Underprepared and unappreciated: Students’ Union executive reflects on a difficult, unfinished term
Trigger warning: this article contains mentions of suicidal ideation
Before the end of the 2021 fall semester, two members of the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union executive team left their roles.
The departure of the executives wasn’t made public until members of the students’ union board of directors mentioned the vacancies to The Cord during their bi-annual midterm board reviews. There was no reason specified for their absences during these specific conversations.
One of the former team members, who wishes to remain anonymous in order to protect their identity, agreed to speak with The Cord about their experience working for the students’ union in an executive position from May 2021 to mid-fall of the same year.
After dealing with what they cited as a “learning curve” within the operational side of the students’ union, the previous executive noted that problems began to arise as the months went on.
“I noticed more and more issues with upper management, I would say, about a number of things. And that just didn’t make me feel like a very valued member of the team. I spoke with a lot of other members of the student executive [team] and they felt — and still feel to this day — that they just aren’t appreciated, they aren’t valued, their opinions aren’t valued,” they said.
“I even felt that upper management overstepped their boundaries, and started to micromanage my department. I noticed this with other departments as well. I wasn’t even given the opportunity to be part of decisions that only impact my department. So that was just a little bit of why I decided to ultimately apply for other jobs and then leave.”
When discussing “upper management,” the source was directly referencing the current students’ union president and CEO, Pegah Jamalof, who was their sole supervisor during their period of employment.
The former executive, when asked about the president’s guidelines regarding the executive team and their communication with Student Publications — which suffered a significant strain and breakdown in contact this year — noted that “she [Jamalof] was very adamant about no one speaking to Student Publications. And she didn’t really provide a reason why, but we weren’t given the opportunity to promote Orientation Week, the events that were coming up, or any other cool stuff.”
Although not aware of the breakdown of any other relationships between the students’ union and other campus partners while they were in their role, the source alleged additional partnership problems potentially arose after they left. “I believe there are some more strained relationships at this point after,” they said.
According to the past executive, the issues they experienced were furthered by an apparent lack of consideration towards their mental well-being and an overall carelessness shown in regards to their general concerns, specifically from the president.
“I was around for the time of Kanwar Brar, Tarique Plummer [and] Devyn Kelley. I think in terms of a comparison I can make, it would be that, for those individuals, I sensed they genuinely cared about the people working under them. And I personally did not feel that way working with the students’ union this year,” they said.
A large part of Jamalof’s presidential platform during the 2021-22 election period focused on the importance of mental health awareness and the prioritization of wellness initiatives on Laurier’s campuses.
“I had brought up some concerns that I was having, some difficult situations I was [going through] in regards to mental health to the president, and that was basically brushed off. I was never once asked, ‘how are you doing?’ ‘Are you okay?’ There was no kind of follow-up after that. So that’s one of the things that led me to want to leave and feeling [like] I wasn’t truly valued,” they said.
“My thoughts, my opinions, my ideas were shot down without really even being considered by the current president. It was not a good working environment for me.”
Although the information session that was conducted with human resources about the options student executives could access in terms of mental health support was described as having been “solid,” the source alleged that the remainder of their onboarding training was lacking.
“I had brought up that I wanted to get us all trained, the student executives, in mental first aid and assist training. [Specifically], the suicide intervention training because I recognized that I was having some issues with supporting some people with that. I was [previously] trained and I had that experience of interacting with students who were having suicidal ideation,” they said.
“But I recognize the rest of the executive [team], most of them [did not have formal training], they didn’t have that experience. I was concerned, especially with coming out of the COVID year and how difficult and how hard a lot of students were hit by that mentally. I was concerned about our preparedness for that.”
“I [mentioned] that idea to the president of ‘okay, well, let’s go and let’s get us trained.’ This is before Orientation Week so that we could be able to support any students during O-Week [and] beyond. Some of the VPs decided to do self-directed mental first aid training. But in terms of assistance that was, I think, quickly forgotten about despite me bringing it up multiple times. I just don’t feel that the current student executive [team] is prepared enough to handle it.”
The past executive participated in an exit interview before officially vacating their role, making it known to the full-time staff in particular what their concerns were while working under the students’ union president.
“I had a whole exit interview, you know, with [human resources] and the students’ union. And I talked to a lot of the professional, full-time staff about my particular concerns. That wasn’t the first time I was vocal about my concerns. I definitely, as I saw things, brought them up throughout the year,” they said.
“And the full-time staff did make an effort to talk to the president about issues that myself and other VPs and executive members were having. I do believe they had those conversations, but in terms of actual change that came out of that, it didn’t seem like any change [happened]. I believe it was just because of a lack of willingness to change.”
When questioned as to whether or not these were individual feelings specific to their role or if other people within the students’ union shared similar concerns, the source highlighted that these problems appeared to extend outside of their position and into the current volunteer base as well.
“Yeah, it was definitely widespread. I’ve heard things coming from the volunteer base about their perception of the president in particular. And I know, the student executive [collective], I can’t speak for every single one of them and their beliefs, but within that group, and I believe within the greater full-time staff, the students’ union [overall], everyone is kind of aware and on the same page about these issues,” they said.
“There really isn’t anything that can be done beyond talking to the president, and then, even so, it’s up to the president to decide whether or not they want to change.”
As the incoming students’ union president prepares to take on the role next for the 2022-23 period, the source put forward some advice for when they enter the position.
“For the next president, you don’t need to know everything about the students’ union. There is time for you to learn and transition. But above all else, I believe you need to truly care about your team, about the students about the organization. And I think you really need to be willing to change and to take the feedback that your team [and] the full-time staff give you,” they said.
“If you’re not willing to change, I think you’ll end up with a workplace environment that’s toxic, like the current students’ union [is].”
Looking past the problems the former executive dealt with during the time they spent in the role, they stressed the hope they have for the students’ union to return to a positive place to work and the possibility that exists for constructive improvement moving forward.
“I know it’s not a great place for anyone to work right now, but I hope it gets better because I think a lot of the full-time staff genuinely want it to [improve]. And it’s been, I think, pretty good for the past couple of years. I hope we can get back to that, that point of being a good place to work.”
President Jamalof originally responded to The Cord’s request for comment but did not provide an official statement.