Saturday, 28 January 2012

at The Emerging Global Leaders Program

Your generation might be the last.’ A single opening-keynote sentence that effectively floored a room full with 50 of York University’s top student leaders of which I had the privilege to be a part of. This became one of my first impressions of EGLP, a weekend conference retreat designed to explore key concepts and challenges of leadership in Canadian and international contexts., hosted by York International.  And it was a sobering thought to say the least.

These first few words hit me at 8am last Saturday after taking a bus into King City, Ontario to attend the conference.  Dr. Walter Perchal, Special Advisor and ex Commanding Officer of The Royal Regiment of Canada and the Canadian Army, stood at the front of the conference centre meeting room after calmly stating the aforementioned line. He came with a simple but tough message for us: the next generation of young leaders will face some of the largest and most complicated challenges the world has ever seen.

Speaking at the World Bank scenario led by Mr. Nigmendra Narain
Dr. Perchal both scared the crap out of me and inspired me beyond comprehension. What I envisioned as a fluffy combination of workshops that weekend actually became a test of my ability to connect, respond and coordinate with the most assertive and motivated agents of change. I found myself questioning my own loyalties, ideas and beliefs while being exposed to an intense diversity of backgrounds (I was one of three white males attending!). To my amazement, this clash of cultures, morals and histories consequently stripped away the superficial aspects of attending a ‘leadership conference’ and made my experience honest and real. Having a discussion with a 20 year old who recently escaped civil war in a country halfway across the world puts things into perspective like that.  

Guest speaker Ms. Janet Keeping

This busted another prejudice I was carrying with me to EGLP. Just because you share certain skills and aspects with someone else such as youth and ability to lead does NOT mean you share opinions. Finding out that the friend I made on the bus doesn’t believe in universal health care makes for an interesting conversation. Now multiply that by 50 shark-like personalities and throw them all in the same room, close the doors and watch the chaos ensue. It became immediately important that I find a way to bridge the gap between my own core values and the opposition of others, or else common ground was a place in a very far away land.

Pushing myself to exist outside of my comfort zone was what made EGLP worthwhile, and that would not have happened without the support of delegates, organizers and facilitators. Even though some sessions were admittingly out of hand, it was specifically our diversity and differences which connected us and made us stronger. At the end of everything, it is our VISION to DREAM and to not let others stop us that counts and we’re not going to accomplish this if we aren’t willing to put in the effort. Or, in the wise words of Dr. Perchel,  ‘if you want to be a leader, you have to get off of your ass.’

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Understanding Student Mental Health: The Invisible Stigma at University

Last semester I remember sitting  in the living room of the house I grew up in, located close to Toronto’s border on the East side of town. Surrounded by 8 – 10 of my closest family members, the familiar and comforting atmosphere of tasty white wines, home-made appetizers and cheesy holiday music filled the room with bright warmth while keeping me in a state of fine relaxation. Conversation funnelled into the usual topics: who read what book, which part of the house needed fixing, Toronto’s political blunders, and the latest gossip in the neighbourhood. I found myself lost again in the dialogue of everyone, tuning in and out of random chats and listening to the subtle nuances of every statement. Eventually, the topic changed to stress management in adulthood, and I recall making a comment regarding my experience with students and the abnormal amount of anxiety and stress issues prevalent in the university community. Perhaps not at all outside of the norm, someone from across the room was quick to chime in with a verse along the lines of ‘just wait until you have to pay a mortgage!’, much to the support of the entire room. My head started turning quietly again.

            I like to think I am a curious person by nature, and part of me is really good at generating too many questions in some of the most common places. So, when my judgement on mental health in the student population was challenged, I began wondering where it was coming from and why. Is there even a correlation between mental illness and students in Canada? If so, why don’t we hear about it more often? What’s stopping students from accessing resources for help? Is there adequate support for these people? So, it was off to the virtual library for me again to find some answers. And the results, you might find, are surprising. 

