The global pandemic has students encountering a much different university experience. In Fredericton, students are navigating COVID-19 while also struggling to find affordable housing and accessible health care. The NB Media Co-op interviewed St. Thomas University Students’ Union President Tyler MaGee to find out how students are coping and organizing to meet their needs.
NB Media Co-op: Can you introduce yourself?
Tyler MaGee: I’m Tyler or Ty. I am a fourth-year sociology and women and gender studies student and I’m also the President of the St Thomas University Students Union. My pronouns are They/Their.
NB Media Co-op: How do you think students are coping with COVID-19?
Tyler MaGee: I argue that learning can be effective both online and in-person depending on the professor that is teaching, and the way that they design their courses. What students crave more than anything is the connection to others. That is the number one thing I hear from the responses I’ve received from students last year.
To go from an online world to an in-person world to be back online again, there is a disappointment. That creates a mental barrier for a lot of students because to have something and then to lose it is very different than to just start online and remain online. Students have been feeling overwhelmed because of online learning. With in-person learning, you have constant reminders, you have commitments, you have set times where everything is meant to be. In the online world, it’s very asynchronous, so it turns the onus inward to the individual to self-regulate what they’re doing.
NB Media Co-op: Many people are talking about the housing crisis in New Brunswick. How is the housing crisis affecting students?
Tyler MaGee: It’s important to define the housing crisis in itself: it’s not necessarily that there is a lack of housing, it’s that there’s a lack of affordable housing.
Landlords feel like they can charge more for their properties because there are people coming in, so demand is high. The view is that people will pay whatever they like whatever you charge because the demand is so high.
The issue is that the higher housing prices go, the less accessible housing we have. Such high prices leave students who are often living below the poverty line unable to afford housing.
There are buildings in Fredericton that are going up right now where a two-bedroom apartment is set to rent for $1,500 or more. From a student perspective, even if you have a roommate, it is ridiculous to try to afford that whilst also paying for school.
Many students are not finding a place to live, and they are required to learn and often work in a location that is away from familial supports, so that’s kind of where this housing crisis is and how it’s operating for students.
NB Media Co-op: What are students doing to address the climate crisis?
Tyler MaGee: Many universities in Canada have successfully divested from fossil fuels. STU has not. This year, the students’ union joined the faculty union in supporting calls to divest from fossil fuels. We’ve had community members and professors all show up to divestment rallies. Divestment is the process of withdrawing investments in fossil fuels and companies that support the use of fossil fuels and reinvesting in greener alternatives.
Divest STU is a new organization on the campus. I believe this is their fifth year running, and it’s being run by a very small group of students, but these students are absolute power houses when it comes to taking on this initiative and moving it forward, and it’s amazing to see the response that it’s been getting.
The university has not outwardly said that they will or will not be exploring divestment, but the visibility of the campaign is increasing, and we are all hopeful that visibility will bring about the change that is being sought.
We also have sustainability committees on campus focused on encouraging students to be greener.
NB Media Co-op: There is a movie being made on campus about sexual assault. What actions are being taken on campus to address sexual violence?
Tyler MaGee: I think it really speaks to the courage, bravery, and resilience of students themselves that come forward to be able to do this.
From the student union perspective, we approach sexual violence by making the response survivor driven. We work very closely with the campus sexual assault support advocates. They serve all three campuses that are in the Fredericton area.
We connect survivors to resources, and we help them navigate through these policies so that they feel like they are in control of the situation. The number one thing that we try to do is empower survivors because when you’ve experienced sexual violence or sexual assault, you have been stripped of empowerment. Part of that is believing the survivors to drive what they would like to do. We also give them an hour of free legal counsel, a service that is available to all students on campus. If they decide that they want to speak to a counselor and that’s as far as they want to go, it’s their choice. If they change their mind, it doesn’t matter if it’s a year from now or four years from now or ten years from now, they have our support.
What we can improve is keeping that support continuous, even after students have graduated. The support that we provide should not matter how long students have been out of university. If they have experienced sexual violence or harassment on university campus during their time on campus, then they should be subjected to the same supports as a current student.
