Campus Beat

First Generation Student Union

Hannah Toms
Lua Presidio
Alistair Henning

With university attendance rates around the world climbing higher than they ever have before, we’re living in an age where an increasing amount of young people are part of the first generation of our families to go to university. Holding this status is obviously an enormous source of pride for both the individual and our parents, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a first-generation student myself, it’s that people don’t tend to realize the social, cultural and financial factors often accompanying the first-generation identity that can make succeeding at university almost impossible for us.  

The First Generation Students Union (FGSU), is an organization recently established on campus to represent UBC’s first-generation student population. In a statement to Discorder, the organization says that a disproportionate number of first-gen students come from low-income backgrounds compared to their peers, and that this is their biggest barrier to a smooth university experience. Many first-gen students must take on multiple jobs a semester in order to help their families pay their tuition and student fees, which decreases the amount of time they have available to complete their course work and adds to the already overwhelming stress of being a university student. “This devalues the experience of a university life by making it a continuous, relentless uphill battle,” says the FGSU.  


The other major adversity faced by first-gen students is our sense of alienation from campus life. As the FGSU puts it, first-gen students “often feel that they do not belong in the student community.” I’m privileged enough that low socio-economic status has not been a factor to contend with in my university experience, but I can confirm that trying to feel at home in an environment where the vast majority of your peers come from university-educated families and you don’t, is a difficult task. No matter how hard your parents may try, they cannot give you the same support in terms of navigating the academic and social ins and outs of university compared to parents who have experienced university first-hand, and you’ll always feel at least a little bit lost because of it.  


For the above reasons and more, first-gen and low income students at UBC need support, and the FGSU’s goal is to provide it. Aiming to build a network of first-gen students on campus who will support each other as they work toward graduation, the FGSU intends to begin hosting social events and panel discussions focusing on the first-gen identity, and to establish peer support and mentorship programs uniquely for first-gen and low income students. In order to “help bridge the gap between first-gen and non first-gen students” that exists at UBC, the organization has already begun collaborating with UBC’s Equity and Inclusion Office to bring awareness to and promote the first-gen student identity among our peers in an effort to encourage more integration between these two communities. The FGSU also has its own podcast in the works, which its members will use to “share their stories about barriers in accessing education within the context of the first-gen identity” with other first-gen students at UBC and with the student population at large. Finally, the FGSU has established partnerships with existing UBC organizations that address needs often experienced by first-gen students, including the AMS Food Bank, the Centre for Student Involvement and Careers, and the Financial Wellness Peers, in order to connect first-gen students with these organizations’ services.


The creation of the entirely student-run FGSU in January 2019 marked the first official time a presence representing the needs of first-gen students has existed at UBC. In fact, while the administrative bodies at universities across Canada, such as McMaster University and University of Ottawa, have in recent years established support services designed specifically for first-gen students, such an initiative has never been undertaken by UBC’s administration. But the FGSU is not disheartened by UBC’s delayed efforts of inclusion and support toward first-gen students, and in fact feels that UBC has accelerated its actions to follow their organization’s example by increasing its commitments to ease university life for us.


“We believe that even if changes take a long time to come into effect,” the FGSU states, “knowing that the university is supportive of our efforts in enhancing equity and inclusion allows us to be optimistic about our future.”



On October 31, 2018 The Free Speech Club (FSC) hosted right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro — best known for his “facts don’t care about your feelings” mantra — for a sold out event at the Chan Centre at UBC. This event was held despite significant protest from university students, faculty, and the AMS, which released a statement noting that Shapiro’s talk could make “transgender, queer, Indigenous, Muslim and other marginalized members of our community feel threatened.” These concerns about Shapiro stem from his career as a commentator, during which he has called homosexuality a sin, labeled women who have abortions as “baby-killers,” and claimed that “Israelis like to build” while “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” Despite outcry, the event became the club’s largest ever, with an audience of 1,300.

