Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

The Legacy of Community: An examination of student leaders’ motivations to spend time getting involved, By Sarah Chocano Barboza (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”

“I hate that every time I finish something, I have to start doing the next thing. You know, Sarah?” Clifford exclaims while using one hand to clumsily put his sneakers on and the other to hold his phone and check the time. We have a meeting with the registrar’s office at 2:00 p.m., and it is already 1:57:15 p.m. After a long but necessary meeting with a faculty member, we have just had a couple of minutes to take a break from today’s incredibly busy schedule. Now, Clifford is pressing the button to call for the elevator; it’s 1:58:00. Anxiously, he presses the button again. He is tapping his leg, looking at his phone as if somehow time would freeze. 1:58:36 p.m. The elevator doors finally open. Clifford exhales loudly, relieved. We quickly get into the elevator. Immediately, he presses the bottom to close the door and looks to the ceiling, praying that no one interrupts our quick journey to the main floor. 1:59:00. The elevator makes it to the ground. We might not make it in time, but we quickly walk through the lobby out to St.George Street. 1:59:42. We are now rushing. There is no time to go through the crosswalk, so we erratically j-walk across the main road. We might make it on time, we might not. We run into the building and look for the registrar’s office. 2:01:16. We are both out of breath but on time for this next meeting: three meetings down, four more to go.  

Circumstances such as this one are ordinary among the daily lives of student leaders at Newnham College. Clifford is one of the many student leaders at this college who voluntarily chooses to take time out of their busy school schedule and get involved within their community. Even though he is continually running out of time and hardly taking any breaks, he finds that being a student leader is one of the best things that has ever happened to him. Considering the amount of time that student leaders expend weekly, I often wondered why they choose to spend time fostering community among their peers while dealing with a heavy course load and other quotidian responsibilities. My research aims to ethnographically examine the motivations behind student leaders’ choice to spend their time getting involved in their respective communities, contributing to the broader anthropological understanding of the University, student leaders, and community-making practices. 

A discussion regarding the varied meanings and interpretations of the University provides the necessary framework for the analysis that follows. Academics have sought to define what the University, as a stand-alone term, is or stands for. For instance, in “University Experience,” Jason Read (2009) proposes a neoliberal interpretation of the University, defining the institution as both “a site of the circulation of knowledge” and “a site of neoliberal restructuring” (p.151). This neoliberal analysis, however, provides a simplistic and limited understanding of the varied lived experiences of university students. Notably, his approach sees students’ experiences with the University as solely transactional exchanges. Read (2009) argues: “every class, every extracurricular activity or club becomes a possible line on a resume” (p.152). As my ethnographic observations and my informants’ statements reveal, this neoliberal interpretation of student involvement does not consider how students find a sense of community within the campus when they spend time doing extracurriculars. Therefore, my examination of Newnham College uses Read’s narrow definitions as a preliminary motivation to show that the University is also a site of community building. 

I will also use Nikolas Rose’s definition of community as “a new spatialization of government” that allows institutions to govern their subjects through “regulated choices” (Rose,2000, p.328). I am particularly interested in how the administration at Newnham College actively encourages students to get involved. Promises of benefits sustain this active encouragement, constructing a prototypical student of Newnham College—a student who is both academically successful and willing to spend time doing extracurricular activities. These promises include better transition into the University, visibility among peers and administration, Co-Curricular Record credits, and monetary awards. In many ways, these incentives bind Newnham students in a “community cluster,” making them responsible for maintaining a sense of belonging among their student peers (Rose, 2000, p.1399). This responsibilization demonstrates what Rose (2000) calls the “virtuous consequences,” which include feelings of belongingness, identity, and reciprocity (p.1399). Mainly, Rose’s neoliberal analysis of how people enroll in new practices of responsibility and self-management is useful to ethnographically study how, in the context of the University, efforts for community-building add responsibilities and stress to student leaders.

