Norman A.M. MacKenzie, UBC’s third president (1944-1962), once said, “No university in the world I know owes as much to its students as does the University of British Columbia.”
Sheldon Goldfarb, Archivist & Clerk of Council for the Alma Mater Society believes this statement is as relevant today as it was then. He should know. Goldfarb is responsible for collecting and preserving the AMS’s history. He is also about to publish a book in honour of the Society’s centenary this year.
The AMS was founded in 1915, just two weeks after UBC opened at its Fairview Slopes location, with a mandate “to improve the quality of the educational, social and personal lives of the students of UBC.”
The AMS organized the legendary “Great Trek” of 1922, the march by the university’s 1,200 students from UBC’s cramped, supposedly temporary location to the promised campus lands at Point Grey. The protest got results—the province agreed to make good on its promise to build the Vancouver campus that exists today.
The Great Trek was a seminal moment in AMS history, as it laid the groundwork for a student society like no other. “The AMS has always been about getting things done and pushing for what’s best for its students. When it’s seen major gaps in infrastructure or programming, it’s taken it upon itself to fill them,” says AMS Communications Manager Abby Blinch.
This past June’s opening of the new student union building, The Nest, is a perfect example. The old SUB was no longer meeting the needs of a campus that had doubled its student population since that building was erected 45 years ago.
In a 2008 AMS referendum, UBC students agreed to make the largest single donation to UBC’s start an evolution campaign—a remarkable contribution of $85 million towards the cost of the new building. Seven years later, The Nest has opened to great fanfare. Blinch and Goldfarb say they are not aware of any student society at any other Canadian university ever taking on a project even close to that scale.
For the AMS, this is just part of an entrenched culture of action.
Current AMS President Aaron Bailey says, “Students here are unwilling to be complacent. It’s a spirit deeply rooted in student advocacy that has roots back to the Great Trek.”
He points to the numerous projects the AMS has undertaken over the years, including the erection of Brock Hall, the old SUB, the War Memorial Gym and the former Aquatic Centre. Bailey emphasizes that it is not just about buildings. The AMS has also been responsible for businesses, programs and positions that have vastly improved student life, including health and dental insurance, the U-Pass, Safewalk, Joblink, the Sexual Assault Support Centre, the position of Ombudsperson and more.
Blinch points to these examples to show that although only 10,000 of UBC’s almost 50,000 students take part in one of the AMS’s 350 campus clubs, “Every student is touched by the AMS in an important way, even if they don’t realize it.”
Bailey, a fifth-year science student and the 106th AMS president, says, “We always have in mind what’s the next best thing for students.” He adds that while he feels privileged to be the president who gets to open the doors to The Nest, he has his eye on leaving his own legacy. On his list? Upping the campus fun quotient by launching an AMS microbrewery, growing the annual campus Block Party and partnering with Athletics to boost support for Thunderbird varsity teams.
Blinch has no doubt Bailey and his team will meet their goals because, as she explains, “Simply stated, we have really awesome students.”