           I am placed in the unique dual position of both student and support. I am also not above saying that being a student makes me stressed and a little anxious at times, but it can be hard to compare my experience to some of clients we see at York University’s Student Counselling Centre (CDS). A student suffering from a mental illness is at high risk of being caught in the delegitimizing of others, which can in turn stop said student from seeking preventative care. Not accessing your resources early only exacerbates a mental illness, often causing severe and debilitating symptoms like manic depression, severe anxiety and suicidal tendencies; all of which are, not surprisingly, quite prevalent in the university undergraduate population in Canada. To give you a real sense of the calibre of this problem, I’ll use an independent study released in the Journal of American College Health, which conducted research on 16 universities in Canada and 7800 student’s total, measuring all levels of mental illness prevalence. The findings are mind-boggling when you consider that ‘Thirty percent of the students in the sample reported elevated physiological distress, which varied significantly according to sex, region, year of study, and recreational academic orientation’ and that ‘Rates of elevated distress were significantly higher among the students than among the general population in Canada.’ (Pg. 67). Another study, published by Counselling Psychology Quarterly, focused specifically on the experience of students at Coventry University, UK, and found that overall  Within the last 12 months nearly three quarters of students had experienced anxious or depressed moods, or, personal, mental, nervous or emotional problems, with a third of students failing to seek help’. Furthermore, research proved that ‘Ethnic minority students were more likely to report problems and less likely to seek help when compared to white students. Male students were less likely to seek help compared to female students.’ (Pg. 247). Why are such a high number of students refusing to seek support while battling a mental illness? What is causing the disconnect between admittance and treatment? Clearly, we have a problem.

            I think back to that day I started asking myself these questions and realise something interesting. Every person sitting in that room protesting the ‘life gets harder after university’ note had never actually attended university. So, it’s hard to say why one would fashion the opinion that university students have nothing to worry about, especially as the job market becomes more competitive and the expectations for accomplishments are higher than ever. Maybe it’s that ‘gap in generational knowledge’ that people talk about, but I think it runs deeper than that. Think of all the pressures and challenges a university student will experience in a short amount of time: new social norms, cultural variances, the questioning of personal values, endless deadlines, relentless synthesis of information, the list goes on. Taking a full course load is attributable to the commitment of a full-time job. Now add on other possible responsibilities like part-time work, dependants at home or extra-curricular activities. Examine these variables and you may begin to understand why this has become such a problem. 

As a side note, I still love my family and am not attempting to put anyone down by writing this post. However, the issue of resource accessibility and the stigma we attach to student mental health needs to be improved drastically if we expect to have strong, capable young leaders in today’s society. It’s time to change the way we see mental illness in university. 


A.P. Turner; C.L. Hammond; J.H. Barlow and M. Gilchrist. (2007). Coventry students’
experience of mental health problems. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. Vol.20,
A. Demers ; B. Newton-Taylor; L. Gliksman and M.A Edward. (2001). The prevalence of
elevated psychological distress among Canadian undergraduates: findings from the
1998 campus survey. Journal of American College Health. Vol.50, pp.67-72.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Building a Community Building Building: An Interview with Ali Maynard

What do you get when you combine a proud Quebecois, a laser-tag champion, a theatre-arts student and a bartender? Well, you get a French-Canadian actress who serves you alcohol and beats you in one of the most entertaining games from our childhood. But Ali Maynard is so much more. As my Senior Don and co-worker of two and a half years, I can confidently tell you that Ali is as good as they get. But try and pass that compliment on to her and she’ll classily shrug it off, citing the efforts of others before her own or using her effortlessly pulled off dry wit to provoke guaranteed chuckles. It’s that deep-rooted humbleness that makes her amazing at what she does. But don’t take it from me – ask one of her residents and they’ll all have their own stories of how Ali reached out and made a lasting impact on their lives during their year at Winters.

A Quebec native, Ali Maynard grew up in Montreal-area before moving to York University to pursue her passion for dramatic arts. Now a fourth year undergraduate theatre major, Ali has amassed a decorated resume that includes managing a Laser Quest, serving at the Hard Rock Cafe in Montreal, doing everything imaginable at the York student operated Absinthe Pub, dedicating her efforts in various theatre and dance clubs on campus, and, of course, going above and beyond as a Don and Senior Don with Residence Life. So, how does she do it? I could try and tell you myself, but I wouldn’t do it justice. Below is a brief interview I had with my friend and mentor Ali Maynard.

