The Secret Lives of UBC Students

Photo by Flickr user stevendepolo //CC license: BY

A blog about inconspicuously fascinating young people on campus

While reporting at the University of British Columbia, I’ve met many ridiculously accomplished and interesting people—and, no, they aren’t all professors.

Many of my unassuming peers harbour stories that would jump-start your pulse. Take Jake Wall for instance: he has trekked through the Kenyan desert, dodging snakes and herding stubborn camels, all to get an elephant’s eye view. Or consider Sarah Klain, who spent two years on the island nation of Palau, tracking sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles, and dugongs.

Over the next few weeks you can read these stories at but I’ll post excerpts and links to the stories as they go up.

By the way, do you know a fascinating undergrad at UBC? If so, I could sure use the referral! Let me know in the comments below.


Schooling Ignatieff on talking to University Students

Image from Michael Ignatieff's Flickr photostream

Before I say anything about Michael Ignatieff, I should mention that I’m not a Liberal. Neither do I shroud myself in Conservative blue, NDP orange, or Green–uh–green.

(This doesn’t mean that I don’t have political opinions, but more on that later.)

Still, when Mr. Ignatieff comes to UBC campus on January 15, I’m willing to head to the Norm Theatre to hear the man out.

Young people don’t exactly vote in droves, and some say it’s a risk to focus on us, since “a tour such as this one might not be as prominent or as interesting to the media” (see Rebooting Michael Ignatieff). And, I admit: I find it interesting that Iggy is about to tour the country to talk to students, specifically, and that he’s targeting campuses at this crucial time.)

Those born after 1979 are probably used to being called cynical, apathetic, disaffected or simply too self-absorbed to follow federal politics and periodically make our way to a ballot box. But I think we deserve a bit more credit than that. If we had a Facebook relationship status with Canadian politics, I’m sure it’d be set to “it’s complicated.”

Anecdotally, I feel that the vast majority of my peers do care about several, though often specific, issues…but I do wonder why relatively few of us take active interest in the feds and their antics,… err, actions.

In an attempt to make sense of this disconnect, I’ve read through a report by the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN).

Are today’s youth indifferent or just different?

Some friends get playful with protest signs. I believe I took this picture in 2007.

The report addresses the question: are today’s youth indifferent or just different? They make a strong case for the latter.

According to CPRN, we are largely indifferent to formal (or big “P”) political institutions and practices because they do not speak to our interests as young people.

Instead, we get involved with various small “p” political initiatives that seem to better reflect our concerns for different local, national and global issues. Compared to previous generation, we’re less likely to be card-carrying partisans and more likely to get civically and politically involved through NGOs or specific causes. Many of our actions are individually based, as opposed to institutionally based.

Unfortunately, our avenues of involvement are barely recognized by traditional research methods and academic discourses, which mostly use traditional definitions of political participation, like voting in Federal elections. The result: we are broadly labelled apathetic, and even we ourselves don’t always identify our choices–like buying fair trade coffee or partying at a gay bar–as political decisions. The CPRN report features this bold statement in their conclusion:

“Youth are not disconnected from politics; it is political institutions, practice and culture that are disconnected from youth.”

But wait, before we congratulate ourselves for doing our own thang, we can’t forget that the big P-people make immense decisions that affect our lives, our nation and our planet. Maybe we don’t engage them because  we’re more accustomed to what Journalist Michael Valpy called a Catch 22 situation:

“… the political parties don’t pay much attention to young people and their concerns because so few of them vote, and possibly one of the reasons why so few young people vote is because the political parties don’t pay much attention to them.”

So, during this tour, will Ignatieff set out to pay attention to us or just to try to get attention from us? We’ll probably know within the first ten minutes of his speech. By the time he gets here, UBC students should expect to see him at his best. (He’ll have plenty of stops along the way to make mistakes.)

Either way, this tour will be an important one for Iggy: monumental for his party if he gets it right, disastrous if he doesn’t. I’m not making any predictions yet, but I do think he needs to start by getting genuinely interested in this generation and seeing us as more than potential Liberals.

So far, I’ve seen him quoted in a Toronto Star article as saying it’s important to “preach to the unconverted” and adding that “University students are the future of Canadian politics and we have to get to them.”

We’re not just the future, Iggy. We’re the present. And if you want us kids to take you seriously, you’d better leave words like “preach” and “get to them” in the past.


Related: Prorogation Provokes Online Uprising
Full story in The Tyee

I think the following except further illustrates the point I tried to make above. The person quoted is Christopher White, a 25-year-old grad student and creator of the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament.

“I am not a card-carrying member of any political party… I have never volunteered for a candidate or party,” White said in an e-mail. “The last rally I went to was five years ago during my undergraduate degree to protest tuition increases.”

He was, however, profoundly frustrated when he learned that Harper had prorogued Parliament for the second time in two years.

“To me, prorogation was indicative of a much larger issue in Canada — of how disconnected many of us are from politics, and how our elected leaders use that to their advantage,” he explained.

