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Sometimes small is kind of cool

UFV is a modest university by anyone’s standards, hosting only 14,400 students last year compared to UBC’s attendance of over 60,000. Modesty may be a disparaged trait these days, but a smaller university can be a massive benefit for a student’s education and future career. Students, of all people, would do well to remember that it isn’t the size of a university that matters, but how well you can use it.

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It’s a starless night at 11:30 p.m. when Amy Chiasson, a UFV peace and conflict studies student, arrives in New York City. Outside of the airport hundreds of cabbies holler in Spanish from the roadside; their English-speaking accomplices hover near the glass doors to haggle with her over the price of a ride. Amy, an emerald-eyed, 23-year-old with Métis heritage, is attending a university-sponsored trip to the United Nations headquarters. It’s a dream opportunity for her, one that would have been impossibly competitive had she been attending a larger university.

UFV is a modest university by anyone’s standards, hosting only 14,400 students last year compared to UBC’s attendance of over 60,000. Modesty may be a disparaged trait these days, but a smaller university can be a massive benefit for a student’s education and future career. Students, of all people, would do well to remember that it isn’t the size of a university that matters, but how well you can use it.

UFV’s 2016 financial report shows that revenue from donations, non-government grants, and university contracts equalled $4,469,936 this year, with total revenues amounting to $122 million, $46 million (36 per cent) of which is from student tuition. More UFV students should take advantage of the university’s financial surplus by attending and applying for the grants and extracurricular opportunities. An example of one of these opportunities came out of the recently created peace and conflict studies (PACS) program.

Peace and conflict studies was declared an available major at UFV this year, the first degree of its kind in Western Canada. The program collaborates with community partners such as MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) to offer students an immersive educational experience. MCC sponsored three UFV students to attend the “Politics of Peacekeeping: A Haiti Case Study” conference at United Nations headquarters in New York.

Amy sits in the back of the bobbing cab as it peels through midnight Brooklyn. She is one of the lucky PACS students chosen to attend the UN conference. Old brick buildings hunch overhead. Cabs thread the dim roadways. Every car is a taxi. A subway tram rises out of the ground onto skytrain stilts, clapping up beside the road, and the lights of Manhattan begin seeping through the spaces between each housing complex.

Her hotel is an ancient brick shack, the cheapest in Manhattan, but it’s in the heart of the city, just steps from UN headquarters, the Empire State Building, and Times Square. Amy collects her room key through a hand-sized hole at the reception desk. Her sixth-floor room overlooks a ramshackle rooftop with air conditioning units and chimneys rattling away like an overheated teakettle. Her bed is a single mattress. The communal bathroom is in the hall. It’s a shithole, but a wonderful shithole, permeating with potential for the romantic retelling of an acclaimed humanitarian’s humble beginnings.

That night, as Amy unpacked her bags in New York, David Fawcett, a UFV alumni pursuing a master’s in geography from the University of Guelph, sat down with me at Field House Brewing Company in Abbotsford to speak about university sizes.

“A big university like Guelph is sort of soulless,” says David, swiping beer foam from his tawny moustache. “Most prof’s never see a student’s work. They just lecture and when they’re done, they leave, and T.A’s (teaching assistants) like me are left to mark the papers. I never even see the people whose work I mark.”

David works as a teaching assistant the University of Guelph, a university of approximately 25,000 students. He graduated from UFV with a bachelor of arts in geography. Since then he has spent the summer working with Inuit peoples in Ulukhaktok, NT, researching how climatic (related to climate change) and non-climatic stressors (such as cultural and economic changes) combine to affect subsistence hunting. The information he acquired on the trip will work toward his master’s thesis.

“The best classes I ever had were at UFV,” he said. “It’s so nice to speak with your professors and to have discussions during and after class. The interaction makes a huge difference.”

David’s sentiment is not unfounded. Irenee Beattie and Megan Thiele, professors of sociology at the University of California and San Jose State University, respectively, have done research on the topic of class sizes and educational inequality. They found that larger classes hinder interaction and discussions between students and professors, as well as students and their peers about academic and career matters. A larger class directly correlates to lower student achievement, attendance, and participation. Beattie and Thiele establish student interaction as vital for a fulfilled educational experience, indicating that students who interact with their professors and peers have more successful college / university outcomes. Yin Bai, author of “Effects of class size and attendance policy on university interaction in Taiwan,” illustrates how larger class sizes lower classmate supportiveness, student preparedness, and class participation compared with smaller class sizes.

At UFV, The Cascade’s research of the opinions of students around campus on the issue of class sizes shows clear results. 91 per cent of UFV students feel as though their professors encourage class participation, 86 per cent are comfortable asking questions during class time, 75 per cent actually speak with their professors about class topics, and 91 per cent of UFV students create friendships with their classmates. Conversely, nearly 67 per cent of polled students felt their answers to the previous questions would change if their class size doubled.

Of course the argument for acclaimed universities is undeniable. Large, highly reputable schools claim the world’s greatest intellectuals and innovators as researchers and professors for their university. Compound this with the probability of working alongside future pioneers and leaders in your field of studies. Being a part of something as large and awesome as a historic educational facility that has produced some of your heroes and role models, perhaps even having some of them working their as instructors, will always be unquestionably attractive.

As a creative writing student, the allure of the massive University of British Columbia is tantalizing. Earle Birney, one of Canada’s greatest writers, winner of two Governor General’s Awards in Poetry and author of more than 20 books, established the UBC department of creative writing in 1965. Since then, UBC has become the paramount creative writing institute in Canada. UBC boasts an impressive lineup of renowned authors as instructors, not to mention regular guest lectures by Canadian writing giants such as Naomi Klein and Joseph Boyden. The creative writing program at UBC is highly competitive, accepting 25 students from over 100 applicants each year, according to UBC guidelines for prospective CRWR major.

Of course other universities have similar niches, distinguished programs where competition and notoriety work to ensure a fruitful career. It’s impossible to deny that prestige is the legal tender of universities. But is prestige more important than personal growth? As students, we benefit more as a whole when we prioritize intimate learning and emotional well-being over competition and reputation. Who gives a damn about the tender of a university; what about the currency of your spirit? What about relationships, personalized guidance, and thoughtful classroom discussions; what about the power of feeling free to speak up, to have your voice heard amongst professors and peers and feel with each word and nuanced tone the subtle formation of your own authority? University students are gaining more than facts or textbook jargon, we are acquiring rich clay to construct our character, and the tools to chip off the old, dried out pieces that no longer fit.

Amy Chiasson lamented her last day in New York. She recalled the lacquer and ancient paper musk of the UN Security Council meeting chamber, and watching women in tailored dress suits strut through the expansive marble halls; the clack of cue balls in the underground jazz club where she watched couples drinking cocktails completely oblivious that musicians were howling their souls through brass horns, dying right there on the clapboard stage and being reborn; tramping the Big Apple streets in the 1 a.m. dim, buzzed, laughing to herself that she couldn’t imagine a better nickname than The City That Never Sleeps.

Amy visited the 9 / 11 memorial site in her last hours before catching a cab back to JFK Airport. Memorial pools are imbedded into the foundation of the two tower locations, each lined with bronze panels inscribed with the names of the 3,000 people who died in the attacks. She reads them, the familiar-sounding names, and tears begin to swell and slip from her eyelashes. She lets them straggle down her cheeks. Remember the sting, she tells herself. Remember the gnawing burn in your chest when you decided you would fight this, decided that you would go to war against the hurting in this world, never win, no hope of stopping the suffering, but don your armour nonetheless, and bring this passion to battle with you every day.

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