Our Campus: Versatility over perfection is the goal for AUS President Kat Aquino

Deep in Buchanan D, cardboard boxes, broken chairs and graduation photos from years gone by clutter a room that could only be described as multipurpose. A conference table dominates the limited floor space, forcing you to sidle along the wall to get to the head of the table, where a woman sits, typing furiously. You wouldn’t be blamed for not knowing this room is the office space of the Arts Undergraduate Society and for not knowing that the woman at its head is named Kat Aquino, an elected representative of 13,000 UBC students.

Entering her second year as president of the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) and fifth year as a cognitive systems major, Aquino finds herself in a situation unfamiliar to most student politicians: comfortable. With a year of presidency under her belt — as well as a year of volunteering and time as an AUS executive — Aquino finds herself well versed in the relationships and structure of the faculty society, particularly in regards to its larger counterpart: the AMS.

“It’s very much [a] parent-child sort of relationship. We go to them for advice and are able to get support from them, whenever we need,” Aquino said.

Beyond allowing Aquino and the rest of the AUS executives to branch beyond the Buchanans, the societies also find themselves tasked with representing huge groups with diverse interests and concerns. Whereas the AMS attempts to represent the interests of about 50,000 undergraduates at UBC, the AUS represents 13,000 of those students.

Both societies are known for their poor voter turnout, with the AMS often not being able to reach quorum at its annual general meeting. The AUS finds itself even less representative, with the 2019 AUS general election having a turnout of just over 1,200 students or 9.6 per cent of the vote.

Even with this lower turnout, though, Aquino expressed the importance of being confident in the actions she takes as president.

“I still feel like I can represent the needs of a larger student population because I have cared to understand, from different perspectives, what the arts experience is like. And although I wasn’t voted in by all fifteen thousand people … [and] I didn’t get 100 per cent of the votes of the people who did vote, I think I care enough to understand that being in arts has different nuances.”

As Aquino spoke more about what representing the faculty meant to her, the cramped boardroom fell away from her. She was back in the Chan Centre on Imagine Day, trying to instil the idea of a faculty that is also a community to thousands of incoming first-year arts students.

“It is difficult … [but] I do think there are inherent things in being an arts student that don’t change,” she said.

“We get made fun of the most, I think is fair to say. And also the belief, not just from our peers but from our parents and from other people in our family, that having an arts degree isn’t the most useful thing to have. I don’t think that that necessarily changes from each little pocket of study.”

The difficulties that come along with trying to represent a huge, varied group of people don’t stop with finding a connecting thread in the group’s history. You also have to figure out that group’s wants and needs, especially when you’re spending their money.

The AUS has a budget of around $180,000, much of which comes from the $13 student fee paid yearly by arts undergrads. The AUS’s big project right now is the Arts Student Centre, though Aquino was hesitant to pin the undergrad society to just this one cause. For the returning AUS president, providing better mental health support to arts students is a promise she intends to keep.

“The reason that I wanted to continue being president was pushing for better mental health services … [To] create more awareness in the faculty of arts office of what sorts of needs students have.”

Reflecting on her previous year at the helm of the faculty society, Aquino felt she was spread too thin, having “spent too much time doing other things.”

Now, she said, is the time for her to ensure the AUS is actively engaging the faculty of arts administration on issues of mental health resources and awareness.

“I don’t think I would be happy with graduating if I don’t feel like I’ve made any progress in making the dean aware and more professors aware of the power that they have in shaping how students feel in their classrooms and feel like they can handle the academic work that we are expected to do,” she said.

“I understand that on the faculty level, projects like this take years and years and years. But it is something that I’m wanting to push the ball forward … But if there’s a timeline that’s created, I would be so happy and I think that would make me feel like I’ve done something for other people.”

In particular, Aquino believes in the importance of building support systems into the learning environments a first-year arts student inhabits, something that could be best addressed by the professor of a 100-level course.

“I can speak from my personal perspective that, if my professor [in] first year had said, ‘It’s okay if you’re struggling, let us know,’ I would have had a different experience ... I think I took it way too seriously, as first years tend to do, [in] that you’re just like, ‘I am a failure if I don’t get an A in my class,’ because that’s how you are in high school.”

Reflecting on her year as president of the AUS, Aquino believes in the importance of the relationship she helped to build between the undergraduate society and faculty administration.

“We sit in a really weird place in being able to advocate to the faculty … I’ve been trying to build a good relationship with the faculty over the past year that I’ve been president, making it clear how that kind of student-faculty relationship can exist, because it was very fake before.”

Aquino closed out the interview with a simple message to her constituents, as well as UBC students at large: neither she nor any other student politician or leader is perfect.

“I want to say that the most successful people on campus also have their own issues and struggles. And we don’t talk about it, because it’s part of the human ego to not want to talk about your struggles … But yet, I failed a ton of classes.

“I’m not the president because … I’m this perfect person.”