The Burnout: Behind the lives of Ryerson’s student politicians

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By Emma Buchanan

Odelia Bay didn’t plan to get involved in student politics.

“When I started, I pledged to myself that I would not get involved and just focus on my degree,” Bay said with a laugh. “That never happened. That rarely happens for me.”

Bay couldn’t stay away. She was the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) president in 2001 (back when it was still called RyeSAC), vice-president education the year before, and educational issues commissioner before that, in addition to various other elected roles.

“There were issues that were just too important, and that’s why I ran initially and that’s why I stayed involved.”

Whatever you think of student politics, RSU positions take up a lot of time. You’re working 60-hour weeks, running on four to five hours of sleep and trying to finish your degree. You’re in charge of a massive student body. You have student newspapers watching your every move. Your mistakes in the job can’t and won’t stay small.

“[A] typical day for me was quite stressful…I’d be in the office when it opened, at 9:30, and then I’d be there until the sun set…often later than eight or nine at night,” said former RSU president Nora Loreto. Loreto was president in 2007, on the executive board for the RSU from 2006 to 2008 as vice-president education, and on the board of governors and the senate, among other roles.

“There was also a lot of committee work that you have to do within the institution, you have to prepare for a lot of meetings, and you have to deal with a lot of politics…dealing with people within your office, dealing with your staff.”

Loreto was a full-time journalism student for the first two years of her degree, part-time for three, but ultimately finished in public administration because she couldn’t complete the degree with a part-time schedule

“I was onstage when my class graduated because I was on the Board of Governors, so that was pretty bittersweet to the cohort of people that I started with…finishing their degrees while I was still not sure what it would take for me to be able to finish my degree and get out of there,” Loreto said.

Loreto’s relationship with her peers was different, too. Although there was no drastic change because she had made her intentions clear of being involved in the “political world” of the student union from the beginning.

“There was a bit of change in the relationship when, you know, if I said something to someone at a party and then all of sudden it was on the front page of The Eyeopener, that became annoying,” she said.

Rebecca Rose was RSU president in 2006, in addition to being vice-president education in 2004-2005, then again in 2008-2009, and also acting as senate representative and working for the student union. Altogether, she was on campus for seven years. “So, above average,” she said with a laugh.

Bay said she never felt like a politician, despite her role being political.

But Rose did feel the pressures of political infighting, especially as a journalism student.

Rose said once her fellow executives “walked away” from a motion once they started to face criticism, leaving her to face questioning reporters by herself.

“I was the one left dealing with folks, and I also was a journalism student. The people that I was dealing with were my peers, people I had been in class with for two years,” Rose said. 

“I don’t know that’s there’s a dichotomy between student versus politician, and that activist doesn’t fall somewhere within that,” she said. “As much as I’m an activist, I know that students need more than just activism, they need services that are going to save them money, they need events where they can blow off some steam. It needs to be well rounded.”

Loreto said that while the role of RSU members is to represent students’ complaints, ideas and concerns, “only a hack loses themselves in that and becomes a ‘politician’.”

“And of course, there are many hacks around.”

Loreto said it was important to her “to keep a foot planted solidly on the ground” by engaging in class and with professors in a “normal” way. At the same time, Loreto said she recognized the fact that she would have to get a lot of accommodations to finish coursework because of travelling and working. So, what’s life like now?

After graduating, Loreto moved on to working at a bigger student union, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

Loreto said she felt her time on the RSU limited her job opportunities to an extent.

“I didn’t get a sweet job out of it…if anything it destroyed some job opportunities,” said Loreto. “When you do work at the student union, you basically set on fire the opportunity for you to go and…work anywhere within the university sector that’s not like a union.”

The other executives left politics aside completely to recover from the RSU burnout.

“I would say the RSU and my subsequent involvement in the student movement burned me out really hard,” Rose said, adding that it was a combination of being singled out by her executive, a 60-hour work week, infighting, late nights and early mornings, especially during election season when it was important to be out and about campaigning.

Rose, who also then worked at the CFS, quit around 2013 and “ran away to San Francisco to try to un-burnout for a bit.” She said that while the burnout after her involvement in the student movement was “harsh,” she made connections that helped with writing opportunities and is still in touch with people. 

“[But it] took a pretty big toll on both my mental health and my physical health,” said Rose. “I was in my early 20s still, and I also am someone who deals with both anxiety and depression.”

Bay, who was president of the student union when 9/11 happened, said while she did feel a burnout, her work on the student union opened up job prospects at every level of her career. She said her connections, political knowledge and advocacy worked to her advantage.

“I’m back at school doing a PhD and so I get some of the leeway in being a student again,” she said.

“And I’m not really doing any professional advocacy work.”

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