Entering AMS VP Academic and University Affairs (VPAUA) and President-Elect Eshana Bhangu’s office in late March, the celebratory energy lingered. Congratulatory messages from fellow student politicians were still scrawled across her whiteboard, painting a picture of an intimate celebration following the announcement of the election results on March 11. One message clearly read, “That's my AMS president.”
The crowded whiteboard contrasted with the rest of the largely blank white walls. The office was largely undecorated, despite being occupied for almost a year. The only other decor was a set of photo booth-style photos of Bhangu and 2021/22 AMS President Cole Evans taped next to the whiteboard, a small, polaroid-covered bulletin board propped up against the wall on the desk, and an unhung painting shoved behind a chair under the office’s window.
A miniature Max Verstappen — a racer for Oracle Red Bull Racing and the 2021 Formula One World champion — helmet in a glass case also sat on her desk.
“I really like Formula One racing (F1),” said Bhangu. “And I am an OG fan. I just want to highlight that I am not from Drive to Survive. I didn’t become a fan after that.” Bhangu can often be seen wearing a Verstappen racing jacket around campus and at AMS Council meetings. She even wore it the night she was elected president.
Bhangu said she couldn’t remember when she first got into F1 but that it was probably from a cousin of hers watching it while they were babysitting her. From there, it was love at the first race.
Bhangu said she loves the innovation of the car designs, as well as the competitiveness of the racing. She also likes the environment of “constant improvement.”
“You can be a world champion by three tenths of a second,” she said. “I really like that part where you can make marginal changes to just get better and better.”
The joy of seeing small changes make a big difference spans many aspects of Bhangu's life, including her work at the AMS and her plans for her presidency.
"Marginal changes [are] really important," said Bhangu. "I better not be at a point this year where I think I'm doing great as president .... I think a seeking out that feedback is really important."
An early start
Much like Bhangu's love of F1, she also absorbed her political passion from her family.
In late elementary school, Bhangu's mom volunteered to phone canvass for a candidate in Metro Vancouver (Bhangu said she would rather not mention the specific candidate or party). Bhangu would spend her time after school at home alone while her mom volunteered. One day after school she didn't feel like hanging out home alone so she tagged along with her mom to the campaign office
“Oh, my god, I’m gonna sound like such a try hard, but I made a phone call that day,” she recounted with a smile to The Ubyssey.
Phone canvassing typically means person after person hanging upon you or yelling at you to stop calling them with only the occasional pleasant interaction. But, Bhangu’s experience wasn't typical.
“[I was] obviously a child so nobody was hanging up on me as they usually do when you're canvassing,” she said.
That day was enough to get her hooked.
A few years later when was in grade 10, she went on to volunteer at Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal’s office and by grade 11 she was working in the office.
Despite her long-lasting interest in politics, Bhangu didn't originally plan to get involved in student politics at university.
“I was at Imagine Day in the crowd of like 8,000 students and I saw [former AMS President] Chris Hakim speaking and I'm like, ‘I wonder if that could be me one day,’” she said. “But again, I really didn't know about the AMS at all … I just stumbled upon the nomination form [for the Senate].”
She went on to win her bid for the Senate and has served as a student senator since. Now, as Bhangu enters her fourth year at UBC and her third year in student government, she hopes to continue her work advocating for students as next year’s AMS president.
Lessons learned along the road
In her two years in student government, she has been involved in several student-facing initiatives and often mentions the importance of listening to and advocating for student voices.
“I never forget that students are the ones who put me here … keeping that in mind has been really helpful,” she said. She plans to continually remind her fellow AMS execs next year of the same thing
In July 2021, Bhangu and Evans sent UBC two letters demanding greater COVID-19 preventative measures on campus amid growing student concerns around the upcoming return to in-person classes in the fall. While case counts in BC were low at the time, news of rising infections worldwide from the Delta variant was fueling student anxieties around living in residence and attending lectures without mandatory vaccinations and masks.
The university implemented a soft mask and vaccine mandate in late August, following updated guidelines from the province. But the AMS has credited Bhangu and Evans’ advocacy as playing a key role in these changes.
In December, Bhangu along with the rest of the AMS urged the university to move finals to a virtual format amidst a rise in COVID-19 cases. The university allowed students to standing defer from courses no questions asked due to the rise in cases but did not force professors to move exams online.
This February, Bhangu secured funding from the AMS/GSS Health and Dental committee to obtain 65,000 KN95 masks to be distributed to students free of cost. According to the AMS, these masks were health Canada approved but The Ubyssey was unable to find proof of the masks' approval.
Bhangu also advocated for more accessible on-campus rapid testing for students which both the university and the AMS did end up supplying — until they both ran out of tests in March.
Reflecting on her past two years in student governance Bhangu said she had no regrets, after joking that she regrets not running for VPAUA in 2019 when no one was on the ballot.
The road ahead
In this year’s election, Bhangu beat out a crowded field of competitors for president including fellow AMS exec VP External Saad Shoaib, AMS newcomers Wesley Choi, Sydney Harakal and Tate Kaufman and joke candidates The Pan and Remy the Rat.
Although she was ultimately victorious, she only beat out Remy the Rat by almost 1,600 votes. Students said they voted for the joke candidate due to dissatisfaction with the other candidates and the AMS. She said she plans to incorporate some points from Remy’s and her competitors’ platforms in an effort to keep a pulse on the student body.
“I think elections also are seen as a time we're discussing student issues. And there's no better way to do that with a crowded race for president. We had seven people and all of them brought up such important things.”
Bhangu specifically mentioned affordability, mental health support, and engagement as common themes she saw on other platforms in which she hopes to make progress.
Bhangu recognizes that not every student voted for her or has faith in the AMS to get things done. But, she hopes to improve the relationship between students and the student society as president.
As AMS president her primary job is being the figurehead of the organization and managing her fellow execs. The success of this year's AMS executive ultimately rests on the shoulders of Bhangu's leadership. She described her leadership style to The Ubyssey as "student-centred and results oriented."
As far as Bhangu's initial plans, "I'm just ready to kick some ass."