Leading Students’ Union through pandemic and other trials sets grad up for success

Akanksha Bhatnagar wants to make politics more accessible and understandable to all Canadians.

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Akanksha Bhatnagar went from political observer to Students' Union president during her U of A studies. Now she wants to help bridge the disconnect between politics and the diverse groups of people it affects. (Photo: John Ulan)

As with many students this year, one click of the mouse provided an anticlimactic finish to Akanksha Bhatnagar’s hard-earned degree in political science.

She had just completed her last final exam, ending an undergraduate career that included a particularly trying year as Students’ Union president. But when she hit the “submit” button on the computer, there were no fireworks, no congratulatory messages—nothing to mark an unusually auspicious undergraduate career.

She can only hope to celebrate when restrictions ease and people gather again in person. In the meantime, she says, she’s determined to stay on a path she chose in high school—prompted by a social studies high school teacher who could see she was far better suited to political science than engineering.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to literally build bridges. I’m going to build connections and structural changes with an engineering degree.” Her parents also thought it was a sensible career choice.

“But my social studies teacher kept pushing me to think about politics and political science,” she said. “He ran our delegation for the high school Model United Nations that the U of A hosts, and I thought, ‘I love this university—I want to come here and study political science.’”

Bhatnagar’s family arrived in Canada from India before her second birthday, living in Toronto for about 10 years before migrating west. She never saw Edmonton as her “forever home,” but as a teenager researching post-secondary options, she kept circling back to U of A websites.

“Over and over again—every time I looked at things I was interested in, I kept coming across stories from the U of A,” she said. “So I figured maybe this is a place that I could settle down.”

From political observer to participant

She was delighted to discover the U of A’s political science department had a reputation for “looking at important political issues through a diversity lens,” she said.

The Students’ Union also appealed to her, offering an experience directly relevant to her studies. But she lacked confidence at first, she said, feeling more comfortable observing politics than participating.

Akanksha Bhatnagar
(Photo: John Ulan)

I think everybody is impacted by politics, but people only care to the extent they understand what’s going on.

Akanksha Bhatnagar

It’s not like she didn’t have leadership experience. A member of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets from the age of 13, she earned her glider pilot’s licence before training in the instructors’ cadre. She then ran instruction and programming for 810 Grant McConachie Squadron, as well as its senior training program and aviation ground school.

Despite that experience, she didn’t get the job when she applied to be the Students’ Union elections officer. 

“I was really disappointed in myself,” she said. “I wanted to work at the SU. I love research, and I knew I wanted to focus on women not being involved in politics as much.”

She later landed a job with the Students’ Union Discover Governance office, building a program called Stride, which encourages women to get involved in student politics.

Bhatnagar was full of political opinions and ideas for change, and happy to air them wherever she went. That’s when her friends told her it was time to stop opining and enter the fray.

“There were issues with academic regulations, with campus sexual violence, but I thought, ‘There’s just no way I would ever run for the SU. It’s not for me—I love research. I love supporting cool candidates, but I don’t think I could ever put my name forward.’

“I was really lucky to have mentors and friends who said, ‘Just do it.’”

A challenging year

Her 2019-20 term as president ended up being one of the strangest and most challenging any SU president has faced in years.

“I am really proud that at the end of the day, we were able to fight for and secure up-front grants for students and strike a deal with the university on foreign tuition. And we were able to pass a charter of student rights and responsibilities.”

If all of that weren’t enough, there were the complications of a global pandemic.

“There was just blow after blow after blow, then finally a lull, and then COVID,” she said.

“Keeping it together in a year like that was tough, because there was a lot of pressure from students and government to do conflicting things. Being the middle person is not always a fun place to be.

“Then credit/non-credit happened. And on the first of May (2020), I had to pass it all over to my successors—a tough challenge, because they had to deal with the aftermath of the COVID stuff.”

Those challenges—and a certificate in interdisciplinary leadership from the Peter Lougheed Leadership College—gave her a much clearer sense of direction, however. She now wants to use the power of communications to show people in diverse communities how to make change through government policy.

“Akanksha is an intelligent, passionate, engaged individual who is committed to public service,” said Angelia Wagner, Bhatnagar’s instructor for senior courses in Canadian media and politics and Canadian public policy. 

“She doesn’t just want to understand why a problem exists but wants to do something about it. Her strong involvement in student governance at the university demonstrated her willingness to find solutions to tough issues with the goal of making life better for other people.”

Next challenge: breaking down barriers to understanding

Without an in-person convocation to attend, Bhatnagar took a job this year with the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations in Ottawa as a communications and public relations officer, and is now working as a public relations specialist at Diplomat Consulting. Then it’s off to Carleton University for her master’s in political management.

“If I were to pick a dream position, it would definitely be working as a campaign manager or communication strategist for a political figure. I think everybody is impacted by politics, but people only care to the extent they understand what’s going on.

“That’s the biggest disconnect—there’s just no one thinking about how to communicate hard and confusing topics to different demographics. We call ourselves a multicultural society, but our communications aren’t multicultural. They’re not filtered through a cultural lens.”

As for her once-dismayed parents who wondered, “Why political science instead of a secure profession like engineering?”

“When I originally shifted, they were confused,” said Bhatnagar. “Now they’re really happy I did it.”