1) In a few words, describe yourself and interests.

I’ve always felt that the best word to describe me is ‘Toaster’. It is a common joke among French-Canadians that all mother-tongue French citizens only need to know how to say three words in English in order to speak the language: ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Toaster’. Believe me, I would love to know where this joke came from but, alas, it will forever be one of those cultural mysteries. When I was eighteen years old, I was hired at a Laser Quest in downtown Montreal. All employees must wear a nametag with their codename on it in order to act as role models and encourage clients to choose a codename of their own. On a whim, I chose the codename ‘Toaster’ since both I knew that both English and French clientele would understand what it meant. During my time at Laser Quest I met my mentor, my best friend, as well as a number of other amazing people who have all greatly impacted my life. I really came into myself during this time because I had the opportunity to discover and exercise many of my strengths. In the two years that I worked for this company, I found out that I am a great public speaker and animator. Thanks to my killer organizational skills, I was given the opportunity to become an assistant manager. I discovered that my people skills allowed me to go beyond the position and be a fantastic leader. I believe that the word ‘Toaster’ adequately describes me because it represents my cultural duality; I am a proud Quebecoise and Canadian. It embodies my passion for unique sports, teambuilding, and leadership. It’s fun and quirky, like me. And, let’s be honest, toasters are so freaking useful. Where would we be without toast? I’d like to think that, in the grand scheme of the universe, I might be useful too. J

2) Why did you decide to become a Don, and what has kept you motivated after almost three years in your position?

After my time at Laser Quest, I was craving for leadership experience. During my first week at York, my Don informed our House of the programmer position in residence. I immediately applied and, thankfully, got the job. I enjoyed the job so much mainly because I felt like I was an integral part of the community. Though I learnt a ton about event planning, I was still hungry for more. I applied for the Don position because I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to explore my leadership potential, and, at the end of the day, I wanted to help people. And I think that that is what has kept me motivated throughout these three crazy years: the people. My students, my Dons, my managers... they have all kept me going. They have all encouraged me to be the best that I can be.

3) What does community building mean to you?

Community building means impact. By the end of every year, I feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing that, in one way or another, I have impacted/affected/touched my students. When I see them at programs, house meetings, or even in the hallway, I know that I have the power to make their days a little bit better. When I see them making new friendships, sharing ideas, or trying something new, I know that community building proves that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life has meaning and value.
4) What do you think is the most important aspect of a community?

The people. Without people you can’t have a community. People make community. I think that community is the product of our basic human needs for communication, interaction, and acceptance. We all want to feel needed, wanted, and loved. We all want to feel a part of something; to be one part of a bigger whole, to be one facet of a diamond. 
5) What challenges have you faced as a Don, and how have you overcome them?

I obviously love getting involved in extra-curricular activities and oftentimes find myself having a hard time balancing my job, classes, and schoolwork with my passion for leadership. I find that utilizing the many support systems in my life have helped me overcome these time management challenges. My friends and fellow dons have always been willing volunteers to help me manage my everyday stresses.

6) What has been your best resource for success as a community builder?
Programming! Programming! Programming! I cannot stress this enough! Programming events that interest and engage your students will inevitably improve your community as a whole and, most importantly, your relationship with each and every one of your residents. Best secret of the trade: If you keep your students busy, they won’t have the time or the energy to find trouble.

7) Any plans for post-Donship and graduation?

At this point, I’m pretty much open to anything. I’m excited about seeing what life is like without academia since I haven’t experienced that since I was five. I want to travel... pretty much everywhere. I want to backpack, and camp, and hitchhike, and couch-surf, and essentially be a poor beatnik hippie. It’s going to rock bigfoot socks. I want to go WWWOOFing (Willing Workers Working On Organic Farms) in British Columbia, learn Spanish in Peru, and teach English in Japan. I want to take photography and knitting classes. I want to make experimental theatre and learn how to play the piano. Fundamentally, I want to live life and be awesome. 

*Special thanks to Ali Maynard for dedicating her time for this post. I owe you one!