Our Torch to Bear

By Matt Whiteman

On the evening of February 11th, just before the Olympic torch arrived on UBC campus, I met with our university’s president, Stephen J. Toope, along with about twenty other students representing globally-engaged groups at UBC. Together, these groups form the founding members of the Global Lounge, a new space housed at Marine Drive residence, which is used:

· To facilitate interdisciplinary, collaborative connections between and among globally-focused students, faculty, staff, alumni, student groups and organizations, and university programs and services.

· To provide a physical meeting, lounge, and resource centre space to support the programmatic efforts of globally focused student groups and organizations, and university programs and services.

· To stimulate responsive and engaging discourse about the pressing global issues of our time.

The purpose of the meeting was to outline UBC’s international identity as we saw it, and our collective vision of what it should look like in the future.

Many issues were raised – UBC’s role in the relief efforts in Haiti, our roles and responsibilities regarding climate change, and what we could do if every student at UBC agreed to give one dollar to a common cause.

Though we each had only a short time to speak, the result was undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. To have the representatives of these groups all in one room with the undivided attention of our head policy-maker was an unmistakably valuable opportunity, one that until this year had never happened before at UBC. The Global Lounge founding members have been meeting since October 2009, but this was the first time we had the President’s undivided attention as a group, and I was pleased to hear that this meeting was only the first of many.

Dr. Toope listened quietly to each of us, making notes as we spoke.

I took my single minute to reflect on UBC’s vision as stated in our new Strategic Plan entitled Place and Promise.

That vision is to “creat[e] an exceptional learning environment towards Global Citizenship and a civil and sustainable society”.

For some students, these words can seem thrilling. Yet they can also seem daunting.

I mentioned that the concept of the global citizen is omnipresent – and not just at UBC; university students everywhere are hurried out the door into this world and all its wonder and strife almost as soon as they arrive. I told him that I anticipate that this proclivity will only grow stronger.

We need to be bold, I said, certainly. But we need also to maintain a strong consciousness of the effects of our actions on those with whom we engage abroad. Even with the best of intentions, it is easy to do more harm than good.

I ended with my vision for the global lounge, which is to host a collection of student groups committed to ensuring that generations of UBC students bear this torch of global citizenship responsibly.

I think we will all need to collaborate to decide what that might look like.

When it was the President’s turn to speak, he was humble and sincere. I have heard him speak several times before, though never in such an intimate setting, and this affirmed for me that indeed, you don’t get that job unless you deserve it.

He acknowledged the incredible way in which almost no time at all, students came together to raise several thousand dollars in over an event lasting a few hours for the relief efforts in Haiti. He acknowledged that – even though it sounds corny – the only way sustainability will happen is because of the coordinated efforts of our generation. He told us we had more power than we realized.

I really appreciated his response to me, in which he commented on the subtle change made to the university’s vision with the birth of the new strategic plan. Under the old plan, global citizenship was framed as something which was done to students, rather than an identity which was allowed to evolve out of a supportive environment.

The most important moment of the evening however, was when he said that in order for this university to serve its purpose as an exceptional teaching and learning environment, it will have to have at its core a culture of ethics, integrity and sustainability.

President Toope said it himself; now it’s our responsibility as students to hold the university accountable! He’s behind us, so it’s all-hands-on-deck time.

Matt Whiteman co-coordinates the Ethics of International Engagement and Service-Learning Project at UBC. For more information, visit http://blogs.ubc.ca/ethicsofisl/

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Geoff is a 5th year student who studying a double major in Integrated Science (Evolutionary ecology, virology) and Political Science. He was the 'Wish' speaker at the 2008 Terry Talks and is passionate about university education, especially when it comes to interdisciplinary experiences. After graduation Geoff wants to find a job that allows him to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds and share stories. If your savvy enough you can follow Geoff on Twitter - user: gcosteloe.