Throughout this research, I sought to analyze the many ways in which these “virtuous consequences” motivate student leaders to get involved, structuring their time at the University. Specifically, this analysis requires me to understand why student leaders choose to get involved in the first place. I ask: What motivates student leaders to stay engaged throughout their time at the University? How does this involvement impact the way student leaders manage their time? How does this involvement shape the way students understand present and future times? Accordingly, the focus of my anthropological inquiry is to examine the unique intersection between students’ conceptions of time and their leadership involvement. Therefore, in this paper, I draw on my ethnographic work among Newnham College student leaders to demonstrate that, despite the time-consuming and stressful nature of leadership positions, student leaders still chose to be involved. Initially, students chose these roles to gain a sense of belonging in an intimidating campus. However, the longer their involvement, the more they recognize how this responsibility affects their identity by encouraging confidence, opening up exceptional opportunities, and, paradoxically, improving their time management. Interestingly, students choose leadership roles to not only satisfy current belonging needs but also to honour students’ past efforts of community building and to sustain a vibrant and inclusive community for future generations of students. Ultimately, my research shows that there is a particular neoliberal form of governance within the University that motivates student leaders to spend time contributing to the stability and well-being of their communities.  

Fieldwork in Newnham College

My study of student leaders is situated in a context where the college administration and senior students actively encourage first-year students to get involved. During my four-month fieldwork, I spent time around Newnham leaders, shadowing them during their busy schedules and conducting participant observation in various settings. These settings include council meetings, student-staff members meetings, lectures and tutorials, award ceremonies, event planning outings, and newspaper editing sessions. Additionally, I conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with three Newnham students. Lastly, my dual role as a researcher and a student leader is worth mentioning. As a student leader in the community, I had the unique opportunity to access various settings and to gain rapport with students and staff members. 

Not just a number: The opposition between isolation and belongingness. 

 Student leaders continually expressed that the University of Toronto’s intimidating campus motivated their initial choice to get involved because they believed that this involvement would allow them to find a sense of community within the school. At the beginning of their university careers, students experienced isolation, feeling that they were just a number. Throughout my fieldwork, student leaders consistently voiced this feeling of isolation when recalling their early experiences at the University. For example, Bianca, a fourth-year Newmham student, recalls that she found the University’s larger population very “intimidating.” Accordingly, she decided to apply for first-year positions at the college’s Residence and the Gazette, Newnham’s student newspaper. For her, getting involved within the college’s community was “more accessible” because of its smaller size. Consequently, she found that, throughout her first year, Newnham became “more comfortable” because she met new friends through her involvement.

  Similarly, Ben, a fourth-year commuter student, also found the University’s expansive campus very isolating. He recalls that, during his first year, it was tough to find a community. Ben faced a more challenging transition into the University as a commuter student, who was not able to enjoy the immediate sense of belonging that most residence students feel when moving into campus. Whereas Bianca felt that getting involved within the small residence’s council was the “most accessible” way to become a student leader, Ben had a tough time doing so because he lived far away and had to spend most of his time commuting. Additionally, after losing the election for the position of first-year commuter representative, he found himself immediately isolated from campus life. Consequently, Ben had to put a lot more effort to find a sense of belonging within the college. He explains: “For commuters, it is common to feel lost and become just a number because no one is caring for you and your well-being.” During our interview, Ben recalled that, during his first year, he would come to campus to not only attend lectures but also to spend a significant amount of time hanging out in the Newnham commuter’s lounge, trying to meet new people and make friends. He puts this feeling of isolation into words: “I would come to this lounge from Monday to Friday, hoping that I would meet someone or join a group.” Ben’s feelings of isolation changed entirely after meeting senior students who held positions in the college’s council. These students not only offered him an associate position within the commuter portfolio but also invited him to be part of their friend group.

Although Ben’s initial first-year experiences diverge from Bianca’s, both stories demonstrate how the University’s intimidating campus made them feel isolated, instigating their urgency to find a sense of community. In describing belongingness, Nikolas Rose (2000) writes how Third Way politics enact governmentality through the “opposition of exclusion and inclusion,” making individuals’ inability to integrate responsible for their succeeding experiences with inequality (p.12). In the case of Newnham, student leaders’ initial feelings of isolation and vulnerability allowed them to understand exclusion as a failure to not only integrate into the community but also to care for themselves. For example, my interlocutors characterized University life as challenging because of the University of Toronto’s rigorous academic standards and difficult-to-navigate structures. Notably, my interlocutors initially felt that they were responsible for getting involved because they understood this integration as essential to forming friendships that would help them survive University life. 

In other words, the University’s administration is no longer entirely responsible for all of its students’ struggles such as caring for their mental, physical, and emotional health. Accordingly, the community takes on the responsibility for solving these issues, leading to what Rose (2000) terms as “two movements of resposibilization” (p.1400). In the first movement, individual students are responsible for becoming an involved member of a community. In the second one, this community becomes accountable for their members’ well-being. It is worth mentioning that during my fieldwork, I attended events targeted to Newnham international students, which exemplify both responsibilization movements. The one that stood out the most was the launch of Intercultural Connections, a peer-mentorship scheme that has the purpose of improving international students’ transition to Canada and the University. Through this program, the Newnham administration encouraged international students to spend time connecting with domestic students, helping each other to make sense of their first-year experience. I thought this program was appealing because it illustrates a short-term solution to the University’s limited support for international students. Most importantly, these short term solutions represent a particular neoliberal form of governance that enacts governmentality through community building practices that contribute to the stability and well-being of their communities.

Additionally, these new responsibilities affected student leaders’ time management practices because, apart from attending lectures, the campus became a site of community-building where they spend most of their time creating their sense of belongingness. By spending more time creating community, students increasingly began to apprehend and embody the prototypical ideal student of Newnham College—a student who is both academically successful and willing to spend time doing extracurricular activities. This new form of knowledge legitimized the Newnham colleges’ administration efforts to motivate students to get involved, sustaining institutional “modes of conduct” that value students involvement and leadership (Grinceri, 2016, p.12). Eventually, my interlocutors became aware of how this newly acquired sense of community also resulted in other virtuous consequences that motivated them to stay involved. 

Embodying student leadership: notions of identity formation

Although student leaders initially decide to get involved in their community to counter feelings of isolation and vulnerability, their involvement allowed them to further engage in identity formation processes. All interlocutors acknowledged that the longer their engagement, the more they realized how this responsibility positively affected their identity by encouraging confidence, opening up exceptional opportunities, and, paradoxically, improving their time management. For instance, Ben found that his leadership positions improved his socialization skills. He explains: “Being a student leader makes me feel good. I have realized that, now, I am better at speaking to people. I am more articulate and more confident.” While I was shadowing Ben during an event planning outing, I could see how he communicated with venue owners genuinely. For example, he was exceptionally experienced at negotiating venue prices and getting the best promotions for food and drinks. The venue owner was appreciative of Ben’s social skills because she not only invited us to lunch but also paid for our Uber. On our way to campus, Ben proudly acknowledge that, in the first year, he had no confidence, no friends, and a stutter. He further reflects: “Now, I am comfortable with myself. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are. I am very open to working on myself.” As such, Ben feels that positive consequences, like becoming more confident, further motivated his engagement within the Newnham community because he believed that he had to take advantage of the unique opportunity to better himself. 

On a similar vein, Clifford, a fifth-year student, believed that becoming a student leader affected his identity positively by enhancing his academic performance and opening up exceptional research opportunities. Unlike Ben, Clifford highlights that leadership helped him become a better student. He explains: “Professors recognize me because of my involvement in my program’s student union. This recognition contributes to my academic success because my professors know that I am a responsible student and, therefore, they ask for my help with their research projects.” Clifford was grateful for these exceptional opportunities because they enhanced his academic performance and gave him the necessary tools for gaining practical research experience. He also believed that these opportunities would eventually help him to build a strong academic resume for graduate school. Additionally, Clifford recognizes that his initial need to belong to the Newnham community has led to other perks, such as having the opportunity to develop a sense of self.

Paradoxically, Bianca recognizes that although student leadership creates additional responsibilities, her commitment to extracurricular activities has improved her time management skills. Specifically, Bianca finds that spending time on extracurriculars allows her to take a break from doing school work and helps her do better in school. Additionally, she explains: “Spending time on extracurriculars keeps me motivated and working. If I had only my four courses, I would be less productive because, in my head, I would have more time to do everything.” Bianca’s understandings of extracurricular time illustrate that student leadership also constructs a self-disciplined student subject—a student who is capable of managing their time by efficiently balancing schoolwork and extracurriculars. Most importantly, Bianca’s comment also shows that the ideal student leader is also one that feels guilty for taking breaks and is, therefore, continually being productive. It is worth pointing out that Read’s (2009) definition of the University as a “site of neoliberal restructuring” (p.151) does characterize student leaders as neoliberal subjects that are self-disciplined and are continually working on improving their human capital. Still, this interpretation does not explain how these self-development practices go beyond the resume. For example, my interlocutors articulated how, despite the added stress, these practices were vital for them to create a sense of belonging within the University. 

