What’s in a president? A day in the life of Olivia Matthews

Editor-in-Chief, Shelby Blackley followed around president and CEO of the Students’ Union for a day

Olivia Matthews doesn’t have a regular day.

The president and chief executive officer of the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union can find herself in and out of meetings, conversations and consultations around campus daily. Sometimes she’s in Brantford, while sometimes she’s in a heated discourse about upcoming advocacy initiatives.

But regardless, there is nothing regular to her days as president of the multi million-dollar, not-for-profit organization.

On January 19, I followed Olivia around for a day. It began bright and early at 8:45 a.m., as we met in the Students’ Union office on the second floor of the Fred Nichols Campus Centre. Her cubicle is the closest to the front entrance, tucked away in the left-hand corner. It is furnished with a couch and a side table for anyone to come and talk to her at any time. Her desk, while kept tidy, is decorated with cards from friends, family and co-workers.

“Are you ready for your day?” asks Phil Champagne, the executive director of the Students’ Union, as I wait for Olivia to finish up her first round of answering emails and phone calls.

“I think so,” I reply. “Do you have a lot of work today?”

Phil shrugs, carrying his computer mouse toward the back of the office.

“Probably? If I can get my computer working,” he says.

Olivia finishes up her round of emails and we go to meet Ian Muller, president of the Graduate Students’ Association, at Veritas Café for a 9 a.m. meeting. On our way down, Olivia stops to say hello to everyone, even a mechanic that once fixed a shower head in her residence building.


Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros
Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros

Breakfast is on Olivia. She grabs her regular — a coffee and a poppy seed bagel — and buys Ian and I a beverage. She sits down at a table, while chatting casually with Ian.

They meet bi-weekly, Olivia explains, because they are “both advocates for their respective student body” and often are the student representatives on committees. It’s important they meet so they know what to bring up when on these committees.

“I always say he’s the rational president and I’m the one that’s kicking and screaming,” Olivia laughs.

While Ian is a few years Olivia’s senior, their relationship is professional. They discuss the non-tuition fee protocol, the student affairs advisory committee, advocacy for transportation around the light rail transit and the subcommittee for the Syrian refugees being sponsored by Laurier. Feverishly, they write down notes about what to bring up in subsequent meetings.

The meeting finishes as Olivia and I head back to the Students’ Union office. She assures me about the importance of keeping a good relationship with the GSA, something she’s proud of this year.

We end up back in Olivia’s office so she can respond to her second round of emails. Her mouse also doesn’t work, and she asks the secretary to help her fix it. She explains to me she’s trying to delegate to her team of vice-presidents more so she doesn’t work long, 12-hour days like she did first term, but sometimes it still happens.

Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros
Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros

I ask her what her favourite part of the job as president and CEO is. She laughs and takes some time to think about it.

She says she likes managing people, but it’s not her favourite part. She likes figuring out the budget, but also not her favourite part.

“My favourite part of the job is the advocacy piece. And it’s not a piece that always exists in this portfolio,” she says. “We live in such a university setting, but I feel some people can be so out of touch with that setting.”

“There’s a very big difference between saying ‘I need this’ and ‘we need this because 17,000 people want it.’”

Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros
Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros

At 10 a.m., Olivia meets with Dan Robert, associate director of development with athletics, student affairs and the Library, and Megan Lacoursiere, the director of marketing communications with the Students’ Union. They meet in one of the small conference rooms in the Students’ Union office.

The meeting is about bursaries, awards and scholarships in the Union’s name and how to market them to students. Dan says there is around $2.3 million in endowments and he wants to make sure all students are able to apply for these — especially considering many of them are based solely on financial aid and can be applied for through the general tuition bursary.

“I don’t want to lose the good news story of the Students’ Union being a donor,” Dan says.

While the main focus for marketing will be for 2016-17, Olivia insists it’s important the meeting happens now so Megan and Dan can set up a strategy for the upcoming year when Olivia is no longer the president. The meeting is quick, and we return to Olivia’s desk.

