Dead on arrival

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School spirit has been ailing for years. Online editor Aleysha Haniff digs for the real reason we’re doomed to wander a lifeless campus

Kristina Kulikova’s routine hasn’t changed a bit since she started at Ryerson. The economics and finance student starts her day with a much-needed cup of coffee after trekking to campus from Richmond Hill. She goes to class. She meets with friends for lunch. Next, she might swing by the economics department and do some work. After that, it’s time to go home.

Kulikova, who also trains as a competitive ballroom dancer, has followed this schedule for four years. She loves Ryerson, she says. But she hasn’t opted in to what she calls “the big picture” — the idea that Ryerson can be more than a place to go learn.

“If you’re concentrating on studies all the time, you don’t see that,” she says. When Ryerson opened in 1948, it was viewed as an experiment. The students who roamed the halls had to prove themselves by filling niche jobs after the end of World War II. This founding principle didn’t disappear in the following decades. If anything, it’s the foremost factor that lures students to campus and a key part of Ryerson’s marketing campaign. Yet what’s forgotten are the effects an industry-driven focus can have on campus life. School spirit is dead and has been for years. It’s part of the university’s legacy, entwined with the career-focused programs that have defined Ryerson.

To a university administration, however, “the big picture” isn’t about campus spirit but campus expansion at a breathtaking pace. Ryerson was a work in progress long before the quest for Maple Leaf Gardens captivated Toronto media. But something has to be pushed out to make room for all this growth, and that something is students, condemned to wander a campus full of buildings but little else.

Ryerson’s first graduating class entered the workforce in 1950. The institute’s first yearbook, Ryersonia, also debuted that year. Pages were spotted with pink-tinted photos of idealistic grads, mostly men with a sprinkling of women, many describing his or her respective career path in the tiny blurb under each headshot.

“Alors!” reads the final paragraph of the editors’ foreword. “Turn these pages and recall our instructors, turn these pages and recall the sages and scamps among our student colleagues, turn these pages and re-live and re-create the campus life as shown in Ryersonia 1950.”

The first two years of student activity were summarized in three pages about athletics, student dances and enrolment increases, with an entire subsection dubbed “lively social life.” RIOT, now a radio and television comedy production, involved every faculty. The Ryersonian, which first went to press in 1948, published a list of new students that included where he or she went to high school. Faculties each consisted of a handful of professors. Ryerson, indeed, was a smaller place.

In the early 1950s, two things were important according to Ryerson’s official history: finding jobs and achieving conformity. Principal Howard Kerr, Ryerson’s first top administrator, made a point of establishing traditions to make parents and students alike feel more comfortable about the concept of a polytechnical school. He wanted all the trappings of a traditional institution— the songs, the clubs, the cheers and the teams.

But then came the 1960s, and Ryerson wasn’t immune to the effects of the transformation of the outside world. Mark Bonokoski, a former Eyeopener and Ryersonian editor, graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in 1972. He helped lead sit-ins at the president’s office and held symposiums on the English department, which he thought was a joke.

“The sit-ins at the president’s office we had maybe 50, 60 students help take it over with us. We negotiated with the president right in his office to get our demands through,” Bonokoski says. “Because it [Ryerson] was so small then, it was a more of a collective rather than just a great big huge stew,” he said.

Even then, school pride came from the fact that graduates in programs such as RTA, fashion and business administration found jobs, Bonokoski says.

At the same time, as editor of the Eyeopener, he helped organize marches of what he said were thousands of students, protesting both the length of the Vietnam War and nuclear testing. “It seems much more complacent today. But these are different times too,” Bonokoski says. “Of course, this was all pre-technology. There were no cellphones, no Internet.”

Complacency and technology seem to describe the 2011 Ryerson Students’ Union elections perfectly. Two groups of journalists from the Ryersonian and the Eyeopener huddle around laptops, recording each fresh news tidbit with liveblogging software. Other than one group of student politicians, no one else is there to watch the predictable results trickle in.

Sean Carson was elected RSU vice-president operations that night, moving from his role as vice-president student life and events. On paper, the RSU offers a plethora of student groups, course unions, pub nights, guest speakers, parades and coffeehouses. But despite the range of events, there’s still an issue to be tackled. “There are 24,000 students at Ryerson. And then there’s me,” Carson says. Carson maintains that many events are well-attended, and the student union is the key player in getting people together on campus.

But he says there’s only so much he can do with a lack of student space on campus.

“Students are certainly pushing us to the edges of our capacity for we could offer here on campus for events,” he says.

School population has exploded in recent years, making the need for more buildings even more urgent. Just more than 25,000 full-time undergraduates enrolled at Ryerson for the 2009-10 school year. Ten years earlier, about 14,000 walked the halls.

Carson says students need more space to study, go to class and hang out. More importantly, he says, they need the time to fit all that in their schedules, which can be difficult when many students work part- or full-time.

Wayne Petrozzi, who teaches in the politics and public administration department, can address both sides of the expansion conundrum.

A twenty-something Petrozzi answered a newspaper ad in 1976 and started to instruct at Ryerson while he worked on his Ph.D. Petrozzi saw first-hand the camaraderie — and in some cases, the competitiveness — that existed in various programs.

Over the past 35 years, his faculty alone has expanded from taking up about three floors of Jorgenson Hall to filling nearly every level of the old building. Ryerson changed from a school that offered some degree programs to a full fledged university in 1993. Enrollment went up. Buildings went up. Petrozzi suspects the campus’s growth made it harder to develop interpersonal relationships with faculty and fellows alike. The core basis of student life, however, stubbornly remained the same.

“I think the student life piece was always something that was always more rooted in the program basis of the place than anything else, which in many ways I think was an advantage,” Petrozzi says. “Kind of insulated students a bit from the scale of what was going on around them and still provided a possibility to — in the way neighbourhoods provided a possibility to — know those around you while still living in this bigger thing called the city.”

He says there are pros to expansion and growth, namely the increasing diversity of the school’s student body and faculty. Yet something changed in the 80s and more notably the 90s, though he can’t say if Ryerson has indeed lost its sense of community.

Instead, Ryerson might have lost the carefree youthfulness immortalized in Ryersonia 1950. Petrozzi says students are forced to juggle extra work just to stay in school. And unlike earlier decades, he explains, students aren’t guaranteed a good job if they work hard in school.

“At some point you reach a sizable enough percentage of students who are busily leading two lives instead of one, and it has an impact,” Petrozzi says. At the same time, Ryerson has grown substantially making it even harder to socialize on campus.

“What that optimism meant — you know, the fact that you weren’t fearing all the time about your future — meant that you could kind of enjoy the day instead of incessantly worrying about the next one and the one six down from then.”

Kristina Kulikova, will be graduating this April. Looking back, she thinks things would have been different if she had lived in residence. She acknowledges all the effort put into student life at Ryerson, even if she never got involved.

“Even if you’re not part of the events, you still feel like that it’s not about going to class, graduating and having a job.”

Photo: Marta Iwanek

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