Eight unexpected things I learned in student government 

Bank robbers? Embezzlement? A former executive reflects.
From the University of Alberta Students' Union's 2012 Undergraduate Research Symposium

Two years ago, I was a second-year student considering running for Vice-President Academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union. Though I expected to learn plenty if elected, it was impossible to predict just how much I did learn on the job. If you are a student considering running at your school, I encourage you to give it a try. It could totally alter your life’s trajectory. Here are eight of the most memorable lessons I learned.

1. Unpredictability is just part of the job.
Unforeseen events can often get in the way of platform goals. In June 2011, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry plagiarized his speech to the graduating class, which packed my days with television interviews. A few months later, our executive learned that a student from the business students’ association was accused of stealing $27,000, so I did more interviews. Media relations wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time.

2. Universities are complex organizations.
With undergraduates, graduates, faculty, administrators and alumni, universities are diverse. On top of this, various levels of government have roles in higher education, along with community leagues and private enterprises. With so many players involved, setting policy goals can be difficult. One must learn to embrace complexity and accept that few decisions will please everyone.

3. It’s okay for co-workers to disagree.
When I entered the term as VPA, one of my goals was to help establish a fall reading week. At times, the executive would engage in intense debates about crucial details. I never expected that five executives could remain such close friends after such heated arguments.

4. You don’t need to know much about students’ unions to run.
I encouraged a friend of mine from a fraternity to run for a position along with me. During the elections, he was worried he didn’t know enough about student politics, but he won and excelled.

5. Executives’ actions reflect on the entire organization.
No matter where you are, your actions represent the student body. The former Mount Royal Student Association President’s bank robbery is a prime example of how an executive’s bad decision can hurt a student union’s reputation. Luckily, I didn’t do anything to embarass my colleagues.

6. It’s vital to set limits.
Seventy-hour weeks can make you grouchy and hurt your personal relationships. Though I did not always succeed, I tried to keep a smile on my face and spent as much time with friends as possible. Executives struggle between internalizing thoughts and sharing them with others. For me, the Edmonton River Valley trails provided a physical outlet for pent-up stress.

7. You will meet new friends.
In August of 2011, a student randomly popped into my office, hoping to talk about a project he was working on. I didn’t know this person’s name at first, but we kept touch for the next few months. A few months later, several students from varsity athletics came by for an unscheduled meeting. Several of the students that I met in those unexpected encounters are now among my best friends.

8. You can’t predict what else you’ll learn.
To this day, I continue to ponder many of the decisions that I made in office, sometimes kicking myself about them. Still, as I gain new experiences and go for coffee with members of my executive, my interpretations of the experience evolve. I suspect that, many years down the road, I will understand even more clearly how the experience helped shaped me as a person.

Emerson Csorba is a political science student at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean.