Stories from inside York University's Second Student Center
February 8, 2022
York University in Toronto has one of the most diverse student populations in the world. Its more than 55,000 students represent nearly every ethnicity, culture, nationality, religion, identity and ability. To better support this incredibly rich student body, York University created the Second Student Center—a new hub on campus devoted wholly to inclusive student space.
The building opened in the fall of 2018, and according to Siva Vimalachandran, Executive Director of the YUSC, it’s exceeded expectations. “We created a building where every student can feel welcome, safe, motivated and connected to their peers,” he said. “We employed one of the most inclusive processes ever undertaken at a post-secondary institution and delivered a building that is truly one-of-a-kind and completely reflective of the student body.”
The building houses space for study, dance, meetings, multi-faith prayer, wellness and club offices that are always buzzing with activity. To better understand how the Second Student Center has impacted the students who use it every day, a few of our teammates spent a couple of days in the building to capture student perspectives.
Here are a few of the stories they heard.
Fatima Babiker is the president of the York Federation of Students (YFS), a student union representing all undergraduate students at York University’s Keele campus. As president, her main job is to ensure students are represented. “Everything we do is through the lens of equity,” she said. “We represent the students to ensure they feel safe, included and in the picture at all times.”
One of the union’s most significant contributions was leading the special referendum that sparked the creation of the Second Student Center; the referendum garnered the highest voter turnout in the history of Canadian post-secondary institutions with approximately 90 percent of students voting in favor. And although this happened before Fatima was a York student, she said the building that stands today is exactly what the students asked for. “It’s an inclusive space for students that’s independent from the university,” she said. “It was designed with students and is completely run by students for students.”
The undergraduate students’ union manages several student service programs, such as those for food insecurity and wellness, which are both housed in the Second Student Center. Also of importance is the union’s support of the diversity of faiths found among the student body. Impressively, the entire fourth floor of the Second Student Center is devoted to multi-faith prayer space, something of special importance to York’s significant Muslim population.
“Although the university has a chapel, it’s pretty small, so many Muslim students would pray wherever they could find space across campus,” she said. “Now we have a beautiful faith-based space where students can exist and be themselves.”
The Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) is one of the larger student groups on the campus with about 300 members representing the full spectrum of Latinx backgrounds. It's also the group almost everyone we talked to called out as being the loudest in the building. When confronted with this information, Alexus Marticorena, an executive member of the group, smiled and agreed. “We’re always playing loud Spanish music,” she said. “That’s actually how I learned about the group. I was checking out the new building with my friend and I heard Spanish music, so I went in, said hello and joined.”
Typical events hosted by OLAS include Latin dance workshops, Spanish language courses and social events like painting nights (all the artwork seen in the office was painted by members). Alexus, who’s half-Salvadoran and half-Ecuadorian, said the group’s popularity is largely due to how welcoming it is, regardless if people are Latin American or not. “York is so much more diverse than other universities I’ve visited. We welcome everyone.”
This diversity not only helps students find others like themselves—it also broadens their minds to other cultures. “All of the student club offices face inward, so we’re always interacting with the clubs around us,” added Alexus. “It’s such a culturally rich space.”
Chelsea and Farihah
Hallyu Dongari is a student group focused on celebrating Korean culture through cultural activities and events, social meetings and language exchanges. Chelsea Amoah and Farihah Tasnim are executive members of the group, which they assert is one of the loudest in the building (second only to the Organization of Latin American Students). They have a disco ball in their office, and it’s not uncommon to hear Kpop sensation BTS booming from their speakers.
Like many who attend York University, most members of Hallyu Dongari commute to campus, so the Second Student Center has become their home base in between classes. Farihah, who was napping in the Hallyu Dongari club office space when we first approached the office, said “I spend more time in this building than most places. It’s comfortable here and it’s become a place where we can have deep conversations with others like us.”
Chelsea added that the building has helped curb the loneliness many new students feel when they first start going to university. “We often hear from our members that they were shy or lonely until they joined our club,” she said. “Now they have a place to go where they feel like a part of a family.”
When asked what they enjoy doing most in the Second Student Center, they said dancing. They host dance workshops once a week, most typically in the open space on the fourth floor of the building. Their dance music of choice? Kpop, of course.
As president of the Middle Eastern Students’ Association (MESA), Marya Abdul Rahman is focused on cultivating a sense of community around love for Middle Eastern culture.
“Our club isn’t just for Middle Eastern students,” she explains. “But many of those students come to York University from an entirely different continent. It’s important we have a home base to come together.”
The Second Student Center has proven to be that home. Marya explains that while they did have a space before the building opened, it was more like a closet. “We didn’t have a strong sense of community and we couldn’t just step outside and make new friends.”
That’s changed now as Marya and her club mates use the new building to hang out, eat, study and have fun. They’ve connected with more than a dozen other clubs and help cross-promote each other’s events—most of which take place in the Second Student Center.
“As I said, Middle Eastern students come from far away to be at York. Our club helps them meet friends and make connections so it can be a great experience.”
One example is Fatima. Her involvement with the university started by joining MESA, which prompted her to get more involved across the board and eventually become president of the York Federation of Students.
Hannah Hassan and her club mates with Islamic Relief are focused on three key initiatives: raise awareness around global humanitarian crises, raise funds to donate and help, and in the midst of that, have fun.
Since the Second Student Center opened, Hannah says the club has been able to host more events. And, while they try to drive awareness around tragedies, they do so through game nights, social mixers and events that bring people together.
“Our work is about making sure people are aware of real problems in places like Yemen, Somalia, Palestine and wherever humanitarian challenges arise,” Hannah explains. “We’ve been really proud of some of the donations we’ve been able to make to some of these places. We’ve just been able to meet new people since the Student Center opened. It’s been great for the club.”
The third floor of the building houses the York Federation of Students’ Wellness Center, which exists to help students have healthy journeys while at the university. Gayle McFadden leads the center and guides its focus on mental health, physical health, sexual violence and harm reduction.
“We want to help students in any way we can” she explains. “So, yes, you can come here and we can connect you to counseling services if you need that. But students can also come here just to find a quiet space for a few moments, rent out tools to help them with issues at their apartment, ask questions, or just swing by to make friends.”
The YFS Wellness Center tackles stigma head-on. It’s mere steps from club space, conference rooms and the other social hubs in the building as opposed to being hidden. It provides educational materials of all kinds, safe drug kits and stocks free feminine hygiene products throughout the entire building. It’s made wellness a regular part of the Student Center’s DNA.
“It’s great that we’re part of this building and all it stands for, just as we want wellness to be part of each student’s experience at York,” McFadden adds. “There might have been a time where this wellness studio would have been located elsewhere, but we’re changing that conversation as we embed wellness at the forefront of student life.”
About the author: Patricia Bou is the co-director of CannonDesign's education practice.