As we sit down at Olivia’s cubicle, she is quickly joined by Laura Bassett, the vice-president of university affairs and Matt McLean, the associate vice-president of university affairs at the Waterloo campus.

“We need to make sure we bring up president sitting on Senate,” Olivia says.

“Have you looked over the funding formula sheet from OUSA?” Laura asks. “What do you feel comfortable talking about?”

The conversation is back and forth, so quick and full of information. The three of them, accompanied by Chris Hyde, director of policy, research and advocacy with the Students’ Union, have a very important meeting with the president of Laurier, Max Blouw. The Union is meeting with him to discuss having the president sit on Senate so they are well-informed about academic issues, as well as a university funding formula that would be focused on sensible enrolment-based funding with targets negotiated between the government and the university.

And so we walk from the Students’ Union office to 202 Regina Street North. We approach the second floor and walk to the right, past the Service Laurier area, and down to the end of the hallway. On the left is a door that has the words “office of the president” written on it.

We wait a few moments for Blouw to be ready. Olivia, Laura and Chris speak to fellow administration in the office.

“It’s important we have a good relationship with administration,” Matt says. “We’d rather have a seat at the table than be banging at the door.”

And this was evident when, taking up all of the seats at the meeting table, Blouw is approachable to the recommendations the Students’ Union members have. He’s approving of having the Union president sit on Senate, questioning if the Union’s “voice has been as effective as it could be.” He continues to have an in-depth, intense conversation about the formula currently in place for universities across Ontario.

The members talk about the “Laurier experience” and while enrolment overall is low, the decisions Laurier makes are “for the students.”

“Focusing on numbers doesn’t always focus on quality,” Blouw says, emphasizing Laurier’s reputation. “We do a great job selling the student experience at Laurier.”

“How do you quantify the reputation of Laurier?” asked Olivia, looking for tangibles.

Blouw mentions the fact Laurier saw an increase in people putting the institution first on their OUAC applications and the grade point average of entering students. He mentions that students are often afraid of what university will bring, but Laurier “brings a sense of comfort.”

“I’m still afraid,” Olivia laughs.

“So am I,” Blouw responds.

The meeting ends with Blouw shaking each individual’s hands and thanking them for their time. He shows a photo on his computer of his granddaughter as Olivia asks how she’s been.

Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros
Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros

Olivia and I part ways for an hour as she has a closed-door meeting regarding the upcoming university budget. I meet back with her at 1 p.m. when she’s getting ready for another meeting, this time with food services. She answers more emails — probably her third round of emails in the day — and talks to Phil and Laura about upcoming initiatives. She leaves her desk multiple times, once to ask Laura if she can sit in on a hiring committee because Olivia will be in Brantford for the Open Forum. Her delegation is evident.

We go into the Students’ Union board room for the food services meeting. While this meeting is her longest of the day, Olivia is the only student representative on the committee and asks questions often. They go over quantitative data about the food choices at Laurier with Dan Dawson, assistant vice-president of student services, and Dave Shorey, associate director of residence education with Residence Life. The meeting is long, but Olivia — who has a background with Residence Life — asks often about the best choices for students and why students may not be happy with the choices they have.

When this meeting ends, Olivia and I part ways. She has one final meeting of the day, but it’s another closed-door meeting where she is a student representative.

This is just one day in a 365-day presidential portfolio. On “typical” days, which don’t happen often, Olivia is answering a lot of emails, working with her team on strategy building and helping students with their concerns.

“You have to drop what you’re doing for student concerns,” she says.

Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros
Photo by Andreas Patsiaouros

And with the Students’ Union election just around the corner, Olivia offers advice to the presidential candidates, saying it’s important to see how the Union works with external and internal partners, especially during the shadowing period.

“We accomplish a lot of our goals through relationship building as an organization. My biggest piece of advice for them, if they’re successful in the role, is to learn as much as you can in the months that they’re here. Don’t be concerned about making a name for yourself in those months.”

While it can be stressful and overwhelming at times, Olivia has no regrets about running for the position.

“I still find [the] election period to be a scary period of the year, I would never do it again,” she laughs. “But I absolutely love my job. And I’m going to miss it when I leave it.”

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