Searle: Invest in tomorrow’s London today­

Each year, more than 6,000 first-year students arrive at Western and quickly develop their first impression of London. And while the student population may receive a negative image during certain times of the year, the same can be said about London from a student perspective.

An out-dated transportation system, heavy police presence in near-campus neighbourhoods during the first month of school, and a lack of community engagement throughout all four years, can really affect how a student feels about the city that houses their university. It is in the opinion of the University Students’ Council (USC) that students bring much more to this city than noise. They bring energy and creativity, they bring culture and disposable income and they bring dreams and aspirations.

In a place sung to be a City of Opportunity, the USC believes that the City of London can do much more in engaging and retaining Western’s most valuable export: Canada’s brightest students.

The USC strongly believes students in London should be seen as citizens of this city first before they are thought of as just transient scholars. Following on that principle, the USC also believes it has a responsibility to be a positive force in the broader community. We have always placed a priority on giving back to London, and being a good partner to City Hall and the neighbourhoods surrounding campus. We give back through our annual fundraising efforts for local and national charities, and students donate countless volunteer hours to local non-profit agencies.

While many students do not pay direct property taxes to the city by virtue of them living in residence or paying rent to a landlord, students help our city thrive by bringing thousands of dollars of revenue to local businesses and restaurants each year. Students help our city’s economy grow and develop, much like Western does for its own students.

Investing in a progressive transportation system would be a prudent first step in showing students London is a city looking to improve. Many students, when considering where to live after graduation, take into account the type of transit system available to them as many of them will not own a vehicle.

Investing in Bus Rapid Transit in the 2012 Budget would send a strong message to all citizens that London is committed to being an urban, healthy and green city. Students arriving at Western each year are taken aback by our current transit system and the numerous problems associated with riding it. A commitment from the city to improve our transit system cannot come too soon. With many students literally being left behind at bus stops each morning, they need to know their city is actively working to improve its infrastructure.

Students feel connected to Western, but not as connected to the City of London.

If London wants to retain students post-graduation, it needs to engage them in their neighbourhoods and make it easy for them to be active citizens. At the USC, we engage thousands of students in leadership opportunities each year – students want to participate in their campus community, be leaders, volunteer, and engage with issues. Students – with all of their passion, talent, idealism and perspectives – could also make valuable contributions to the city if they felt more connected and engaged with London.

That is why the USC encourages the city to fund two community engagement initiatives on the ‘Adds and Cuts’ list for the budget:

  • The Strengthening Neighbourhoods Strategy and Improving Outreach and Communication with Citizens initiatives. By investing in neighbourhood greening projects and community gardens, the city would be giving students opportunities to take pride in their city. For many students, this pride will translate into deeper forms of engagement with the city.
  • On the Community Engagement item, hiring a specialist to improve outreach with citizens is an opportunity for London to tap into the energy of students. The ‘Living in the City’ notices in local newspapers don’t inspire long-term residents to engage with the city, let alone students – so we support hiring a community engagement specialist who knows how to engage with our demographic.
    Invest in engagement and you’ll start to get more students to public meetings, and applying to sit on Advisory Committees and Task Forces. This engagement will give more students a sense of belonging in London, more knowledge of the city and its job market, more interaction with community leaders who can connect students to jobs – these are key factors in retaining students after graduation.

As our city competes globally to attract new investment in jobs, it should not have to compete to keep students within the Forest City. The USC believes if London was seen to be more than just a place students come to study in, then the future of our city will be one of great growth and prosperity.  An investment in a progressive transportation system and community engagement initiatives are two big leaps forward in showing all students and all citizens of London that our city is truly one of opportunity.

Patrick Searle is the University Students’ Council vice-president, university affairs.