By Neale McDevitt
That a McGill student is motivated by the prospect of learning isn’t really news. The interesting part is seeing where that motivation takes each individual.
Take the case of Courtney Ayukawa, the new President of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). If you had told her a few years ago that one day she would be active in student politics, she would have laughed. If you had predicted she would become President of the SSMU, as she did this past spring, the people around her would have laughed.
“In high school [back in Ridgewood, New Jersey], I wasn’t very involved in politics at all. I played the flute fairly competitively – that was something I was really passionate about,” says Ayukawa. “Just the idea that I ran for this position was a really big surprise for my family, let alone winning it.”
Catalyst for political involvement
Ayukawa credits life in McGill residence as having whetted her political appetite. In her first year she was on Gardner Hall, Council. “I loved residence,” says Ayukawa. “It was the place I called home, the place where I made friends and the place where I learned so much about myself… I thought being on Council would be a cool way to get more involved and make some new friends.”
From there, Ayukawa became a Rez Life facilitator, acting as a mentor to freshmen and helping guide them through the ins and outs of being a member of the residence community. Finally, she spent two years as a Floor Fellow at the Royal Victoria College dorm.
It was while serving in the latter capacity that Ayukawa had something of an epiphany, or what Ayukawa calls a “catalyzing moment.”
“One day, I was talking to three women in RVC. All three were international students – one was from Bangladesh, another from Pakistan and another from Vietnam. Very accomplished women,” says Ayukawa. “At home, they were all active in extracurricular activities in their high schools, and although they expressed a desire to assume a leadership position at McGill, when I encouraged them to run for a department or faculty association or for an executive position in a club, they always said ‘I don’t really see myself in that role.’
“In speaking with them about their reluctance, we realized they had a hard time seeing themselves in an executive position because they had never seen very many women in those roles,” says Ayukawa. “It was interesting, because this conversation came quite soon after I realized the three candidates for SSMU President at that time were all men. I thought it would be healthy to diversify that group.”
After four years pouring her time and energy into residence life, the New Jersey native also thought change might be a good thing for her personally. “I had learned so much about myself and others while living in residence, it really was incredible,” says Ayukawa. “But at that point I felt like I had learned as much as I could there. The more I looked into it, the more I thought SSMU would be another great place for me to learn.”
And learn she has. One of the challenges faced by every SSMU executive is the relatively truncated, one-year mandate that places a premium on efficiency – a detail not lost on Ayukawa. “It’s been a really busy summer for the executive team because we have spent much of it working on our projects and trying to get them far enough advanced that we can hit the ground running [come September].”
Ayukawa says another key is continuity from one executive to the next, noting that many members of the SSMU executive ran for their positions because of projects and initiatives that the previous executive had championed. She points to current VP University Affairs, Claire Stewart-Kanigan as a good example of this. “Claire will be looking to implement the SSMU Five-Year Mental Health Plan that was [drafted] by last year’s executive. It is very much about working on already existing projects and pushing them forward,” she says.
Taking up the torch
“There are also a number of permanent staff who been working for SSMU for decades,” says Ayukawa. “When we leave they will still be here and they can work with the incoming executive to brief them and support them as they carry out the initiatives that we pass on.”
One of those initiatives is to help put the SSMU in a more financially sustainable position. This will include holding a referendum in the early fall to see whether students will agree to pay an increased student fee to help cover the cost of the SSMU’s new lease on the Student Centre. “But for that to happen, we have to make a lot of general information available to students because we want to make sure people have the opportunity to make an educated decision,” says Ayukawa.
This dovetails with a broader goal to improve communication between the SSMU executive and the roughly 22,000 undergraduate students on campus. To achieve that, SSMU is doing everything from reviewing the efficiency of their listserv to having a massive, across-campus survey based upon a similar exercise carried out by the University of British Columbia last year.
To make substantial progress in any one of these portfolios, the SSMU executive will have to work closely with, or receive the support of, McGill’s administration. It is a partnership that Ayukawa welcomes. “So far my experience in working with the administration is that they have been exceptionally helpful and friendly and very outgoing,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to working with them this year.”