It begins just above Masonville Place and stretches itself along Richmond Street, loosening its grip at the corner of Dundas. Its wide embrace hugs Western Road and wraps itself around Waterloo Street, tightly clasping its hold. It hovers above its limitations and what cascades down the outer bounds is a shield, protecting all that is nestled inside its expansive territory.
It is the Western bubble. It is the net in which students often get caught. It is the island which we dare not swim away from. It is, after all, what makes us feel at home here in London.
“Students often feel like there is a great effort to make students feel like they are a part of Western,” Alysha Li, vice-president university affairs for the University Students’ Council, explains. “But, currently, I don’t think there’s that strong connection for students to their city. Students often feel like they’re a Western student first, and a citizen of London second.”
Li rightly points out that while students have no qualms with donning the Western Mustang on their chest, it’s rare you see students donning the Forest City logo proudly.
Naturally, though, London would begin to grow on students, right?
The USC states 86 per cent of graduates leave London after graduation and pursue careers elsewhere. This, Li suggests, is an issue the USC wants to address.
“We have to get to the bottom of why students are leaving, and I think retention rates can indicate whether students enjoyed their time here in London while they were at Western,” Li explains. “They can indicate that quality of life could have been improved while [students] were at Western.”
Peter Mokrycke, a recent HBA graduate, didn’t consider staying in London after graduation.
“London just doesn’t seem like a place that would be appealing for a long-term career,” he says. “Especially as a business student, you see the brands and the companies you’d want to work for around, but they don’t seem to have the same presence that they do in other cities, like Toronto.”
“If I were to look for something entry-level to start a career, even as a bridge to something else, London seems distant and remote from the GTA where a lot of business students, like me, want to be—at least eventually,” he continues.
Mokrycke is likely not alone in his sentiments. And while it’s hard to deny the tune is catchy, it’s much harder to confirm London is the city of opportunity. However, some local groups are looking to change that perception.
Sean Quiqley is the executive director of Emerging Leaders, an incorporated non-profit organization that focuses on the retention, development and engagement of students to create a better London community.
“Student retention here in London, and the area, would be a fantastic thing, and I’m all for that,” he says. “It’s actually critical to how this city grows, and how we grow business and new business opportunities in the city.”
However, he suggests London isn’t perceived as a progressive city—one that has a youthful culture.
“The only way we’re going to break that is not by shaking our fingers at students—which we should never do—but by saying, ‘We need you. Your involvement in our city while you’re here […] is critical to our city’s success,’” he says.
But it’s a two-way street, he says, and it’s the responsibility of students to heighten their curiosity and break through the campus bubble.
It’s obvious why London would encourage students to settle down locally—a growing, young workforce is never a bad thing. Thus, the USC has taken particular interest in student retention this year. In November, the USC will release a survey asking students what they’d like to see from London. Whether it’s improved transportation, more job prospects or improved arts and culture, Li believes feedback from students may lead to higher student retention.
“If students enjoy their experience while they’re at Western, there’s a higher possibility that they’ll stay after university, or consider coming back to London in the future to look for jobs and settle down,” she says.
However, retention, too, should be looked at with a grain of salt. Many students come to Western from the GTA, other provinces or even other countries. Leaving London may simply be a personal choice.
Robert Collins, director of workforce at the London Economic Development Corporation, explains while increasing retention and meeting current and future labour needs is a goal, in reality, many students have existing ties elsewhere.
“We believe that local employers will benefit from the energy and ideas of students, and we would like some to stay,” he says. “But we have to be realistic as well—many students are attracted to other areas, or their families or other pressures.”
Pat Whelan, student senator-at-large, agrees student retention may not be the most appropriate metric to determine whether students were satisfied with their Western experience.
“The main goal of the USC should be constantly thinking about student experience while they’re still a student. The USC can’t be taking care of you for the rest of your life—people leave cities for different reasons,” he says.
Mokrycke is currently interviewing for several jobs in Toronto. London didn’t make a lasting impression on him.
“There’s basically nothing outside of the bubble that I associate with,” he says.
It’s unrealistic for the city to believe every student is going to stay here. Realistically, Quigley explains, even a five or 10 per cent increase in retention would be acceptable. But more than that, it’s changing the perception of London.
“[It’s about] creating in students’ minds that London is an outstanding place […] to be.”