The UPEI Student Union is meeting another milestone of diversity going into the academic year: an all international student executive.
This is a first for the organization. The union had an all-female executive for the 2019-20 academic year.
"It's very exciting to see how the UPEISU has been able to grow over the years and how there's potential for everybody," said president Brian Affouan, a third-year student from Mauritius.
"If you're coming to university, it doesn't matter where you're from, it doesn't matter what you want to do, what goals you might have. As long as you put the effort, the commitment and you dream about it, you're able to achieve and reach various goals."
The other three executives are Malak Nassar, vice-president academic and external, Ayomikun Oguntola, vice-president finance and Jose Gonzalez, vice-president student life. They hail from Egypt, Nigeria and Costa Rica, respectively.
A different year
They were all elected before the pandemic and have spent the summer getting ready for the unconventional academic year ahead.
Gonzalez said the plan is to maximize what they can do for students, while focusing on student safety.
"I feel like this year with COVID-19, a lot of things will be looking different in all of our portfolios," he said. "It's great because it gives us the opportunity to go above and beyond what is usually expected of us."
The university is proceeding with a blended model of in-person and online courses.
Affouan said they're expecting to have as many as 500 international students physically on the Island, but they won't have final numbers until fees are due in a few weeks.
"I feel like we didn't have this job before, so we're only experiencing it from this lens," said Nassar, who handles much of the external advocacy for the organization.
"It's been the challenge that makes it more rewarding, when you see those successes."
Her original goals for the year were to focus on student financial aid, international students' experiential education and Indigenous students representation, but with instruction moving online, she's now also adding access to technology as a priority.
Oguntola said COVID has also slightly tweaked the role of vice-president finance.
"We have to change some of the things we do, like the supplies. We have to upgrade them online and also some of the funding opportunities," she said.
"We have to provide new funding lines that could help students during this period."
The executive is also made up entirely of people of colour. Affouan said it's important the team represents the diversity of the university — and that students see themselves in their leaders.
"We have to acknowledge the difficulties that our community has been through until now. It's [been] difficult for people to get our position, so that's why it's taken so much time to [get to a] full international executive team," said Affouan.
"A student can come and really look at up and see, oh, someone who looks like me, someone who's been through my difficulties is able to achieve something that means that it's possible.
"That means that whatever the difficulty with our obstacles, as long as you commit to it and put the effort forward, you can reach a potential."
He said the team finds mutual understanding in their status as international students, who are all living far away from their homes and families, but it has brought them together by allowing them to share their cultures with each other.
"It's very empowering for myself as someone as a person of colour, empowering to see someone who looks like me or people who are usually an underrepresented group in a position of decision making," said Nassar.
"I feel like it's also important to acknowledge each of our privileges coming into this.… I definitely have privilege as a white passing person that other people of colour would not benefit from."
For Oguntola, she said she's proud to be representing Nigerian students.
"I see international students, especially from Nigeria, see me in this position, has really inspired me … so I'm really excited for this year," she said.
"You bring so many different perspectives to the table," said Gonzalez. "You get to have a different lens through which to look at things that have traditionally been done certain ways."
Overall, the team agrees they are looking forward to the year.
"We've been able to help students, specifically in a difficult year," Affouan said.
"To really have a vibrant community at UPEI, seeing that students love being here and are excited to be able to come here in the future."
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