  Although the interlocutors gratefully recognized how their leadership responsibilities led to unique opportunities that positively shaped the people they are today, they still acknowledged that their community involvement can have a negative impact on their mental health through burnout, constant exhaustion, and stress. However, they find that these negative effects are part of the unique student leader experience, allowing them to develop their identities and skills further. When shadowing Bianca, we stayed awake until 3 a.m. because she had to work on the new edition of the Gazette. Despite feeling tired (Bianca would always announce how tired she felt and would occasionally take brief power naps), she felt that the company of the other members was refreshing. I also observed that this sense of belonging made the all-nighter an enjoyable collective experience. Furthermore, I could feel the familiarity among Bianca’s peers because they were always engaging with inside-jokes. Later, I learned that most of the newspaper staff members were Bianca’s roommates, who she met during her first year as a student leader at  Newnham College residence. For Bianca, her Newnham family made her a better person, and, therefore, she felt responsible for maintaining their friendship and for helping them through their University experience. 

All examples show that the longer their involvement, the more the students recognize how this responsibility affects their identity, illustrating how belonging is also a matter of individual identity (Cooper, 1998, p.49). These matters of identity show how student leaders pursue becoming an ideal student subject. The college’s administration and senior student leaders promote this subject among younger students by the “inviting gestures of a seductive presence,” which include the promise of certain benefits (Allen, 2003, p.196). In the case of my interlocutors, the fulfillment gained from leadership involvement, such as better socialization skills, outstanding academic performance, and time-management skills, exemplify the intrinsic benefits of leadership involvement that, ultimately, make individuals feel responsible for their communities. Despite their exhaustion, student leaders spend time maintaining a sense of belonging within the college because this extracurricular experience has allowed them to positively develop their identities. Furthermore, this shared sense of responsibility demonstrates that the student leader’s individual identities made them loyal to Newnham through community-building practices. As argued by Rose (2000), governmental interests of “stability” and “happiness” have to lead to the emergence of various innovative ways to govern individuals through “acting on ethics” (p.1398). By persistently taking pride in student involvement and leadership, Newnham College establishes community development as a core central value, holding its individuals accountable to others and the collective. Additionally, these benefits not only motivate students to stay involved but also to adhere to community values that would help embody the successful student prototype. 

Reciprocity: Maintaining Newnham’s vibrant community 

Newnham student leaders chose leadership positions to not only satisfy current responsibilities to their community but also because they believe getting involved is a reciprocal process that strengthens over time. For example, Clifford believes that the more time you spend as a leader, the more the college’s administration incentivizes you, and the more he wants to stay involved. Clifford explains, “Unlike other colleges, Newnham rewards its student leaders through leadership awards and academic support.” He believes that these rewards motivate students to stay involved because they recognize the time and effort exerted by a student leader, which makes you feel that the staff has not forgotten about your efforts. 

In contrast, both Ben and Bianca saw reciprocity as a virtuous consequence of their involvement. Unlike Clifford, they saw reciprocity as a means to honour students’ past efforts of community building and to sustain the vibrant community for future student generations. For instance, Ben leads an unofficial mentorship program that seeks to support new students the same way upper-years supported him after feeling isolated during his first semester. He explains: “As a frosh leader, I had a couple of the first years that became my unofficial mentees. For me, fostering these new relationships was a more organic and genuine way to find younger people whom I can help transition into the University.” He adds: “I tried to provide the support that I wish to have in my first semester.” Even though the Co-Curricular record does not recognize Ben’s mentorship program, he still spends copious amounts of time helping his mentees make sense of their undergraduate experiences. He puts this help into words: “I am always available to call. I will go out of my way to let these students feel supported.” Ben’s mentorship program further demonstrates that student leadership is not only about a “possible line on a resume” (Read, 2009, p.152). In fact, it shows that he has become loyal to his community, taking the responsibility to make others feel that they belong to Newnham. 

Like Ben, Bianca also sees her involvement as a way to honour past leaders’ efforts that allowed her to feel a part of the Newnham community. Additionally, she feels responsible to maintain this sense of belonging among the new class of first years. She explains: “I feel that I have an obligation to make students feel part of the small Newnham community.” As such, Bianca recognizes that the only reason why she felt this community feeling in the first place was because senior students had put in their own hours and time to create this a sense of belongingness for her. She finds that spending time getting involved is a great way to sustain the college’s vibrant and inclusive community. 

