Alliances. Clubs. Societies. Peer programs. What- ever you call them — here at MacEwan University we go with student groups — they’re an integral part of the student experience.
For three consecutive years, and an untold per- iod of time during our newspaper stage, the griff has given a brief profile of a student group in each issue. Not only does this speak to the preva- lence of groups at MacEwan over the years, it also showcases the sheer diversity of interests and initiatives on campus. The Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU) website hosts over 100 groups ranging from grad committees, program-specific groups such as the MacEwan Nursing Student Alliance (MNSA), cultural groups such as the Ukrainian Club, interest-based groups like Film Club, religious and political groups, and project-based groups such as The Bolo Tie Col- lective, which publishes an anthology of student creative writing each year. Whether education- al, recreational, or focused on activism, there is something for everyone within this wide array of student groups.
The large number of student groups on campus also means having pretty consistent access to a wealth of bake sale fundraisers, as anyone who’s ever bought goodies from the MacEwan Game De- velopment Club (GADEC) can attest.
Unlike fraternities and sororities, however, not all groups are permanent fixtures at MacEwan, or any post-secondary institution. In some cases, as with the grad committees for specific programs, this makes sense. After all, it would be a little weird — and impossible, based on policy — if the Grad Committee for BScN ‘93 was still kicking it on campus.
In other cases, however, the loss — or potential loss — of a group has larger and more upsetting implications for its members and the student body at large. Some groups provide a unique opportunity for learning that fills a gap created by limited program options. The Learning ASL at MacEwan group is a good example. Started in 2018, this group acts as the only way for students to learn American Sign Language (ASL) and build their understanding of deaf culture and etiquette while on campus, because there are no ASL cours- es currently offered at MacEwan.
But the average undergraduate program at MacEwan takes only four years to complete, with many diploma programs taking only two years. How can student groups expect to survive the ravages of time when their very membership has an expiration date?
This is the question that Ashley Bilodeau, co- founder and former president of The Bolo Tie Collective, is currently facing. Having graduated from MacEwan with her BFA in Communications Studies, Bilodeau now finds herself passing on the torch to a new (or at least, newer) generation of students, which is no small task. Winner of the SAMU Club of the Year Award for 2018-2019, The Bolo Tie Collective has left a substantial imprint on the university community since its inception in 2015. The group’s annual publication has not only given over a hundred MacEwan students the chance to say they are officially in print, it has also given them valuable editing and networking experience. According to Bilodeau, this experience is precisely what makes student groups and other extracurricular activities so important.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a group, it could be so many things, like getting involved in a pro- gram run at MacEwan, (volunteering with) the Sustainability Office, working as a research assist- ant for a faculty member… All of those things are good too, but Bolo defined my undergrad and also came to define my life,” she says.
From a personal perspective, Bilodeau’s involve- ment with The Bolo Tie Collective meant the opportunity to meet a group of people she would never have known otherwise, many of whom have become her closest, life-long friends. “Being part of (Bolo) is the thing that set me apart when I came to apply for my job now,” she adds, noting that there is a professional, as much as personal, aspect with many groups.
While the advantages of participating in a student group like The Bolo Tie Collective are clear, they still don’t guarantee membership or the group’s survival. Bilodeau is confident, however, in her group’s continued presence at MacEwan.
“I don’t have any fear (of it collapsing),” she says. “I think what I find most interesting about the Bolo is that we’ve drawn people from every department and discipline across MacEwan. We get students from everywhere, and because they’re coming, there’s (clearly) a need for the community. I know even talking with some of the faculty of the cre- ative writing minor, they’ve told me that our com- munity played a part in propelling the creative writing minor to the place where it is. When The Bolo Tie Collective established itself, you (had) students demanding these classes, and creating that demand and establishing that space at the school definitely had an impact.”
At its inception, The Bolo Tie Collective was “sup- posed to be a bridge between the (English and Communications Studies) departments,” accord- ing to Bilodeau, but the group’s creation was also borne out of a desire for a more stable community. Many of the co-founders were part of another literature-focused student group which collapsed “due to personal drama,” and between the per- sonal and departmental politics of the past, Bilo- deau says transparency became key for The Bolo Tie Collective.
For Bilodeau, that transparency translates to accountability and accessibility of information, which is a big must for any student group, she says, but especially so for ones navigating more complex communication structures and projects.
The annual anthology publication definitely counts as complex, given Bilodeau’s estimate that approximately 70 students are involved in each volume’s creation, all the way from submitters to copy editors. There’s also an element of discrimination inherent to any kind of editing process, something that Bilodeau notes needs careful handling. “There’s a lot of students judging and deciding who gets published and who doesn’t,” she says, emphasizing the need for transparency as well as an embodied philosophy of collaboration.
“Really our greater goal as a collective is to lift each other up,” Bilodeau says, “It’s important that (our) relationships are open, cooperative … It’s import- ant that the students working under me can trust me.” Building this trust involves navigating — and in Bilodeau’s case attempting to flatten — the hierarchical structure that naturally develops in student groups, but it also comes with an ample dose of humble pie. Mistakes get made, and for Bi- lodeau, owning up to these mistakes is not only a crucial part of resolving them, it helps to maintain member confidence in the group.
“I’m not perfect, I’ve learned a lot as we go,” she admits.
If communication, accountability, and humility are all part of Bilodeau’s recipe for a successful stu- dent group, than her key ingredient is a dedicated and altruistic executive. “It’s making sure that you have people who are committed to and impassioned about the project,” she says when reflect- ing on her confidence in the group’s survival.
In the group’s inaugural year, Bilodeau says that The Bolo Tie Collective was largely composed of “a tight-knit group of people who had a lot in common, who knew each other personally, and who were really invested in each other’s suc- cess.” Since then, new members have joined with no connection to the original group, and so the community has had to think ahead. “If you want to start a group and have it outlast your presence,” Bilodeau says, “you need to build it for the mem- bers and not just for yourself. Create something that people connect to in a way where they come in and carry it with them.”
As she and several other graduating members pass on their responsibilities to a new team of stu- dents, Bilodeau remains adamant that this pas- sion is what will usher The Bolo Tie Collective into a new age. “Our executives, they’re in it for some- thing bigger… for a much larger reason than their own personal benefit. They want to contribute to the space.”
(The group) lives in the people who are involved, so you have to connect with them,” Bilodeau in- sists, returning to the idea that one’s experience in a student group can be definitive.
“Student groups allow you to customize your uni- versity experience,” she says, and this tailoring is an important aspect of personal development.
“You can teach people pretty much anything when it comes to knowledge, but what you can’t teach is experience. It’s that experience that makes your education not just a university education, it makes it yours. You have a personality that has grown out of your education, that’s different than simply say- ing ‘I have a degree’.”
The Bolo Tie Collective celebrated the launch of its fourth anthology volume on Oct. 17. They are cur- rently welcoming new members and submissions for their fifth volume. Though Bilodeau acknow- ledges that, in general, groups are a much bigger time commitment than anyone gives them credit for, she also assures us that the experience has been — and will be, for new students — “completely worth it.”