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Drake’s “In My Feelings” is blasting from speakers, popsicles are being passed around, and Gould Street is more crowded than usual. It’s Clubs Day at Ryerson, which is held every first Wednesday of the school year, giving new and returning students a chance to join groups that interest them. However, walking by all the tables and booths, it does not take long to notice a common denominator between a lot of the student associations – most of them are, in some way, affiliated with a religion or culture. In other words, they’re identity based.
From the Hellenic Students’ Association to the Serbian Society of Ryerson, it seems that most students are represented on the club registrar. The tables are decorated with different foods and flags that represent respective faiths or countries. Hillel, Ryerson’s Jewish student association, is giving out apples and honey in celebration of the high holidays, and the cleverly named Union of Students Speaking Russian has photographs of nostalgic soviet cartoons.
It’s no secret that Ryerson’s campus is a diverse one, with students coming from countries and religions all over the world. Out of the 85 official student associations listed on the Ryerson Students’ Union website, over 40 of them are associated with some sort of ethnicity, religion or culture. This raises the question – what is it about identity-based clubs that appeal to so much of Ryerson’s student population?
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Taryn Grieger, a psychology professor at Ryerson who teaches a course on community psychology, says much of this has to do with the fact that students from the same background are able to bond over their shared experiences.
“I think it involves that sense of community,” says Grieger. “A lot of times in sports or other hobbies, the ties or the bonds from a kind of shared experience is not really there. Yes, they have similar interests, but they haven’t faced similar issues.”
The shared experiences, says Grieger, are what really create bonds between students. As a result, there is more of a draw to these types of ethnic and cultural groups and, therefore, there are so many groups.
“If people are in a group that is from the same cultural or ethnic background, they may have had similar experiences in terms of not only positive experiences but negative ones as well,” says Grieger. “It’s kind of a place to go to talk about those and realize that other people with the same background are having the same experiences, so they feel less socially isolated.”
Blue and yellow party decorations hang in the courtyard of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica at 200 Church St. The annual welcome back event, run by the Catholic Students’ Association, was bustling with students of all backgrounds, and the smell of hamburgers being barbecued lingers in the air.
Daniel Shtein, a fourth-year government and politics student, walks around the courtyard, engaging in conversation with new and old faces. Although he has been coming to their events since first year, this is Shtein’s first time being involved with the Catholic Students’ Association executive team, serving as the vice president of administration and finance. Shtein chose to become more involved in his fourth year, because he wants to give back to the community that he feels has added so much to his university experience.
The student group, which has a space lent by the Toronto archdiocese, is welcome to students of all faiths and backgrounds, and many non-Catholic students have become constant visitors to the cathedral.
Shtein says the diversity and vibrancy in the Catholic Students’ Association is his favourite part of the group, because it allows students to engage in meaningful conversations with those who have different beliefs and opinions.
“We have people here of all kinds, and not just Catholics,” says Shtein. “We participate in building an awareness of who we are as Catholics, but we invite dialogue. To me, seeing that process happen live is probably the greatest thing in the few years that I’ve been there.”
With the recent scandals involving the Catholic church, Shtein says there are a lot of misconceptions people have about Catholicism and, as a result, many Catholic students are afraid of talking about their faith openly. Having a space where such students can go to and speak with like-minded individuals allows them to feel a sense of togetherness and safety, ultimately helping the community flourish.
Such an experience, Shtein says, typically cannot be offered in a club that is based on mutual interests.
“I know some people on engineering teams who go there for the purpose of that club; they work on it and they might hang out, but they ultimately go home,” says Shtein. “Whereas clubs like these, especially ones that have a solid foundation, they are a community to be at. It provides that sense of comfort and you can come here and say, ‘I know this place, I’m safe here,’ and I would say that is one of the bigger assets that these clubs can provide.”
