We’re still in the wee hours of the morning on Monday July 23, and both Colten Yamagishi and Eric Martin are moving through their usual morning routines. Colten doesn’t drink coffee, but he’s still fairly exhausted from a recent flight back from New Brunswick. Eric has consumed his coffee – he is bright-eyed and ready to tackle another week. There is nothing unusual about this particular Monday; the Weather Network calls for another day of rain, which has become the norm in Edmonton of late.
But the weather reports predict a little more than mere rain; the evening brings the possibility of tornadoes to the south, and severe storms in the heart of the city. The sky is already overcast. It’s an ominous beginning to the day.
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Over the last two months, Colten has been adjusting to his role as Students’ Union President, an experience that involves a significant amount of travel, a multitude of meetings and periodic floods of stress. All in all, however, he’s handling it well, playing competitive soccer on the side and keeping the small stuff in perspective. In similar fashion, Eric keeps a smile on his face during his first two months as President of the Lister Hall Students’ Association, a job that comes with fifty years of rich tradition. Many of the recent LHSA executives have gone on to play prominent roles in local and provincial politics, and Eric fits the bill.
The two student leaders share much in common, despite their stark difference in appearance and stature. Both Colten and Eric are upper-year students, rapidly approaching convocation. Both have lived in Lister Centre throughout much of their undergraduate degree. Both played a role in the string of successful “Break the Record” dodgeball attempts. And both have experience as floors coordinators, a demanding and elected position, where students represent their peers from a given tower floor. Simply put, floor coordinators work through a fair share of adversity, earning the trust of their peers in the process. They deal with everything from peers in troublesome relationships, to friends on the fringe of failing out and even suicide attempts. It’s an unforgiving job.
* * * * *
Penciled into Colten and Eric’s morning schedules are separate meetings with several University of Alberta Residence Services staff, including the Dean of Students. In the lead-up to the meetings, the student leaders do not know what exactly to expect. They’ve been told that the subject matter is of significant importance, but the details remain unclear. Still, meetings are meetings. As an elected student representative – and as a student association president, at that – meetings come and go, and many of them involve heady subject matter.
This is not to say, however, that a meeting with Residence Services will be as light-hearted as a lunch-time trip to the local Filistix. The history between student advocates and Residence Services is rife with controversy, bitter memories and red faces. In 2008, for instance, Residence Services attempted to remove elections from the four Lister towers. This was met with strong objection from the Residence Halls Association and LHSA, and the proposal was shot down. And only two years ago, in March 2010, students and university staff clashed on the idea of creating dry floors within Lister Center. Indeed, the relationship is as unpredictable and bereft of trust as that of two competitors on Big Brother.
“We, as an executive, were headed into this year with really high hopes, of really strengthening the bond between us and Residence Services,” says Eric. “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.’ And she never replied, unfortunately….”
* * * * *
Fast-forward several hours. It’s thirty minutes past noon on July 23, and the day has taken a turn for the worse. The week now appears to be a long one. August now seems thorny rather than rosy. In fact, one could even say that these two young men’s years have shifted considerably. A tenure-defining day? The verdict is still out.
Over the last three hours, Colten and Eric have learned that the Lister residences on campus are going to change dramatically. Several changes have already taken place. There is plenty of discussion remaining, many questions to be answered, and a Students’ Council meeting on July 24 2012 that is primed for fervent debate and a protracted question period. This is because, over the last three hours, the Students’ Union and LHSA have learned the details behind a newly-branded “First-Year Experience.” Beginning in September 2013, the classic Lister towers – that is Henday, Kelsey and Mackenzie – will become strict first-year residences. By this time, floor coordinators will have been extinct for one year. And no longer will students consume alcohol in floor lounges; instead, Listerites will drink behind closed doors, in the privacy of their dorm rooms.
The changes are dramatic indeed, and they leave Colten and Eric gasping for air.
“Not talking with us is completely negligent,” says Colten. “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.”
In the following twenty-four hours, the issue has garnered significant attention from current students and university alumni, many of whom lived in Lister throughout university. University of Alberta news articles are linked to Facebook, which means that readers’ Facebook comments appear directly below the article. As of Tuesday afternoon, there is well over 500 ‘likes’ on the story, though the terminology is deceiving; the bulk of the responses decry the press release.
By noon, the Students’ Union and LHSA are collaborating to provide their own account of the story. A “Frequently Asked Questions” page is published by the SU, followed by an online petition that goes viral within the Lister community. By the evening of July 23, Listerites are aware of the issue. It is a rapid turnaround indeed, and one that is borne out of necessity.
This all goes on within the Students’ Union Building, a venue that is mostly empty during summer nights, apart from several student staff working longer-than-normal hours. Outside, thunder crashes and a sporadic storm sweeps across campus.
* * * * *
As July 24 wears on, and the 6 pm meeting of Students’ Council approaches, Colten and Eric are working with their respective executives and advocacy teams in order to fully-understand the situation. They are short on sleep, but adrenaline is flowing; weariness is shoved aside for the time being.
It is difficult to determine exactly where to start. Why is it that the changes were announced during the summer semester, rather than in the fall? Surely, the timing is deliberate. Moreover, how is it that a university that prides itself on collegiality and collaboration has done so little to engage its student body in a meaningful discussion? Philosophical questions aside, how will such changes affect the traditions within Lister residences? What happens to dodgeball, the glue that brings many Lister students together?
“Well, Lister has about fifty years of tradition that is very well on the verge of disappearing,” states Eric. “As we mentioned, September 2013, it will only be first-year residents. It’s incredibly hard for a very small group of returners to continue the floors’ traditions, especially when those returners may not have ever lived in residence.”
And what about overturning the changes? In 2008, the Residence Services attempt to dissolve elections failed. Will 2012 follow the same plot-line?
* * * * *
At this point, less than thirty-six hours have passed since the publication of the University of Alberta’s press release, and Colten, Eric and many others are still hard at work. As I conclude this article, the news is still quite unsettling to me. The word “collegiality” appears to have been reduced to empty rhetoric. If students disagree with staff on a particular issue, such as changes opposed to residence life, then that discussion should take place in the open. The two parties might not agree with the final outcome, but at least they can be content knowing that a robust conversation took place. We have seen nothing of the sort on this particular issue.
Moreover, I am left to wonder about the fate of the Lister Dodgeball League. The 2012-2013 academic year could very well be the last time that high-quality dodgeball takes place within the David Tuckey Gym. If dodgeball becomes a first-year fest, then much of the on-court mentorship will fade away. Who will provide the strategy – the dodgeball know-how – that allows plucky floors to outmaneuver more athletic and experienced squads?
And if we take one step back, looking at mentorship in general, where will that come from? Surely not from floor coordinators; they’ll be long-gone. If drinking moves from the open to the privacy of one’s bedroom, then how do friends keep each other accountable? How will one Lister resident know that a peer is on the verge of alcohol poisoning? Will sexual assault increase in Lister, all behind locked doors?
Indeed, there are many questions that must be answered. They are uncomfortable questions, but given the situation, we shouldn’t be fooling ourselves: a storm has hit, and the forecast calls for more lightning and rain.
Emerson is entering his third year in Sciences Politiques at Campus Saint-Jean. He is an avid runner, baseball player, reader and writer.