Convocation ‘20: Juan Vargas Alba

Strength as a Communal Activity

Donna McKinnon - 11 June 2020

An honors student in political science, Juan Vargas Alba was drawn to the field because of his passion for social justice movements. The son of Colombian immigrants and the first in his family to attend university in this country, Juan had to navigate through many unknowns, but says he was lucky to be surrounded by friends and fellow students who shared the belief that resilience is best built communally.

Juan established himself as an exceptional leader during his time at the University of Alberta. Dedicated to the empowerment of marginalized voices, he served as an Arts Councillor and chair of the Students’ Council policy committee with the Students’ Unionwork that was later recognized with the 2019-20 Students’ Union Marco’s Governance and Advocacy Award. He also contributed to the student newspaper The Gateway on topics related to culture and politics, and remains a tireless advocate for issues close to his heart, including climate justice, reconciliation and decolonization, anti-austerity and intersectional solidarity.

This summer, Juan will translate his undergraduate thesis, which focuses on the Colombian conflict in the context of climate change, into Spanish.

What drew you to the area of your study?

I was drawn to political science from my attraction to social justice movements as a teenager. As I grew within the program, I was able to take all my life experiences and those of my relations to draw together all forms of the fields within the department and grow immensely as a student. I continue to be passionate about the field because of how rapidly it moves. The department that I came into in first year is one that feels radically different from the one I am leaving behind. This change is not only around the conversations that are being mainstreamed, but also by the field’s tendencies to self-criticize and challenge our understandings of the institution. This feels like one of the largest values within the field with regards to society at large: the scholarship that is being produced to help us understand a world that moves faster than we can keep up with, while (often) still reckoning with its internal issues.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

It’s so hard to pinpoint one significant teaching. Every day for the last five years has brought with it new knowledge that was never perfectly separated, but rather reinforced itself. Additionally, what I learnt outside of the classroom, be it within student governance, with the University of Alberta Debate Society, or with Climate Justice Edmonton, boosted what I was learning in classes, and vice versa. Ironically, I would point to the ability to paraphrase thoughts succinctly as one of the most important things that I have learnt throughout all these experiences. Paraphrasing is not only about being able to show the crux of ideas, it’s often also about letting people know that you hear them and are attentive to their thoughts and concerns, a skill particularly necessary for political science students.

Did you face any significant challenges, and if so, how did you deal with it?

As a first-generation immigrant, I was not the first person in my family to attend university, but I was certainly the first one to do so in Canada. This meant that while I had many peers who knew how to navigate a lot of the difficulties at the University of Alberta, I had to figure out many of these on my own, which I admittedly enjoyed for the most part, but which were definitional in how I accessed the institution. However, I was always lucky to be surrounded by friends and student advocates who understood that strength is a communal virtue just as much as it is an individual one, and that resilience is best built communally.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

Being locked down as finals began, beyond highlighting the societal fissures around us, also made two things especially clear to me. The first was just how detached I had become from my work, especially during my last year. Being able to reconnect with the work I had to finish, even as I felt the impacts of isolation, reminded me of the skills I must continue to develop while showing how far I’ve come since first year. Second, it also made me rethink the ways in which we value the assessment of knowledge through grades, especially when it comes to standardized testing. While I was lucky to have accommodating professors, it was distressing to see instructors here and across the world that recognized the gravity of the situation but did not change expectations. Seeing the exacerbated existences and absences of accommodation made me thankful for the compassion I experienced, while also reminding me of the stark need for its return to the centre of academia.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

There is so much advice that I could offer, especially as it relates to experiences that felt unique, but which I later realized were relatively universal, some of which I am still learning. As a student who is not covered entirely by my parent’s health insurance, I learnt to take advantage of the student plan. Learning to seek physical and mental help even if you may feel like a burden is one of the top things you can do to vastly improve your quality of life as a student, and as you grow. This is something I’m still learning, but it truly is better to go to the health centre every few weeks for something new rather than allowing them all to accumulate because you were scared. When we learn this, we can also extend this attitude to all levels of help offered at the University, from writing help, to career advice, to office hours. We are paying thousands of dollars to be here, we need to squeeze out all its value, and although education deserves to be a right rather than a privilege, we must take advantage of the opportunities that are offered now.

Academically, for social science students, is a piece of advice that I am still grappling with. We often ask ourselves what we will do with our knowledge, and how we will activate it to make the world better. I always knew I wanted to use it within movements for social justice, but did not realize until after I was done just how stark that division is outside a seminar space. Call it naiveté on my part for feeling like I understood it before now, but students pursuing knowledge really need to question why they seek knowledge beyond just accumulating knowledge: how do you activate it within your communities without deriving your own sense of value entirely from your ability to demonstrate and repeat knowledge? The ivory tower is real, and we are a part of it even though we may be on the frontlines of community action. As you learn, challenge yourself and your relationship to academic knowledge, but do not abandon it. If the end product of your career was not a degree to help you begin a career (which I don’t think should inherently be the value of university), what would you use it for?

Last, and perhaps most undervalued: build relationships across disciplines. Yes there is value in discussing deep theory with friends in your faculty, but there is just as much joy in sharing teachings with a friend that works in the natural sciences, in engineering, or in education. You do not need to be in a geology class to learn the basics of the natural world around you. Instead, form bonds with people who take pride in sharing their knowledge but are not afforded the same opportunities to do so as Arts students. Not only will this broaden your understandings and relations, it will also ground you. There is only so much that you can learn from classes, round it out by immersing yourself in the opportunities that only university can offer.

What’s next for you?

In the Fall, I will be entering into a Masters of Agriculture in Rural and Environmental Sociology. The challenge of switching into a completely different faculty is both terrifying and exciting, but I am ready to continue doing the work I love. 

The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.