An interview with Deepak Sharma, our new SFSS president


[dropcap]I[/dropcap] met the newly elected Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) president, Deepak Sharma, on his fourth day of presidency. Outfitted in a suit and tie, the edge of which was taken off by his wide smile, he gave me a firm handshake followed by a soft-spoken introduction. As the interview progressed, I realized that in many ways, Sharma is composed of these two opposing sides: exuding professionalism and experience, but always with a tinge of the astute self-awareness of someone who’s still surprised to find himself in such a position.

Sharma describes his beginnings as humble. “I come from a place called Whalley. . . no, it’s not Surrey Central, no, it’s not Vancouver.” While it was a slip of the tongue that he regrets during a debate, Sharma still identifies with the “inner-city kid” who may find himself out of place in a student body president’s office.

But his experiences growing up in a fairly unknown school in a fairly unknown part of town also led Sharma to one of his greatest passions to date: youth mentorship. Sharma describes how he sometimes felt sitting next to classmates in his small-town public school who perhaps “. . . [weren’t] able to eat breakfast, or [got] involved in questionable activities after school just so [they didn’t] have to go home due to abuse or neglect. . . ” This experience inspired Sharma to return to his community as a mentor. “It’s easier for students to sometimes connect with someone they’re aspiring to be like in a couple of years. . . who won’t judge them,” Sharma says.

In addition to youth mentorship, the new president has experience volunteering in hospitals and homeless shelters, playing and then refereeing community-based football, and being a general ambassador for TEDxSFU.

“I’ve just got to make sure my actions speak louder than my words.” – Deepak Sharma

Despite an impressive level of community involvement — which led Sharma to be named one of the Surrey Board of Trade’s Top 25 Under 25 in 2015 — it was a lack of SFU-specific involvement that led him to student politics. Sharma’s political career began as a science rep, followed by VP Student Life, and now president of the SFSS.

Sharma’s disconnect with SFU’s extracurriculars stemmed in part from the fact that his early university experience was based on SFU’s Surrey campus, which he maintains has yet to have a complete sense of unity with the Burnaby and Vancouver campuses. Recognizing and embracing SFU as a tri-campus institution was a prominent topic in Sharma’s debates leading up to the election.

In Sharma’s opinion, SFU’s reputation as a “commuter campus” pre-empts students from being proud of their SFU identity and getting involved on campus. But Sharma envisions using SFU’s commuter culture as an advantage: “If we don’t address the fact that we’re a commuter campus, how are we going to have a presence at Vancouver and Surrey?” Sharma asks. “There needs to be a way to work alongside the [three campuses] instead of just being Burnaby-based.”

Sharma himself embodies the advantages SFU has gained due to its unique multi-campus organization. “SFU Surrey has allowed me to be involved further in the community I grew up in. . . because one of the campuses I attend directly affects my community,” Sharma says.

Sharma’s focus on providing an equal student experience to membership attending all three campuses seems to contradict his support for Build SFU, a project to build a student union building (SUB) and stadium that could cost the university, and thus students, up to $65 million. One of the major arguments against this controversial project has been that it unequally benefits Burnaby-based students, but students in Surrey or Vancouver will experience the same increase in tuition fees to fund it.

Sharma doesn’t deny the lower appeal of the project to non-Burnaby students. From his perspective though, the building’s potential to unify the student body would percolate out of the Burnaby campus to benefit all SFU students. “We [are trying] to say we’re all part of one community. . . . [the SUB] is [a step] towards building that community instead of further dividing it.”

Sharma seems the most at ease when discussing policy, rattling off the three main goals of his board: governance reform, enhanced communication among students and between students and their elected officials, and efficient reimbursement programs.

Sharma reports that reimbursement would begin increasing in efficiency as quickly as next week.

The SFSS supports over 400 active student groups in multiple ways, one of which is funding. “Due to the SFSS structure made a long time ago, we can’t accommodate the number of active clubs efficiently anymore,” says Sharma. “Some clubs get approved, but reimbursement doesn’t occur in a timely manner, and that’s not us supporting the students effectively.”

“SFU Surrey has allowed me to be involved further in the community I grew up in” – Deepak Sharma

Increasing reimbursement speed and efficiency is one of the major points listed in the three-year strategic plan laid out by the board under his predecessor, Enoch Weng. Sharma cites the plan as one of his motivators to run for president: “I felt I was in a good position to continue the work that had been done last year.” It’s also a much-needed tool to give his board direction and “keep everyone on the same page to reduce redundancies and increase efficiency.”

When Sharma is confronted with specific questions that his rehearsed rhetoric can’t adequately answer, his hesitance seeps to the surface. His shortcomings in addressing concerns spontaneously garnered the new president criticism during the debates leading up to the election, some of which came directly from his own board members.

Sharma admits that his debating skills often fall short and a personal challenge he already anticipates for himself is effectively communicating the work that is being done by the SFSS.

“If my board and the rest of the membership doesn’t know what I’m doing, that’ll be a poor reflection [of our work] and will limit the momentum we have,” Sharma states.

When asked for his opinion on additional criticism directed at the personal projects that dominated his trimester as VP Student Life, Sharma concedes that his agenda has thus far been portrayed as highly focused on social aspects, but that it is not an accurate representation of what he hopes to accomplish as president.  

Specifically, Sharma mentions four values that his board aims to address in the next year: along with student life, he lists student finances, academics, and (mental) health and welfare.

Sharma abandons both his rehearsed plugs and self-aware hesitance in excitement as he describes a specific initiative he hopes will shift the “skewed perception of [himself] as being focused on just social aspects.” It’s a cause that the SFSS previously has not played a large role in: the provincial elections occurring in 2017.

Sharma admitted that a personal challenge he already anticipates for himself is effectively communicating the work that is being done by the SFSS

By honing in on the fact that youth voter turnouts in elections have been following an upwards trend, Sharma paints a picture in which the SFSS uses the collective student voice to communicate student needs to government officials on a much larger scale. To this end, the SFSS aims to facilitate dialogue between the membership and their elected student body officials about what they expect from their local and provincial governments.

The board under Sharma is looking forward to beginning their lobbying efforts as soon as possible so that they can engage with political leaders as these officials are still creating their platform.

“There are so many things about our lobbying efforts that will affect students,” Sharma affirms.

“Does the membership know that we are not able to build more residences because the current government doesn’t want to provide us with a loan? Maintenance is another huge problem. . . the current government is unable to provide the school with more capital.”

Sharma also brings up the fact that, while current loans taken by the university have a six-month “grace period,” interest is still charged on the loans. Furthermore, “we’re the only province that is charged an additional 2.5 percent interest on loans in addition to the federal interest,” he adds.

Despite all the bold promises Sharma makes throughout the interview, he concludes in a manner I had come to expect: by acknowledging the other possible outcome of his term as president. “Of course, you may come back next April and ask me, ‘Deepak, what about this, this, and this that you promised to do but never did.’ That wouldn’t be very good,” he chuckles.

“I’ve just got to make sure my actions speak louder than my words.”