Letter to the President and VP Students, regarding the International Service Learning program

I’m in disbelief and severely disappointed.

The UBC Strategic Plan of 2012 opened with the following quote: “It’s easy enough to make a promise, but it takes commitments to see it through.” In that plan the university made nine commitments to guide their actions and decisions, one of which related to the degree of international engagement the university supported: UBC promised us that they will expand international service engagement options for students.

In 2013, I participated in a class called Economics of Sustainability: Interaction between Markets, Technologies and Communities, and it changed how I thought about international engagement. In that class, we learned that development is not linear and is not meant to be solitary. It is vital for the international development organization to work with their community, building relationships with partner organizations and individuals within the community alike. We focused on exploring how we can best involve the community we work with on the decisions that affect them.

That summer, I, along with several other students, engaged in a three-month research-oriented International Service Learning (ISL) component as part of the class. We went to nations in South America and East Africa and engaged in building partnerships while striving to make real meaningful change in the community. We all soon learned that successful impact can only be made after a long period of working with the community, and that the relationship one can build with the community is one of the best methods to ensure the project's survival for years to come. We all left our placements with friends and mentors with whom we keep in touch on a regular basis.

Now, UBC is cutting all funding to ISL. While the president sent out a message to the university about celebrating the communities we work with, community partners and other collaborators were being informed that UBC will no longer work with them.

Worse still, no prior engagement with any stakeholders was conducted before reaching this decision. It took us -- students and partner organizations -- completely by surprise. We all felt like we were betrayed, that a promise was broken, that UBC waited until the last possible minute to announce this decision.

In recent years, financial constraints have been a reality. I recognize that. That’s why, even though I opposed the recent tuition hikes on principle, I recognized that the university needed those funds when provincial funding is dwindling. But this is unacceptable. Cutting a program that creates so much value for not only the students directly enrolled in this program but also the global communities UBC promised to work with is simply irresponsible. We learned a lot about irresponsible development in our ISL pre-departures, about donors who suddenly pull out of projects because their priorities shift -- usually to something that looks better on their webpage. Isn’t that exactly what is happening here? What does this say about UBC's respect for the people they are collaborating with?

UBC, engage us. Speak with us about your budget pressures; speak with us about what we, as students, want the priorities of this university to be. You made a promise. It does take a great deal of commitment to follow through with this promise and in this case, you have not. Stating budgetary pressure as a justification for everything, though it may be part of the truth, is inappropriate. One important development principle ISL taught us is that when the community organization experiences troubles, the individuals within that community, those who we are supposed to be helping, can actually help. UBC, let us help you.

Viet Vu is a fifth-year Economics major and AMS Councillor.