On Campus

Applied lessons from student politics

The skills you learn in student organizations apply to the "real" world also

There’s a story I like to tell about how I took what I learned from my students’ union and used it in the wider world. Years ago I registered my own website. That’s jeffrybak.ca, which I still use today. And then I started getting messages from some organization called CIRA (the Canadian Internet Registration Authority) which I had apparently joined by registering my dot-ca website.

This happens all the time. We are all members of far more things than we typically think about. Ever buy anything at Mountain Equipment Coop? You’re a member, if so. They can’t sell to you otherwise. But we often ignore the many organizations we belong to – especially the ones we joined involuntarily. That’s why voter turn out at student elections is so low. I’d wish it were higher, of course. Perhaps we could aim for 20% instead of the typical 5-10%. But we’ll never get everybody because let’s face it, students don’t show up at a university to join their students’ union. It’s not the goal; it’s a side effect.

That was the same with CIRA, for me. I wanted a dot-ca domain and ended up a member of this organization. Then they sent out notice of a general meeting, which happened to be in Toronto, and bribed members with free USB keys and a decent buffet lunch at the Royal York to attend. Sound unlikely? If you’ve ever been to a general meeting of your union, or another student organization, I bet there was food. Student organizations do the same thing. It’s hard to get people out at a general meeting. So when you need a certain number of members in the room to conduct official business (which is always the case) bribery is one sure way to go. So I showed up.

At the general meeting, I was mostly prepared to just eat my lunch, pocket my USB key, and vote as required. I know the drill. But then a funny thing happened. Someone I know from the tech community spotted me in line and he was spitting mad about proposed changes to CIRA’s bylaws. And I realized that I was doing exactly what I often fault students for doing. I’d shown up at a general meeting prepared to blindly support the proposals on the agenda. I didn’t even understand the issues. And that was embarrassing. So I started reading really fast.

As it turned out about four hundred members showed up (far more than required) because the changes were, in fact, somewhat controversial. The leaders of CIRA were changing the way they recruited and elected directors. In other words they were tampering with the highest control mechanisms on how the organization is run. And suddenly I had strong feelings about that. So I got up at the microphone and expressed those views. I ended up supporting the proposed changes, after some serious explaining from the board and in particular from Michael Geist, but not without reservations. I was still a bit suspicious.

Several months later I received notice of the pending election for the board, which would run under the new system. And I still wondered if we’d done the right thing. So I resolved to test this system. I applied for nomination, citing my experience in not-for-profit governance (meaning my students’ union) and my views on Internet-related issues as they apply to CIRA. And to my utter shock I was accepted as a candidate and ultimately elected to the board for a three-year term.

Nothing I did that led to my election, and in fact nothing I’ve done since as a director, is substantially different from what I did in my students’ union. The stakes are a bit higher. CIRA has over 40 full-time employees and provides a service that has rapidly become critical public infrastructure. But aside from the scope and seriousness of CIRA’s operations, what we do as the board of a not-for-profit corporation is basically the same thing. I learned it all in student politics.

The reason I think this is an important story is that far too often students are quick to dismiss what they do and what they learn in student organizations. That’s a shame on two counts. First, by minimizing the significance of unions and other groups on campus, students give themselves an excuse to take their responsibilities lightly. After all, if it isn’t a “real” job or responsibility then it doesn’t demand the same level of commitment or attention. But secondly, even the students who are effective and responsible often minimize what they’ve learned or don’t recognize the full scope of their accomplishments. These are real and transferable skills. You can use them even once you are done with school.

CIRA has been a blast for the past three years. I’m very glad that through a combination of luck and good timing I was able to move almost directly from my activities on campus into something similar, once my role in the union was done. Not everyone is as lucky, and finishing up with student life can leave a big void for a lot of graduating students. But the most important message I want to bring to students who are active on campus and in their organizations is that it doesn’t have to end just because you graduate. There are so many organizations and good causes out there, in need of your skills and talents. You might flail around for a bit, before you find a new place to contribute, but those opportunities exist. Don’t dismiss what you’ve learned or underestimate your skills.

All of this is on my mind, by the way, because my three-year term on the board of CIRA is just about done. Now I’m running for reelection. So if you happen to have a dot-ca domain please get in touch, and pass along the suggestion to anyone else you know who has one. I could use the support! But win or lose, this time around, the big victory was realizing that I could keep doing all the things I loved doing as a student, and graduation didn’t have to be the end. I hope all of you realize that also, and see the value in everything you’ve learned and done outside of the classroom. It really does translate to the outside world. I promise.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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