“The Story of Stuff”–let’s have a conversation.

Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize
we cannot eat money.
~Cree proverb

It’s funny how the littlest incidents can give you hope in the face of overwhelming worries.

This morning I listened to “The Last Call” on CBC Radio one, a special program hosted by renowned environmentalist David Suzuki. One of the people he interviewed was Annie Leonard, the woman featured in the short video above. I was struck by how concise yet articulate she was.

When the radio show ended, I decided to google Leonard’s short movie. About 7 minutes in,  my 13-year-old sister, Bebe, entered the room and peered over my shoulder. To my surprise, she asked me to start the movie again from the beginning. From the corner of my eye I noticed the look of concern on her face. For a girl who loves to shop, she laughed quite heartily at skinny heel vs. fat heel segment of the video. It seemed she took a moment to question her own love of malls and sparkly new things. When it was over, Bebe said that the video–which is being used in classrooms across the United States–should also be shown here in Canada.

You know, her warm reception of the short film gave me hope. In the past, I thought I was boring Bebe with all my talk of environmental activism. At the age of 23, I thought I may already be sounding like a lecturing grown-up to her. When I reminded her of simple things, like taking shorter showers or turning off her lights, she would occasionally grumble or make a long face. Now that I think about it, though, this may be because little sisters don’t always like being nagged by big sisters in general. The message of responsible citizenry, however, may actually be getting through to her.

Continue reading

Join the Green Party! 10 tips on how to make your next fiesta eco-friendly


My quirky friend Mark

My name is Fabiola Carletti and I have a problem: I am severely afflicted with chronic-hostess syndrome. I thoroughly enjoy inviting hordes of people over to my house to eat, drink, schmooze, sing, dance, and (eventually) go home.

Last summer–for a “choose your occasion” party–I instructed guests to ignore the dictatorial calendar and dress up for their favourite holiday. Jasmin, celebrating Mother’s day, waltzed in with a faux-belly. Jeff, in a red shirt and wings, hoped to make some Valentine’s Day magic. Mark showed up in a white plastic one-piece zip-up suit . . . to the bafflement of us all.

As the doorbell continued to ring, revellers streamed in, celebrating everything from Christmas to Mardi Gras. I beamed, adjusting the crown of plastic flowers on my head and modelling my leaf-print dress. “I’m celebrating Earth Day” I explained.

The next day I forced heaps of waste into a big black garbage bags. Every imaginable surface had been covered in plastic cups, burnt-out sparklers and Styrofoam plates. As I flung my Earth Day wreath into the trash, the irony began to percolate. A morbid thought occurred to me: I would probably decompose before most of the plastic remnants of my party. Yikes.

Although I consider myself a nascent environmentalist, I realized then that I was making unconscious exceptions for a whole lot of “special occasions”. I am proud to say that at my recent birthday party I implemented several of the suggestions you will soon read. People responded incredibly well!

Unfortunately, our cultural norms don’t pressure us to celebrate sustainably (yet). As students, we have a reputation for indulging ourselves in festive excess-but maybe we should re-think our expertise and party what we preach.

Here are ten ideas to get us started.

(1) Plan an eco-potluck

The good news is that we youngsters already tend to make our invites paper-free. Taking our virtual networking one step further, it’s really easy to organize the “who’s bringing what” online. If you’re not a fan of Facebook, there are funky alternatives that you can use for free. I highly recommend mypunchbowl –it’s easy-to-use, funky, and has a special application specifically designed for organizing potlucks.

Let’s get all the benefits straight: You don’t have to foot the entire grocery bill on your own or spend the whole day with your eye on the oven. You can gently steer your guests in the right direction by creating a list that casually drops words like “locally-purchased”, “organic”, “veggie”. And you don’t have to worry that you will have too much (or *gasp* too little) to eat because the more people that walk through the door, the more goodies will magically appear.

(2) Make “left-over love” take-home packages

Instead of automatically recycling (or tossing!) jars and containers, why not store them to re-use? Potlucks tend to produce leftovers but that doesn’t have to mean waste.  You may find yourself scooping potato salad into an empty relish jar and sending it home with a friend. Consider it a practical party favour, one that your friend will thank you for when they wake up hung-over and hungry.

Even If you didn’t pre-plan to package, many of your guests will have brought their potluck dishes in containers of all kinds. Instead of bringing the containers back home empty, encourage your guests to help themselves one last time.

(3) BYOC-Bring your own cup!

At parties, people go through drinks like it ain’t no thang. Questions like “where did I leave my rum & coke?” and “Is this even my cup?” are usually treated with a simple answer: “Cut your losses. Pour another!” Unfortunately, these losses add up — quickly! — and all the resources that went into producing the temporary chalices were for naught. What’s more, depending on the material, one-time use cups can take anywhere from 50-450 years to decompose!

Why not challenge your guests to bring their own funkiest cup/mug/bowl and pledge monogamy to it for the night? At the very least, it would make for much more interesting toasts. At the end of the night your guests will either wash their cups and take them home (less work for you!) or make impromptu donations to your kitchenware collection. I’d raise a glass to that.

