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Students protest during the ‘Back the Mac’ campaign for higher education in British Columbia, 1963.
May 31, 2017
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Student or Citizen

by Isabel Cullather

Striking a balance between the classroom and the community.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government approved the $6.8 billion construction of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline from a podium on Parliament Hill last fall, Vancouver’s streets erupted in immediate protest. That evening, I sat in the basement of Harbour Centre listening to my Labour Studies professor lecture on the consequences of neoliberalism and the promises of social movement unionism (the very topics this pipeline illuminates), while constantly refreshing Twitter and Facebook for updates on the events materializing right outside the classroom walls. Only after I’d gone home that night, to my secluded residence townhouse tucked away in the tall trees of Burnaby Mountain, did I recognize the irony of the situation. I had realized that this detachment, the disconnect between classroom discussion and street demonstration, represents a drawback that all universities are facing – a flaw that is at the very core of what happened with events like the US election: students are not engaging with course material on a larger scale.

When you’ve got three assignments due Monday, a presentation on Wednesday, and a midterm on Friday, it’s easy to lose sight of the Holy Grail: that after years of paying thousands of dollars, we will leave university with not only a treasured piece of paper but, more importantly, the means and determination to better society. And yet, more often than not, I find myself and my peers slaves to our syllabi -- prioritizing the piece of paper and not the knowledge and experience it symbolizes.

Despite recent spikes like the Black Lives Matter movement or the Women’s March, the decline in student activism is real (for whatever reason) and it is hurting the community just as much as it’s hurting the students. However, there are antidotes. SFU’s Semester in Dialogue, “designed to inspire students with a sense of civic responsibility and encourage their passion for improving society”, is growing in popularity. Another, SFU Public Square, aims “to spark, nurture and restore community connections”, and has lived up to that principle since I joined the team at the advent of the summer. If, like me, you’re disenchanted with the widening gap between academia and community, these organizations are good jumping-off points for those craving a taste of what it’s like to balance student life with citizenhood.

 This rant spawned from the fear that I’d become so absorbed in my assignments and exams to remember how it all fits into a larger context. As 20-somethings, social activism and civic engagement are defining character traits; we have a duty to use our platform, built by those $150 textbooks, to voice our grievances and make changes where we see them needed. We cannot let ourselves forget that all this knowledge we are paying for is power. And with that comes great responsibility.  

Isabel Cullather

Program Intern, SFU Public Square

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