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The art of getting things done

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It’s been a year since the Ryerson Communication and Design Society was founded, and with other faculties looking to create similar organizations, Ryerson’s burgeoning ranks of student societies are quickly becoming a driving force in student life and campus politics By Brennan Doherty and Laura Woodward

A hockey puck drops, manoeuvres between each peg of a circular board like Plinko on The Price is Right. A sledgehammer hangs from a string that, when sliced by scissors, hits a soccer ball. The ball bumps a plank of wood, forcing a table to lean on an angle. On the table is a Pizza Pizza box cut into a track for a Hot Wheels racecar with an Exacto knife duct-taped to the top. The string continues on – the product of a chain-reaction spanning nine universities and 750 kilometres.

This is a Rube Goldberg machine on a massive scale.

It ends at the CN Tower, in the hands of the Ryerson Engineering Students Society (RESS), who finished the sequence’s last action: a phone call to the CN Tower representative to light up the 553-metre-tall tower. It’s March of this year and a brilliant streak of purple lights up the Toronto skyline.

RESS is the oldest student society on campus, dating back nearly 25 years. Today, it’s one of three large student societies on campus representing its members to Ryerson’s facilities, industry professionals and even other student groups. The other two are the Ryerson Commerce Society (RCS) — formed in 2005 to represent students at the Ted Rogers School of Management — and the Ryerson Communication and Design Society (RCDS), formed just last year.

These societies are more than faculty frosh committees.

They’re an integral part of student politics — able to grab (and retain) student interest in developments on campus, opportunities with employers and projects among other students in ways the RSU and campus facilities can’t. Huge developments at Ryerson — floor plans for the Student Learning Centre, orientation reforms and faculty-wide student exhibitions — are currently being orchestrated by these groups, alongside Ryerson staff and industry professionals. But despite their origins as faculty organizations, the RCDS, RESS and RCS are collaborating in ways that aren’t far removed from a Rube Goldberg machine. And that level of collaboration may have the power to reshape campus.

Engineering our success,” became the campaign slogan of fourth-year industrial engineering student Urooj Siddiqui for last year’s RESS presidential election.

“If we want to make things happen, we have to work together.”

“If we want to make things happen, we have to work together,” Siddiqui says. “So I went to random classes, making class announcements … and after the class [was] done, I would wait and get feedback from some students.”

Now, students come to the RESS presidential office — her office — with recommendations and feedback. RESS aims to make life easier for the nearly 4,000 undergraduate engineering students on campus.

Rose Ghamari, a former RESS president, was an inspiration for Siddiqui. Ghamari transformed the staff lounge in room 273 in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre into the first dedicated room for studying in the building. In the same building, Ghamari initiated a new food kiosk and two more study tables with new plugs for electronic device usage.

The initiative for more student space expanded to Kerr Hall. Formerly known as the Rye-O-Mat, located in the Kerr Hall North basement, it has been renovated to accommodate student engineering teams working on design projects and competitions — specifically for the Formula SAE team where students design, construct and compete their Indy-style racecars.

“We’re talented, but we don’t necessarily have all the skills necessary. We can collaborate all the talent on campus from the other student societies – like RCS’s business skills and RCDS’s creative side, and then [RESS] can bring a side to these societies too,” Siddiqui says.

Each member from the RCS holds a board in one hand and a marker in the other. It is the first time that every student group under the RCS umbrella meets one another. Every business student is told to write their fears on the board.

Arrays of fears that come with leadership are written, mainly deriving from failure. The students then go outside and break the board. This is just one of the icebreaker activities that take place at the RCS Leadership Initiative.

“[Student societies] always have interacted with each other, but not as much as this year. This year we decided we would be more active and we had the presidents and one representative from every student group,” says Ashisha Persaud, the RCS president.

Each student group’s representative explained their role within Ryerson. Other non-affiliated students’ jaws dropped at the variety and diversity on campus. The Ryerson Formula Racing team explained who they are — mainly engineering students that design, manufacture, test and race a formula style racecar.

After their short explanation, the different faculty leaders wanted to get involved with the RESS-sponsored group. Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) suggested getting involved in the exterior design of the racecar and the business leaders from RCS began brainstorming the marketing aspect of the racecar.

“Everyone from different faculties [has] something different to bring to the table,” Persaud says. “I plan to have more meetings with all the societies more frequently, it’s just a matter of getting everyone in the same room.”

Despite its youth, RCDS already has a number of close allies, Persaud says.

“I’m very close with Tyler Webb (president of RCDS) and I try to help him any way I can. I sent them our frosh operation manual and I was sitting in on the meeting when they were doing the frosh pitches.”

RCDS’s main office is at the top of the Rogers Communications Centre’s third-floor staircase, wedged into the back of a quartet of offices. Posters lie against the room’s back corner in small piles. Several black lockers have been squeezed into the two paces of space between the door and the next office. Yellow t-shirts with “RCDS” printed across the chest in black block lettering lie against another corner, barely two feet from the door. A table alone eats up a third of the floor space, eight chairs nestled unevenly around it. New office space is planned for December, but until then, the bedroom-sized space will have to do for the newest recognized student society at Ryerson.

After jumping through the procedural hoops, RCDS released a referendum to FCAD students last year asking for their support. Nearly 40 per cent of FCAD students voted – with 87 per cent of voters approving.

This wasn’t surprising. A survey distributed last February not only showed strong support for the idea, but also willingness by FCAD students to collaborate with other faculties.