I think that we can all do better. We can help people recognize what harassment is because sexual violence is not just rape. There are so many other actions that fall into the category of sexual violence. And I also think that you should name it as it is. I don’t believe in that pretty word “assault.” It leaves survivors of other forms of sexual violence in a position where they don’t feel like they can access support services. It sets people up to think there’s always somebody who has experienced something worse than I have so I should not be accessing the service.
We must do more to educate people, so they recognize what is sexual violence. We must also ensure that we provide the space for survivors of all types of sexual violence to be able to tell their story.
NB Media Co-op: As an exchange student, I observed that people are really welcoming in Canada. We feel accepted even if we have different nationalities, identities, and religions. Is this an observation that you would make country-wide, or do you think it is more true at universities?
Tyler MaGee: I think this comes down to the way that I would define each of those. When I think of the country, I think of government and policies and the institutions. Do I think that our institutions are welcoming? No. Do I think that the citizens are welcoming? Yes, I think as a society, as a whole, from a community standpoint, I would like to think that we are fairly welcoming.
From the university perspective, I would say that institutionally and community-wise, we are very welcoming. STU does its best to make policies in such a way that it produces the same level of access and acceptability of anybody who comes into their institution.
Concerning the region itself, I think it’s very location dependent. New Brunswick often has a bad rap of being very conservative and less open. We also get accused of being very rural and of not being very highly educated. There’s a lot of bad jargon that exists in Canada about New Brunswick specifically. As a born and raised eastern Canadian in New Brunswick, I take offense to that.
As a white queer person, I’ve never felt overtly unwelcomed in any one particular place. I think that it would be different if I belonged to a different race. It might be different if I spoke with an accent or if I was from outside of Canada.
NB Media Co-op: Many students can’t afford to attend university. International students pay more student tuition. Why is this the case and what is being done to make education more accessible?
Tyler MaGee: Education is a public good, everybody has a right to be educated. However, in New Brunswick, the operating grant from the government to the university is not enough so the costs of an education are being downloaded onto students. That’s why we keep seeing tuition increasing.
For international students, tuition is so high because the government does not fund their education at our university so the university charges international students more in tuition.
We are pushing to have government funding of our university extended so that tuition and fees can be lowered.
NB Media Co-op: Clinic 554 is a clinic in downtown Fredericton known for its trans health care and abortion services. However, it has been forced to stop many of its services due to the New Brunswick government not funding abortion services. STU has a large body of students who have accessed care at Clinic 554. What should students do to support Clinic 554?
Tyler MaGee: We have the responsibility to give bodily autonomy to others, and that extends to providing queer and trans health care, including safe access to safe and legal hormones, and access to gender-affirming surgeries. If you don’t provide safe legal abortions and somebody really wants an abortion, they will find a way of doing it and it will not be safe.
NB Media Co-op: Do you think campus is a safe space for any marginalized group?
Tyler MaGee: In my experience, the campus is the place that I have felt safest. I have never experienced safety concerns on campus. However, I do know of others who have. I have had relationships on campus where I have not been afraid of holding their hand. I’ve not been afraid of telling my friends that I was going on a date with an individual.
What I can say is that one third of our campus openly identifies as LGBTQ. That’s the highest per capita of any university institution in Canada.
I feel equally comfortable talking to all groups of individuals, but then again, I’m a very privileged queer person as I pass as straight and as non-queer. And because of that, I actively choose to keep pieces of my identity personal, and I don’t think that is necessarily a lack of safety. For me personally, safety is not the concern for that. It’s tokenism, which means you are expected by others to educate them. If a non-queer person were to tokenize me, it would be: “you are queer, answer every single question I have about what queer is” and I can’t do that. You can’t hope to answer for every person I am one queer person out of many at STU. I know that my experience as a queer person at university is different than the experiences of others.
Maëlys Auclair is an exchange student from France who is studying at St. Thomas University. She is completing an internship with the NB Media Co-op as part of her Community-based Internship course.