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Interview: Jamie Arron on Dalhousie Student Union SoapBox

Meet Jamie Arron

Last week we had the opportunity to speak with Jamie Arron, the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) President to talk about his thoughts on the Dalhousie Student Union SoapBox.

SoapBox (SB)Jamie, you were the DSU President in 2012-13 –why did you run for President?

Jamie Aaron (JA):  I was a member of the DSU in previous years and had the opportunity to connect with some incredible people and saw that we had an opportunity to get back in touch with the student voice.  As a result there wasn’t a real sense of campus pride and I wanted to change that, so I decided to run for President.

SB:  What did you see as some of your biggest challenges?

JA:  As the President of DSU, I felt very strongly that our job was to represent the interest of the students.  I also saw that there was a huge untapped source of ideas in the student body.  However, it is not easy to engage with more than 18,000 students.  I found that at a maximum, I could only truly engage with about 150 students at a time focusing on a single project. Without an efficient way to get responses from students, it was difficult to make decisions that were reflective of the entire student body. Finally, because students have crazy schedules, I knew we needed to make participating easy and accessible.

SB: What did you like about SoapBox?

JA: SoapBox came at the perfect time- after watching the [SoapBox] video and sharing it with fellow DSU members we all decided that it was time to “reinvent democracy” using SoapBox, at least at DSU.  SoapBox really captured the philosophy of connecting with students through increased transparency and responsiveness. As well, it provided the initial entry point to making student engagement easy and accessible since SoapBox is available on our website and on our Facebook page.  The DSU decided to make SoapBox a priority for the year and we assigned two point people, Becky Richter and Taylor Quinn to focus solely on managing the ideas in SoapBox.

Implementation

SBHow did you launch your SoapBox?

JA:  When the school year started in September, the priority was to get the word out about SoapBox and see how students responded to it. We promoted SoapBox at every major school event, shared the video and explained how it fit into the DSU philosophy. The initial response was incredible with over 500 users signing up within the first few days. The sheer volume of ideas and responses was so great that there was a period of uncertainty as to how to approach all of these ideas and give responses in a timely manner.

SB:  How did you respond to ideas, and what were your goals in terms of responding?

JA:  At first, we tried to focus on the ideas that were tangible and easy to implement.  As these small wins and successes were shared, we figured out a process for handling and responding to ideas. We then created “the pledge”, which was a public declaration the DSU committed to: we pledged to provide an official response to every each idea that made it to the top 10% within 30 days. We also encouraged students to continue submitting ideas because the DSU were always looking for great wildcard ideas to implement. I think creating this pledge showed that the DSU cared about students’ ideas and at the same time, gave us enough time to ask the right questions and provide an official response in a timely manner.

SB:  Overall, what did you feel were the major benefits of using SoapBox?

JA:  I think there were five key benefits of using SoapBox.  First, SoapBox was an effective gauge as to whether DSU plans were reflective of what was important to the student body.  As well, some ideas that were heavily voted on and at the same time were separately being considered by the DSU provided reaffirmation that certain projects were important and valued by students. Consequently it also provided leverage for these projects because we had proof that the projects mattered to students- which really helps when dealing with outside parties. In cases where it wasn’t possible to implement an idea, SoapBox also  gave the DSU a way to engage with the student, suggest other ways to make their idea happen and most importantly, show that the DSU cared. Often, student unions get caught up in the big things and SoapBox was a source of fresh ideas where the simplest ideas truly made the biggest difference.

SB: What was your favorite part of using SoapBox?

JA:  There was one day late in the year that I remember really clearly.  I was walking through the student centre, and everywhere I looked, there were changes that we had made through SoapBox. For example, there was music being played on our new speakers, a few students were playing foosball on the new foosball table, and on the walls were covered in art that was done by student artists.  All of these were ideas on our SoapBox, and it was really cool to see all of these ideas manifested into reality – none of those things existed in September.  Some ideas were simple but made sense. Like having all the bus times posted in the central student building so that students didn’t have to walk all the way to the bus stop only to find out that the bus would come thirty minutes later. I think SoapBox is really a symbol to the student community that the DSU wants to create a culture of engagement and I am really proud of what we accomplished in our first year.  Things are starting to shift.

SB:  Do you have any advice for other Student Governments that are looking to increase student engagement at their schools?

JA:  If you are going to get into it, make SoapBox a priority and become a part of the engagement cycle. Invest yourself in it because what you put into SoapBox is what you will get out of it. Be open-minded and avoid going into it with preconceived ideas. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to be immediately responsive – instead, establish a system for how to respond to ideas like how we created a pledge. The system may not be obvious at first and will require some fine-tuning so don’t be discouraged it if doesn’t work out the way you had planned at the beginning.  Finally celebrate the small successes.

The Bottom Line

The student body reacted extremely well to the Dalhousie Student Union SoapBox with over 300 ideas, 11,000 votes and 25 completed ideas. The students also recognized that SoapBox was a symbolic action from the DSU to reach and reconnect with students. As a whole, the student community was talking about how SoapBox had a positive effect and will become a part of their future.

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