The Shapiro event and the rightful anger surrounding it is not an isolated incident. The FSC has hosted Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, known for his protest and violation of Bill C-16, five times. Peterson publically expresses his refusal to use students’ and colleagues’ correct pronouns and encourages others to refuse to do so as well, arguing that it is a violation of free speech. Following a Peterson-led rally at the University of Toronto in October 2016, a number of transgender students reported that they had received anonymous online threats, as reported in The Globe and Mail. Similarly, the FSC will host an event in March at the Hellenic Community of Vancouver, featuring men’s rights activist, Stefan Molyneux and self-proclaimed anti-feminist, Lauren Southern. It is worth noting that both speakers support white genocide conspiracy theories. Southern, who was born in Surrey, BC, has — in tweets that are now deleted — perpetuated false rumours from 4chan blaming the Quebec City mosque shooting on Syrian refugees, and has also argued against multiculturalism, claiming it “will inevitably fail unless 50 percent of the population believes in Western culture.”

From this brief list highlighting some of the more notorious speakers invited by the FSC, one could be forgiven for assuming that the club bills itself as a conservative or right-wing organization that regularly engages with the alt-right. However they instead describe themselves as “nonpartisan and committed to cultivating an open dialogue on campus, where arguments are made with wit and reason, rather than rhetoric and personal attack.” Their actual objective — obvious though unstated — is ironically summed up best by Shapiro himself, who publicly stated that, “The only reason to have a conversation or be friends with anyone on the left is if you’re in public in front of a large audience and your goal is to humiliate them as badly as possible.” This is perfectly demonstrated through the Q&A segments at FSC events, in which those seeking to challenge the speakers are given preference in line. Though this is billed as the FSC’s commitment to “good faith” and an opportunity for “open debate,” its sole purpose is to create short Youtube clips with titles such as “Ben Shapiro DISMANTLES Third Wave Feminism” and “Ben Shapiro SHREDS Pro-Choice Argument,” both of which are actual Youtube videos from his Chan Centre lecture.

In addition to the club’s glaring hypocrisy surrounding the issues of partisanship and open-debate, there is the issue of how individuals and organizations can effectively protest them and their events. The FSC and many of their invited speakers rely on attempts at protest and censorship, citing it as proof of the so-called “intolerant left,” and using it to convince their supporters of the importance of defending the nebulous concept of free speech, regardless of its content and effects. This is not to say that progressive groups can afford to simply ignore the FSC, as they are one of the largest organizations operating on UBC’s campus and their actions have severe consequences for marginalized individuals and communities.

Unfortunately, UBC’s policies regarding Academic Freedom and Freedom from Harassment and Discrimination seem contradictory and therefore unhelpful in dealing with the matter. As written on UBC’s Vancouver Academic Calendar, UBC seeks to ensure that members of the university enjoy the right to “to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion” and that “Behaviour that obstructs free and full discussion, not only of ideas that are safe and accepted, but of those which may be unpopular or even abhorrent, vitally threatens the integrity of the University’s forum.” In contrast, the university’s policy on Freedom from Harassment and Discrimination states that the UBC “is committed to ensuring that all members of the University community — students, faculty, staff, and visitors — are able to study and work in an environment of tolerance and mutual respect that is free from harassment and discrimination.” Mutual respect and discrimination are both ill-defined by the university, however, which deems the ideas of figures like Shapiro and Peterson as merely “controversial, or offensive” (per provost Andrew Szeri’s statement regarding controversial speakers at UBC), but not discriminatory. By inviting these speakers, the FSC has taken advantage of Academic Freedom and the university is, at best, incapable of preventing this and, at worst, uninterested in doing so.

Ensuring that individuals have the freedom to express themselves and feel safe to contribute their voice to the public dialogue is important work, especially on a university campus, but the Free Speech Club is not remotely interested in facilitating this work. Rather, they operate as attention-seeking trolls, choosing to focus on “triggering the libs,” instead of making any attempt to elevate marginalized voices. The positions of the FSC and their invited speakers are antithetical to the culture and community that UBC — an internationally renowned university that advocates for plurality and intercultural dialogue — claims to foster. Furthermore, the university is located on unceded Musqueam territory, and therefore owes respect to First Peoples by not allowing dangerous and hateful rhetoric, and by encouraging all people to contribute to the conversation, free from the risks of xenophobic attacks and threats.

If the FSC were truly committed to “cultivating an open dialogue,” then their website’s list of “notable” speakers would not consist of reactionary white men, all of whom work to perpetuate the marginalization and silencing of women, BIPOC, queer folk, and the transgender community. It is true that open dialogue and good-faith debate provides opportunities for learning, growth, and even healing, but that requires all voices — especially those which have been silenced — to have a platform, not just the ones who have been loudest.