: And when you come to Lister, some people say that dodgeball is everything to everyone. You get floors of forty people, and thirty-five out of the forty people will be on the dodgeball team. I don’t think that is going to happen if you just give a sign-up sheet to a first-year. They have no idea what it’s all about.

 

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