In the last four years, Hardave Birk has covered a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically. Though little more than twenty years old, the recent University of Calgary graduate in Arts, Political Sciences and Economics put together one of the most impressive undergraduate degrees you will see anywhere. Following his high school studies in Golden, BC, Hardave moved to Calgary and soon immersed himself in student life. Participating heavily in Faculty of Arts activities, this served as a transition of sorts into student government, which at the U of C is referred to as the Students’ Union. And this is where Hardave excelled.
In 2010-2011, Hardave served as the U of C Students’ Union’s Vice-President External, a portfolio that requires constant travel across Alberta, and in some cases, Canada. Trips to Lethbridge, Red Deer, Edmonton, Halifax and Ottawa were the norm throughout the year. Not an easy task, as most student association vice-presidents external travel frequently and must lobby both provincial and federal governments. Less than two years later, Hardave leaped into a different yet in many ways similar role. As the student body President, he represented over 25,000 students and oversaw an operating budget exceeding $16 million. All of this in one’s early twenties.
Hardave is now in Ottawa working as an assistant on Parliament Hill – another unique experience indeed. Personable and energetic, Hardave is one of those can’t-miss leaders who despite his relative youth has displayed impressive leadership skills. He is one of the several young leaders from his Students’ Union executive that is already doing impressive things in the world.
Gen Y Inc. had a chance to interview Hardave and discuss topics such as mentorship and career paths. This is the first of many weekly interviews that we conduct and publish with some of Canada’s most promising young leaders.
So how did you get into the University of Calgary Students’ Union?
I had always been extremely involved in my hometown, Golden B.C., but when coming to Calgary I was excited to step back from taking on tons of responsibility. As I went through school I ended up being encouraged by members of my family, my residence advisors, and a couple people involved with the Students’ Union. These older students, who were heavily involved in the SU, said that I would be a great addition to the team. It’s surprising what a few kind words from someone that you look up to can mean, but the SU President in my second year of university really encouraged me to get involved. It all started with my involvement in the U of C Residence Students’ Association as a student representative in my second year. As soon as a opportunity arose, I ran for a position with the SU and began taking on additional responsibility.
What was it that got you “hooked” on the SU?
I think that the biggest thing that got me hooked was that during my first term as a member of council in my second year the provincial government was considering “market modifiers,” then the latest term for differential tuition for certain faculties. I sat on a few of the committees that dealt with how the SU would respond to the market modifiers and was involved in the organization of some major protests on campus opposing the tuition increases. Over a thousand people came out to the SU’s day of action when the U of C Provost came to our council to defend the market modifiers proposal. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Moreover, I ran for VP External and once elected had the opportunity to lobby MLAs on the issue and be in the room where the then-advanced education minister, Doug Horner, told us his final decision on the issue. Seeing how much activism the SU could do, both in terms of protest and just meeting with MLAs, really opened my eyes and shaped my views as an elected official. This experience showed me how much power a Students’ Union can have.
If you were to list three major things you’ve learned in the SU, what would those be?
The first thing is that a few kind words or comments from someone who you consider a mentor or look up to can go a long way. It’s so easy to take the time out of your day and thank someone or give them credit for doing something and it can mean so much more to that person than we realize.
The second thing I’ve learned is that we can only control a small set of factors in any situation. So it’s our job to be as prepared as possible to deal with the things that we have control over and to not worry about what we can’t control. But always over-prepare so that if other factors not under your control change, you’re well-prepared to respond and strike when the opportunity is right.
Number three: Coffee’s for Closers.
Some people give student associations a bad rap for being childish, just “students playing government”. What do you say to those criticisms?
The first thing that people need to look at is the size and professionalism of the organizations that students have created in the province of Alberta. The U of A, U of C, and U of L SUs are all multi-million dollar organizations with both advocacy and business operations. That’s no joke. It’s clear these campuses would be completely different, and much worse off, without their strong student associations.
We only need to look as far as things like loosening regulations on student loans, defeating the majority of market modifiers, and fighting against non-instructional fees on campus to see concrete results in the last few years. Moreover, it’s clear that other entities like university administration and government take the student associations seriously, and for good reason. We’re elected by our peers and are the only true student voice on campus. These associations are the only groups advocating for the best interests of students in our post-secondary institutions. If students are critical of their SU’s performance, I’d encourage them get involved in their SU and display leadership on the issues that matter to them.
Would you consider yourself an entrepreneurial person? If so, why?
I would consider myself an entrepreneur because I truly believe in taking educated risks at the possibility of big returns. I’ve always believed that in life you sometimes need to pursue the high risk-high reward strategy and to do so requires bringing the right people together, analyzing all possibilities in a situation, and executing a smart and creative strategy.
Classically, entrepreneurs have done this in the business world to create new businesses or new inventions. I believe that to be successful in student advocacy or politics the same approach is required. I believe in living by the words: “Qui Audet Adipiscitur”, which translates into “who dares, wins”.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I think I’d like to be back in school completing a masters degree or professional designation after a few years of working on Parliament Hill. But, no guarantees because I recognize how fast the pace of change can be and the most important skill is to be adaptable to your circumstances. So really, a lot of life is planning as far ahead as you can while always playing it by ear as things happen.
How do you feel about going to Ottawa for work?
It’s an unbelievable opportunity for someone my age and definitely a dream come true. Graduating with a political science degree and finding a job on Parliament Hill is amazing and I am really looking forward to the networking opportunities that will present themselves out there. While I love the city of Calgary more than anywhere, Ottawa is a beautiful place and will be a nice change of pace for a period of time. I’d like to make my permanent home either Ottawa or Calgary in the future, so it will be nice to see what opportunities are available in the capital.
What’s one great quality that many Gen Y’ers have in common?
The one great quality that I believe Gen Y’ers have in common is the ability to build a larger personal network than ever before. Through twitter, facebook, social media, email, or simply by meeting people, Gen Y’ers are able to quickly and effectively establish themselves with a network of acquaintances. Moreover, they can keep in touch with these people over a distance.
I’ve never met a Gen Y’er who didn’t have hundreds of contacts in his phone. The real difference maker though is how people leverage their personal network into a professional network that they can use to advance their career and life goals. While all Gen Y’ers build strong personal networks, not all of them make the effort to leverage that network to their benefit.