The door swings open and Tyler Webb ducks into the office. A longboard with lime-green wheels rests in his hand. He’s the RCDS’s president and a prominent student leader on Ryerson’s campus ever since he became president of the Image Arts course union two years ago.

Though he isn’t sure about the other student societies, the RCDS has collaborated with other student groups on campus since its inception.

“We just try and make sure we’re all on the same page. I really like to make sure I know what some of the other student groups are doing so when there’s things that overlap, I can pull people over”

“We just try and make sure we’re all on the same page. I really like to make sure I know what some of the other student groups are doing so when there’s things that overlap, I can pull people over,” he says.

Webb’s been trying to connect several associations recently, including the Retail Students Association, the Fashion course union and the Commerce and Arts Association, among others.

RCDS supports a myriad of student groups within and outside of FCAD — everything from the TEDxRyersonU conference (with the Ryerson Commerce Society) to graphic communications based RyeTAGA (Ryerson Technical Association of Graphic Arts) to year-end student shows such as Mass Exodus, Ryerson Urban Film Festival, New Voices and others. “We’re looking in the long-term to build out some sort of an FCAD festival that contains all of these things,” says Webb.

RCDS is meant to give marketing and financial support to these events without stripping them of their independence, he explains.

“I don’t want to take independence from these groups – they are really strong groups, they’ve existed for many years — it’s more about bringing them together in a way that allows [them to market] their goals.”

In short, RCDS has no desire to absorb the organizers of these groups into their executive – merely to be another avenue for these groups to promote themselves and each other.

Student societies and student unions are not one and the same. The RESS, RCDS and RCS were all raised to provide career opportunities, professional engagement with industry leaders and employers and collaborate with other students — in Ryerson’s case, across faculties and disciplines. The RSU is geared to address issues facing campus culture, regardless of faculty. They advocate on behalf of the entire student body on issues with footholds both within and outside of Ryerson’s campus, like youth unemployment, mental health and the rising costs of post-secondary education.

RCDS makes its role — and its relationship to the RSU – very clear.

“RSU has three pillars and we have three pillars, and they don’t overlap. RSU is services, advocacy and social. And we are professional, academic and collaborative,” says Tyler Webb.

The sheer scope of responsibility also differs between student societies and student unions. Any given society is meant to directly represent the interests of that one particular faculty. RCDS is responsible for delivering professional opportunities to more than 4,400 students, while the RSU is expected to drive campus culture for more than 28,000 undergraduates. On top of that, it also localizes initiatives created and administered by the Canadian Federation of Students — such as many social justice projects — aimed at students across Canada.

That being said, both student societies and student unions work together on a variety of fronts. There is overlap between various faculty course unions.

“A course union is automatically part of the student union, by nature of being a course union.”

“A course union is automatically part of the student union, by nature of being a course union,” Webb says. “But I’m not going to tell any course union that doesn’t mean they can’t be supported by, or an integral part of, us. That would be ridiculous.”

The RSU understands the roles of both to be closely linked.

“I think that as student representatives we have very similar roles, but the various faculty societies are a little bit more specific in representing folks from just those faculties,” RSU President Rajean Hoilett says.

“We have a really great relationship with the faculty societies,” Hoilett says.

That’s good, because if third-year medical physics student Ana Vargas has her way, the Ryerson Science Society (RSS) will represent nearly 4,000 science students as the fourth major student society on Ryerson’s campus. Though they’ve yet to hold a faculty referendum, RCDS executives are already giving them a leg up on the ratification process.

“We have regular meetings with Tyler Webb regarding the referendum, since they are the most recent society to hold a referendum,” says Vargas. “Once our meeting with the board goes though, we go to the referendum. We want to make sure we’re very, very strong and we have everything required of us by the board.”

It’s not just leadership organizations and student society presidents that are sitting up and taking notice.

Alexander Waddling, a fifth-year psychology major and organizer of women’s charity group Ride For A Dream, met with the RCS last March to request financial support.

A student leader with an interest in gender equity and extensive connections in the faculty of arts, he’s chosen to present his idea to a business faculty, “because I see that RCS needs it the most,” he says, sitting forward on a sofa in the Social Venture Zone.

“I mean our business school is more liberal than most. If you look at the board of RCS as an example, it’s half women, give or take.”

Waddling points out that business faculties often propogate oldschool traditions around gender, and plenty of faculties and student groups at Ryerson are already speaking about it.

“I don’t like the idea of preaching to the choir.”

“I don’t like the idea of preaching to the choir,” he says.

In March, he shows up to a pitch meeting with roughly 15 members of RCS’s board of directors present. He leans forward in his seat.

“We’re like, ‘Hi, we’re from Ride For A Dream. This is what we’re about: gender equality. Men and women working together to digest gender issues, end violence against women, fund women’s shelters.'”

He begins to get worried when one of the directors leans forward, brow furrowed.

“And this guy was sitting really close. He’s jacked. Just jacked. He’s huge.” Waddling pauses. “And then he goes, ‘Great, this is fantastic.'”

RCS got on board and provided funding and support for the group. They’re one of many student groups the society is working with. This culture of collaboration is new – and one likely to continue.

“I think we already have it,” he says. “I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve been here for a number of years. It was not that way, say, seven or eight years ago.”

Collaborative culture also extends beyond campus. “It requires a lot of different faculties, a lot of different skill sets that you’re not going to find in any one faculty. You have to be able to cross-pollinate.” Six months later, he’s looking at also collaborating with RCDS on Ride For A Dream.

When asked why, he shrugs.

“Why not?”

A previous version of this article misspelled the name, “Ana Vargas.” The Eyeopener apologizes for this error. 

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