(4) Encourage Public Transit. Failing that, Organize Car Pools.

This one is a no-brainer. I know I don’t need to tell you how our gas-guzzling habits harm the atmosphere. If public transit is a viable option, encourage your guests to take the better way. If they are worried that transit will stop running before your party does, or that no one is driving to their corner of the city, let them sleep over (if you can). As for designated drivers, ask if they are willing to give someone else a lift. Ask the riders you match with them to pitch in some money for gas. Fair deal all ‘round!

(But it goes without saying that you shouldn’t let anyone get behind the wheel drunk.)

(5) Dim the lights, baby, but brighten up with LED

Natural daylight would be great!–if we weren’t night-owls. Luckily, harsh lighting isn’t popular at parties anyway. To save energy, turn off or dim most lights. Make things visible with eco-friendly candles (ex: pure bee’s wax or soy-based) in creative candle holders (like some of those jars you saved). I’ve also seen the charming idea of placing long-stemmed candles in beer bottles -appropriately, at a hidden gem called The Green Room. It’s a quirky way to instantly reuse some of those empties.

If you’re nervous around flames, create a magical atmosphere with light-emitting-diode (LED) lights. When compared to conventional bulbs, these lights use 1/10th of the energy and last twice as long! Also, they do not get hot, so fret not about the fire hazard. LEDs are widely available at mainstream retailers (such as Canadian Tire) at reasonable prices.

(6) A little Flush goes a long way

One thing that’s virtually guaranteed at a party: a line-up to use the washroom. According to Environment Canada, every flush of the porcelain express uses 15-19 litres of water. That’s several litres that have been through the municipal filtration process, only to carry a relatively small stream of tinkle right back out to Lake Ontario.

If your toilet doesn’t have low flush mechanisms, there is an easy do-it-yourself method that anyone can complete in a few minutes! All you need is a plastic bottle, some sand/gravel, and a willingness to peak into your toilet tank. Step-by-step illustrated instructions are available at

While we’re being potty mouths, let’s think about the accompanying toilet paper. According to Adria Vasil (a.k.a Now Magazine’s Ecoholic) if each household in Canada switched one roll of toilet paper from virgin-bleached to recycled, we’d collectively save about 48,000 trees and prevent 4,500 kgs of air and water pollution — with ONE roll. How many rolls do you go through at a party? And, seriously, considering its simple function, why does anyone need extra-fancy three-ply “cashmere”-like toilet paper anyway?


(7) Recycle, Reduce, Rejoice!

At most parties, there’s one option when it comes to waste: a huge black garbage bag sitting somewhere out-of-the-way. Give your guests some better options by setting up clear recycling/compost/garbage containers in one area. Aim to make the garbage can the last resort. Go ahead and stick a sign on it (ex: “I’m on a diet: Please don’t feed me unless you absolutely have to”) or variation thereof. Also, designate a space for collecting empties and be sure to bring them back to the LCBO/Beer Store . You’ll not only earn a few bucks for your efforts but you’ll ensure that the materials make it to someone else’s happy hour.

(8) If they insist on bringing a gift for the host(ess)

Many people were raised with the idea that it’s polite to bring a small token of appreciation to the host. That said, they may try to figure out what you might like to receive. If they insist you give them clues, suggest one of the following items:

  • Locally produced/organic wine
  • Eco-friendly/fair trade substitutes of staples like chocolate or coffee
  • A small plant instead of a dead bouquet
  • Something unwrapped or responsibly wrapped in recycled paper/placed in a reusable gift bag/or even simply cloaked in newspaper! A surprise is a surprise, skip the bells and whistles.

You can insist that “re-gifting” and thrift gifts are cool by you. Something lightly-used may end up being exactly what you need.

(9) As long as you’re telling them to BYOC, why not show solidarity and DYOD?

Thanks for reading!! Love, the hostess with the mostess.

Thanks for reading!! Love, the hostess with the mostess.

Yes, doing your own dishes instead of using plastic can be a pain–but if Terry Fox could undertake a cross country marathon at the age of 22,  you can get your hands soapy. Offer up your own plates and utensils and you’ll be diverting a significant amount of waste from the landfill. If you are hand-washing try not to run the tap continuously; also, look for earth-friendly dish soap.

If using an electric dishwasher, make sure you’re doing full loads, and using the shortest cycle possible. Also check if you have a conserver/water-saver cycle. Long after the dishes are done, the feeling of accomplishment will linger.

(10) Use those captions for some grassroots awareness-raising
We all know the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words. If you’ve had trouble explaining the benefits of going green, why not show people in images? If and when you post the party pictures–on Flickr or Facebook, etc–make sure you mention your eco-efforts in the captions. Drawing attention to these differences will get others thinking about how they can enjoy themselves more ethically.

You may be more inspiring than you think.

A version of this article was originally published in the February 2009 issue of MacMedia magazine