It is interesting to see how different temporal dimensions are instrumental in how student leaders structure their time at the university. On a macro level, student leaders’ temporality is driven by the broader chronological progression that must take place for them to contribute to the life-cycle of their community. This particular level exemplifies what Hartmut Rosa (2013) terms as the “life course” that, in the case of student leaders, represents the progression through the course of a student’s four years at the University of Toronto. Specifically, student leaders progress through positions as they learn from senior students, until, eventually, it is their responsibility to uphold the standards of their community that their predecessors had established. At this point, the students’ long-term hard work should also result in the macro-level achievements that motivate the student through their time as a leader. On a micro-level, Rosa’s (2013) understanding of the “every-day” temporality explains how short-term temporal pressures shape student leaders’ time management, forcing them to attend and participate in a certain number of meetings and events. These daily operations also ensure the week-to-week progress of the student leaders group. Lastly, both temporalities of the student leader are structured by the student’s ability to prioritize leadership responsibilities while managing the many other demands of regular undergraduate life. 

Student leader’s different temporal understandings of their involvement further motivate their willingness to spend time contributing to the stability and well-being of their communities, illustrating the particular neoliberal forms of governance within the University. When talking about ethopower, Rose (2000) argues that Third Way governments enact power through values that reinforce “techniques of responsible self-government” and “the management of one’s obligations to others” (p.1339). In the case of Newnham, student leaders uphold the college’s community-development values through self-governing practices of identity formation and managing their obligation to maintain their communities. Additionally, student leaders’ pursuit of becoming Newnham College’s prototypical student subject—a student who is both academically successful and willing to spend time doing extracurricular activities— is analogous to practices that constitute the neoliberal subject, illustrating the particular neoliberal forms of governance that are present within the University. These forms of management reproduce neoliberal values through promises that every austere effort (getting involved) will “pay off” for those who are “willing” to take responsibility (Son, 2018, p.191). In this case, through their leadership involvement, students learn to be responsible for their personal development, which eventually would allow them to fulfill their future career endeavours and their communities. This similarity also demonstrates that the University, as an institution, mimics a neoliberal society because it nurtures successful students who know how to be responsible not only for their own improvement but for the maintenance of their community.


In conclusion, the purpose of this paper was to understand how student leaders spend time at the University. Crucially, this analysis goes a step further by building on Jason Read’s (2009) definition of the University and by also defining the institution as a site of community building. This new definition sheds light to the experiences of student leaders and their active engagement with community-building practices. My ethnographic examples show that, initially, student leaders decide to get involved as a means to counter feelings of isolation and vulnerability. Furthermore, this study demonstrates how, despite their exhaustion, student leaders decide to stay involved and to maintain a sense of belonging within the college. For them, this extracurricular experience has allowed them to positively develop their identities by encouraging confidence, opening up exceptional opportunities, and, paradoxically, improving their time management. Interestingly, students choose to stay involved to not only satisfy current belonging needs but also to honour students’ past efforts of community building and to sustain a vibrant and inclusive community for future student generations.

Ultimately, this paper elucidates that student leader’s motivation to spend time contributing to the stability and well-being of their communities illustrates a particular neoliberal form of governance, which enacts governmentality through community-building practices that contribute to the stability and well-being of individuals. Notably, this form of management makes Newnham student leaders responsible for practicing self-discipline and maintaining their communities. Student leader’s active engagement with such practices not only shapes how they manage their time but also illuminates how neoliberal promises of integration, personal growth, and academic success motivates students’ decision to stay involved. Most importantly, the paper highlights the importance of considering community-making practices within the analysis of the University and, more broadly, neoliberalism. 


Allen, J. (2003). Lost Geographies of Power. RGS-IBG Book Series. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Cooper, D. (1998). Governing Out of Order: Space, Law and the Politics of Belonging. London, UK: Rivers Oram Press.

Grinceri, D. (2016). Architecture as Cultural and Political Discourse. London: Routledge,

Read, J. (2009). University Experience: Neoliberalism Against the Commons. Toward a Global Autonomous University: The Edu-factory Collective, pages 51- 153.

Rosa, H. (2013). Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. New York, US: Columbia University Press.

Rose, N. (1996). “The death of the social? Re-figuring the territory of government” Economy and Society, 25:3, pages 327-356. doi: 10.1080/03085149600000018

Rose, N. (2000). “Community, Citizenship, and the Third Way.” American Behavioral Scientist 43:9, pages 1395– 1411. doi:10.1177/00027640021955955.

Son, K,M.(2019). “The Making of the Neoliberal Subject: Response to Whyte.” Political Theory 47:2, pages 185–93. doi:10.1177/0090591718774572.

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