Geoffrey Handelman, 21, walks into the sunny Ryerson Hillel loft that overlooks Yonge and Dundas Square and is immediately greeted with a full room of smiling faces. People are snacking on bagels, sitting on the blue and yellow swing in the middle of the room and catching up on their work. Handelman, who is a student at the Ted Rogers School of Management, remembers his first day at Hillel – a welcome back lunch during his first week of university.
This day is still clear in Handelman’s mind. He was approached by one of the student presidents who introduced him to other people in the loft. Though Handelman says he was a bit anxious, it was the beginning of a very positive experience. Now in his third year, Handelman is serving as Hillel’s student co-president for the second year in a row.
“I knew about Hillel well before I came to campus and I knew that it was something that I wanted to get involved in from the get-go, because I knew it was a very warm and welcoming community,” he says.
Handelman says being the student president has not only helped him meet new people and expand his network, but has also allowed him to give back to his community and help enhance the university experiences of his peers. The fact that Hillel has a space for students to come together is also an important aspect, says Handelman, because so many students are commuters and this allows them to spend time together between classes.
“I think it’s important to have Hillel specifically because Jews, as a group, are often sort of on the outskirts and we always look for a community,” says Handelman. “Although it’s important to diversify yourself and introduce yourself to new cultures and new people, it’s still important to have that little bubble, that niche.”
He says clubs that are affiliated with religious or cultural groups tend to bring people together on a much more meaningful level, as opposed to groups that just focus on mutual hobbies.
“Religion is something you grow up with and it’s something that you can really connect to, and a lot of people understand you on that deeper level,” says Handelman. “For Jews, although we are all very different, we all sort of come from the same place and have the same understanding of one another, which is why students in such groups thrive in those environments.”
Communities thrive when they are working and spending time together, says Handelman. He also believes having ethnic and religious campus groups are very important for students, who are looking to meet new people and become more involved at Ryerson. Much like the Catholic Students’ Association, Handelman says that Hillel provides a safe space for students on campus, where they are able to be themselves as well as celebrate their religion without fear of judgement.
“Come get some Filipino food! Four pieces for $3, that’s less than a tall Starbucks drink!” shouts fourth-year student Hannah Purugganan, the president of the Filipino Canadian Association of Ryerson (FCAR). The student group’s executive team was standing outside of the Student Campus Centre (SCC), selling homemade Filipino food in order to raise funds for events they want to host this year.
Purugganan first learned about FCAR when she was in Grade 12, from her uncle who had actually founded the student group with his friends back when he went to Ryerson. When she saw their table at Clubs Day in her first year, she approached them and was welcomed with open arms.
She says being president has been a big time commitment, causing her to spend much more time on campus. “I make time for it just because I like to do it,” Purugganan says. “So if I have class one day, I’ll be at school earlier and later because I like to be here.”
Unlike Hillel and the Catholic Students’ Association, the Filipino Canadian Association at Ryerson is an ethnic-based student group. However, this shared cultural background has allowed Purugganan and her peers to bond with people over food, music and other issues that affect their day-to-day lives.
“Some people think that these groups are people who just speak their language or people who don’t know English,” says Purugganan. “But it’s a lot more than that – you gain friendships and relationships.”
Students from all sorts of backgrounds have joined this student group, and their events are a place where Filipinos, and those who appreciate this culture, can come together and celebrate it.
“I think that a lot of people have trouble, especially when you’re first coming into university, to fit in and find their core group of friends, or find people they want to hang out with,” says Purugganan. “Being in FCAR is my life. I just like the vibe of our group, and the people that join, and I can feel that it’s super genuine and people love to be here.”
While on the surface, these groups may only seem similar because of their religious and ethnic ties, deeper is the fact that they are safe havens — a place to make friends with common interests.
“Identity clubs provide a community, because outside of an interest, it’s a place to be at and it’s a person to be. In a sense – it is a home away from home,” says Shtein.
With Ryerson being a commuter school, these groups and spaces provide the foundations for friendships and camaraderie, surrounded by those with similar stories and backgrounds and a place to study and hang out.