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Student leadership breaks down borders

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By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Photos by Mohammed Najim

Print Edition: May 6, 2015

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Every year, Student Life organizes a leadership retreat to develop the next set of student leaders, offering students new tools to accomplish their goals and helping them network with other members of the UFV community. But this year the retreat broke new ground: Student Life teamed up with UFV International to offer a retreat titled Leadership Without Borders, specifically focused on breaking down the cultural barriers between international and domestic students.

Held at Stillwood Camp and Conference Centre in rural Chilliwack from April 29 to May 2, the retreat included workshops, discussion groups, and team-building exercises guided by the Student Engagement Team.

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“[This year’s retreat] was done specifically in partnership with UFV International,” said Martin Kelly, student engagement co-ordinator at Student Life, adding that the Student Engagement Team had a bigger hand in planning the retreat’s content than in previous years. This was the first time the retreat featured a second full day of activities and workshops, adding up to four days total, and it offered three separate keynote presentations from three UFV speakers: Chelsey Laird, Sidrah Ahmad, and Kyle Baillie. In addition, 30 students were selected from the large pool of applicants — 10 more than in previous years.

“This has been the most ambitious retreat we’ve had over the last four or five years,” said Derek Ward-Hall, Student Life assistant.

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Chelsey Laird, global engagement co-ordinator with UFV International, noted that UFV’s population of international students is increasing — and that many of them are highly involved in the UFV community.

“The percentage of international students engaging on campus is significantly high,” she said. “They don’t have the connections that domestic students have, so they’re in a unique position to build community at UFV. They have to in order to survive.”

Laird said the idea for Student Life and International to team up originally came from a student who was connected with both worlds: Sunny Kim, a third-year criminology student who works with Student Life and also volunteers with International. Kim had attended several of Student Life’s previous leadership retreats, but noticed something was missing.

“Two years ago, I was the only international student at the retreat,” Kim says. “The next year there were still only two or three.”

When he saw the final group photo from last year’s retreat on Facebook, Kim saw an opportunity for change.

“I saw that photo and something clicked. Why weren’t there more international students? Why isn’t there more engagement?” he said. “The retreat taught me so much, and I wanted international students to get the same experience.”

He approached Ward-Hall and Kelly at Student Life with the idea to collaborate with International. Thanks to the collaboration, several of the students attending the retreat were international students, and many more came from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

“One of the things I like the most is getting out of these titles of ‘international’ and ‘domestic,’” said Ward-Hall. “Everyone comes together from different backgrounds.”

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Laird led a workshop on identifying different styles of conflict. Each culture handles conflict differently, she explained, and the methods of communication vary. In the West, for example, we value direct and unemotional communication — but in other cultures, conflict may be handled by becoming outwardly upset, or by expressing a vague, indirect frustration that is never aimed at a particular individual or act.

“It can lead to miscommunication,” Laird said. “One person might think they’re being really clear, but it might be confusing to someone from a different culture.”

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Even though Canada is often thought of as a more inclusive, multicultural country, racism can arise — often as a result of unfair assumptions about others.

Laird led small groups of students through an exercise she calls “unpacking the invisible backpack”: taking turns revealing things about yourself that aren’t apparent on the surface. At first it was awkward, with students uncertainly sharing small details about their heritage or their jobs — but gradually other details began to emerge, including painful details about their families, relationships, and fears.

Laird said that the invisible backpack exercise is one of her favourites.

“People are able to decide what they want to share,” she explained. “It gives them power over that, so it makes them feel comfortable getting closer.”

Sidrah Ahmad, co-ordinator of student transitions at Student Life, gave a keynote presentation on the concept of “image-text”: the outward perception of oneself that is presented, purposely or not, to the world, including inferences about one’s race, religion, economic status, gender, sexuality, ability, and other traits — and whether it’s accurate or not, it can affect every interaction one has.

“There are going to be borders, and the key piece is to understand and recognize them and to have the skills to break them down,” said Ahmad.

Ahmad, who wears a hijab, recounted a story of being confronted by a woman who was offended to see her wearing the head-scarf in Canada. Instead of responding to the woman’s aggression in kind, Ahmad saw a teaching opportunity, and explained to the stranger that she chooses to wear it.

“That conversation could have been totally awkward, but instead we had the chance to build new knowledge,” she said.

In terms of the relationship between international students and domestic students, image-texts based on race can play a powerful role in dividing the community. Through Ahmad’s workshop, students learned about how to identify their own image-texts and the image-texts they perceive from others — recognizing when they were making assumptions, and how those assumptions affect others.

Student Mohammed Najim, who attended the retreat for the fourth year in a row, said that it was activities like these that really broke down the barriers between students.

“I came in with certain ideas of different people, and those images were changed 180 degrees in those four days,” he said.

Ahmad emphasized the importance of recognizing image-texts and learning how to recognize the common humanity beneath them.

“By breaking these borders down, we can become better leaders, and better people overall,” she said.

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Kim, who is also SUS’s equalities officer, hosted a brainstorming workshop on how to improve equality at UFV, while VP external Sukhi Brar hosted a similar session on how to improve the Weeks of Welcome celebration that SUS holds every September.
Najim said it was during the session with Kim that the borders between students were truly broken.

“It was during Sunny’s workshop that it all came together for me, when all of the domestic and international students agreed that everything should be equal for everyone,” he said.

At the end of the retreat, each group presented their ideas in a Dragon’s Den-style contest, judged by Brar, Kim, Ward-Hall, and Kelly. The winning idea was a presentation on promoting equity rather than equality on campus, emphasizing that instead of giving everyone the same treatment, disadvantaged groups require special assistance to reach the same level as others.

Other activities included a workshop on battling negativity in leadership led by Ward-Hall, and a presentation from Kyle Baillie, director of Student Life and engagement, on how to start a project and get past hurdles and barriers to accomplish goals, especially in a bureaucratic environment like a university.

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Besides the workshops and discussion groups, the retreat offered team-building activities such as archery, a climbing wall, low ropes, campfires, icebreakers, and a two-hour Amazing Race-style challenge, which was painstakingly organized by the Student Engagement Team.

“I think people really enjoyed it,” said Kelly. “I know a lot of networking gets done, which is critically important on a commuter campus.

“I think what I saw was people improved personally. I don’t know what goes on in their heads, but personally, I think they developed.”

Ward-Hall agreed that he was excited about how successful the collaboration between Student Life and International was. “We were a little nervous because of adding the fourth day and the Amazing Race, but overall I’m ecstatic about how it turned out,” he said.

“Not every day do I get to do stuff that I think actually will make a difference,” said Kelly. “I’m supposed to engage students and benefit students, and I actually feel like that has happened.”

With files from Megan Lambert.

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