Letter to the students

An open letter to friends, family, and the students at the University of Manitoba

Former UMSU president Al Turnbull. Graphic by Evan Tremblay.

The Manitoban received this letter from outgoing University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) president Al Turnbull at the end of his term on April 30. Turnbull offers his thoughts on public service, activism, and the true meaning of a university education.

Today was my final day in office as your UMSU president. It started and ended pretty much like every other day in office. However, if you have a moment to humour me, I have a few reflections that I would like to share.

This year marks a lot of lasts for me: last exam, last football game. But my biggest and saddest last will be this day. The other moments were powerful and moving, but it is this last day of public service that I will miss the most in this chapter of my life.

One thing I have realized over the past 730 days is that public service can exist in all shapes and sizes. It can be opening a door, participating in a student group, or being a designated driver. For those that are so lucky, public service might be called a job with an outlined mandate and maybe a salary.

But upon reflection, I leave this place with an understanding that public service extends far beyond our social circles or our surrounding communities. It’s a mindset; an understanding that it isn’t all about you. Public service isn’t a one- or two-year term; it is a lifelong commitment to making the world a better place.

True activism isn’t yelling and screaming until you get your way. True activism is being the change you want to see in the world. True activism is engaging with your community. True activism is fighting for what’s right while respecting your opposition. True activism is trying to have a positive interaction with every single person you encounter. You do not need to be inherently political to be involved, you just have to care. True activism is giving a shit, whether it’s about your student group, human rights, or the type of food options on campus. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you care.

And if you care, care a lot.

Many students carry the belief that you can find true solace in your studies, and that success is manufactured on Aurora in the guise of As and Bs. I hear the “I’m too busy” followed by “I just don’t have enough time” line used ad nauseam. If I have taken anything out of the last two years it is this: an overemphasis on your academics is the path to a broken system that substitutes synthetic experience for real experience. I’m not saying abandon school. I definitely played the game. I’m saying be your own boss and fire some bullets, because it’s only when they’re flying that you truly grow.

So, for any new students wanting to get involved, here are a few things to keep in mind: first, although difficult to do, it is prudent to identify and invest in areas of your existing and emerging strengths. I naturally gravitated to the things I liked, and less to the things I was told to like. Find something you enjoy and that you’re good at and go with it – whatever that may be.

Secondly, know that sometimes serendipity will play a role. I don’t believe in luck, but when certain people or opportunities are put in front of you, you need to pounce.

Lastly, take calculated risks and know that you won’t win every time. Failure is inherent in all aspects of life. Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is a beautiful thing; once you realize you learn more from your losses than your wins, you can never lose.

Some things will be out of your control. You can’t get to know everyone, and not everyone will like you. Most of the latter will have never met you. Life is a constant battle of breaking down stereotypes and stigmas. If you’re told you can’t or are expected to not be able to do something, then be the paradox, break the stigma, and always dance to the beat of your own drum. No one can define you but yourself.

Obviously a huge thanks needs to go out to the two executive teams I worked with (especially Daria, Rebecca, and Jeremiah), and the hundreds of others that helped things move along the last two years. But most especially, I have to thank my brother, best friend, and partner from the beginning: Christian Pierce. Two and a half years ago, tipsy on Hub lager in Fletcher Argue, we started to devise how we could work together and help change our university for the better. I asked him if he wanted to go for a ride, and thank God he said yes – twice.

I love this school and everyone in it. I certainly made mistakes, and I know I wasn’t “the best.” But I hope to sleep well tonight knowing that I did my best. I have always tried to serve the interests of the students, and although not everyone will agree, I do believe the University of Manitoba is better today than it was yesterday.
In closing, thank you friends, family, and students of the University of Manitoba for giving me the opportunity to serve you these past two years. I will never forget the enormous and lasting impact all of you have had on my life.

One love,

Al Turnbull
UMSU president 2013-2015