By Marc Darmohraj
As Ukrainian Canadians, many of us recognize the importance of promoting our culture and heritage within our respective post-secondary institutions. Expanding youth engagement, maintaining intergenerational traditions, and creating a sense of community and belonging for Ukrainian youth are a few of the many reasons to foster the development of Ukrainian Student Organizations (USOs) on our university campuses. It is important to recognize, however, that in addition to the benefits that these clubs bring to our own community, USOs contribute to university society on an even greater level. At Canadian universities that have Ukrainian student representation, these clubs are typically part of a larger student organization network. The intercultural exchange and collaboration between USOs and other student groups that are part of this larger network is healthy not only for group members, but for all university students.
The possibility for our USOs to collaborate with other cultural groups, for example, can be quite valuable to our development. As Ukrainian students and representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian community on our respective campuses, engaging other students and boosting involvement is one of our major objectives. Drawing upon my personal experience with the McGill Ukrainian Students’ Association, student events involving multiple cultural groups often have high turnout. I have a few theories as to why this may be the case.
First of all, people love being able to feel a sense of solidarity with their own community. European trivia nights, which are quite popular at McGill, are one example where people come together and help represent their own cultural club. The students love being able to work with each other and compete against other European clubs, as doing so allows them to feel like they are part of something.
Additionally, for members that are new to the university and have not yet been acquainted with the USO, intercultural events are beneficial in that they allow these students, who do not yet have a Ukrainian network, to bring friends. This allows them to feel more comfortable getting involved. Large scale events, to which new students can bring friends help to minimize the unease that comes with attending a smaller event and not knowing anyone. Large intercultural events are thus helpful to those who are wanting to get involved but who may be unsure how and where to start.
There are also a variety of cultural benefits that emerge as people of different cultures come together and share ideas and customs. From arguing over which country eats the most garlic, to comparing and contrasting dance moves and songs, people learn a lot about each other and about the world through this type of interaction. I must admit that university campuses are the perfect setting for this, as students from around the globe live, study, and adapt to university life together. Sometimes the most valuable aspects of cultural exchange are deeper than what is seen at surface level, however. For instance, the Concordia Ukrainian Students’ Union (CUSU) office shares a floor with their university’s Latin American Students’ Organization (LASO). Over time, members of both clubs have gotten valuable insight into the life and childhood of the other’s country and associated culture. “What makes us so close,” says Nazar Moroz of the CUSU executive, “are the similar struggles and hardships we’ve gone and still go through. The socioeconomic situations of our countries have not been too pleasant in the last two decades, and this has yielded a stronger desire for people to start finding value in things like family and friendship.” Learning about these shared similarities can provide a sense of comfort to students who may be new to Canada, and also has educational value to those hoping to expand their knowledge about the world.
Diversity on campus can also have an array of educational benefits, as students in multicultural settings learn to look at things from multiple perspectives and to tolerate different opinions. This skill set is invaluable for today’s students in the workplace, as entire industries are becoming more globalized by the minute. Studies show that diverse work environments increase company performance, and so in order to better integrate our students into the professional environments that lie ahead, it is crucial that our universities give them opportunities to experience these settings. Encouraging collaboration between cultural and ethnic student organizations on campus does not just serve to help those involved in the clubs, but rather, the effects and benefits diffuse throughout the entire school. More collaboration leads to stronger acceptance and promotion of cultural diversity at the university, which in turn encourages tolerance and professional development for all students.
Fostering the health of cultural organizations is an effective way to build unity among students both of similar and differing cultural backgrounds. Given the crisis that the world is facing today, it is especially important for students to stand together. A weak global job market, uncertainty regarding the future of education, and medical concerns are leaving students across the country dispirited. Any influences that encourage cohesion during this pandemic should be welcomed and appreciated as now, more than ever, we need it.