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Photo by Mariah Wilson

Students’ Union, U of C set out to define the ‘student experience’

By Jason Herring, November 24 2017 —

The phrase ‘student experience’ is so overused among the powers that be at the University of Calgary that it’s become a punchline. The words permeate nearly every statement and press release from the school’s administration and has become many student leaders’ favourite buzzword. There’s even a high-level administrator at the university whose job title is “vice-provost student experience.”

This isn’t particularly unusual among Canadian universities. Most of the country’s post-secondaries similarly tout the idea of student experience, largely as a way to affirm to their undergraduates and stakeholders that, yes, they care about the people who pay tuition.

What is unusual, however, is an attempt to articulate the normally abstract concept. But that’s exactly what the U of C Students’ Union did in November, with president Branden Cave drafting a definition of ‘student experience’ to be adopted by the SU. The definition was approved unanimously by Students’ Legislative Council on Nov. 21. Among its 10 bullet points are declarations that student experience is “our resiliency in the face of challenges,” “our acknowledgement and acceptance of everybody” and “our nervous excitement about our future.”

Cave said he was prompted to come up with the definition, written from a student’s perspective, by members of the U of C Board of Governors. He went to SLC and to his own President’s Consultative Task Force to workshop ideas, steps that he says ensured the definition could speak for all students.

“When I first started thinking about it, it would’ve been impossible for me to put anything down on paper,” Cave said. “The key part of the draft is that it’s written from kind of a student perspective. We’re speaking collectively.”

Cave’s draft lines up with the U of C’s definition found in their Eyes High strategy, which says student experience means “connecting students with the University of Calgary in ways that enrich their whole lives and foster a sense of community spirit.” It adds that students “develop the skills, knowledge and personal attributes necessary to become productive citizens and leaders in their chosen fields.”

It makes sense why student experience is a priority for administrators.

They recognize that a big part of recruitment for students coming from outside of Calgary is the non-academic aspects of university. It’s no surprise that the top result of a Google search for ‘University of Calgary student
experience’ is a recruitment page for future students — a far more polished website than the school’s pages for current undergraduates.

Cave recognizes that the need for a definition of student experience indicates some level of dissatisfaction within students’ actual experiences. The U of C has long struggled with student engagement, stemming from the school’s reputation as a commuter campus. Cave acknowledges these deficiencies and says the definition is meant to be aspirational. He adds that he thinks it will help spur tangible change on campus.

“It does say that we’re not where we want to be and that we want it to get better,” he said. “I don’t think any person on campus wouldn’t acknowledge that us being a commuter campus has a massive role to play in the student experience and how people interact. We need to be doing stuff to make sure that students do want to be spending time on campus, that they have a sense of community, that they’re not just going to class and going home.”

Student experience is frequently discussed at the University of Alberta,
according to Marina Banister, the president of the school’s Students’ Union. She said a definition could be helpful, but that her union mainly uses the abstract idea as motivating tool for
advocacy efforts.

“We try to keep the experience that all kinds of students are having on campus front of mind with everything we do,” Banister said.

At the University of Toronto, student experience is still a widely used term, but is less pervasive than in Alberta schools. Like the U of A, the institution hasn’t attempted to codify the phrase. U of T Students’ Union president Mathias Memmel said he thinks defining the term discounts the unique nature of post-secondary experiences.

“I think it’s really quite impersonal,” he said. “The diversity of those student experiences is encapsulated not necessarily in the singular.”

The provincial New Democratic Party is taking a different approach to the concept. The Ministry of Advanced Education said they don’t have a specific definition or mandate for student experience, but that they want to improve certain aspects of the student experience, like mental health and sexual violence prevention. This is starkly different from definitions by the U of C or its SU, which avoid addressing negative aspects of student life entirely. Only a line in Cave’s version, which says student experience involves “growth from overcoming adversity,” mentions negative experiences.

In his Gauntlet interview, Cave stressed that talking about student experience, much like defining it, is difficult because it’s an abstract, intangible thing.

“It’s hard to talk about these high-level ideas, but I think it’s an important acknowledgement that student experience has a lot of room to improve on this campus,” he said.

Cave is right — there is a lot of room for student experience to improve at the U of C. Time will tell whether his definition is the catalyst for that change.

U of C Students’ Union DEFINITION OF STUDENT EXPERIENCE

“We define our Student Experience as:

  • Our autonomy to develop as people, professionals, and leaders in our community;
  • Our ability to explore, take risks, and push boundaries, even if this makes us uncomfortable;
  • Our sense of being valued and respected by administration and the leaders at our institution, which is demonstrated through accountability, caring, and open-mindedness to our needs and values;
  • Our resilience in the face of challenges and growth from overcoming adversity;
  • Our access to the resources and opportunities we require to flourish in school, after graduation and for the rest of our lives;
  • Our interactions with the facilities and environment that surround us every day and welcome us to spend time on our campus;
  • Our sense of belonging to a community of our peers that bring us pride in being students and graduates of the University of Calgary;
  • Our relationships which are cultivated through everyday interactions;
  • Our acknowledgement and acceptance of everybody regardless of who you are or who you love;
  • Our nervous excitement about our future and what exists for us after the University of Calgary.”

UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY EYES HIGH DEFINITION OF STUDENT EXPERIENCE

“What does student experience mean to us?

“It means connecting students with the University of Calgary in ways that enrich their whole lives and foster a sense of community spirit. It means enhancing each student’s learning experience through a combination of outstanding teaching, research and academic support, and facilities. This includes access to extracurricular lifestyle and social activities, leadership and professional development opportunities, exposure to diverse ways of thinking and living, and access to community-based work and volunteer opportunities. It also means students are welcomed into a safe and inclusive environment that allows them to develop the skills, knowledge and personal attributes necessary to become productive citizens and leaders in their chosen fields.”

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