Interview – AUSU’s Executive Director – Sarah Cornett, B.Sc, CAE

Interview – AUSU’s Executive Director – Sarah Cornett, B.Sc, CAE

In terms of a brief background, what is it for you? Where did you come from? What is your education?
I started out with an engineering degree. From there, I worked as an engineer for a few years, some of that on the oil rigs. Following this, I went back to school for a couple years to qualify as a licensed land surveyor.

I had a career in land surveying in a small business, when I had the opportunity to work with the licensing body for surveyors in Ontario. That was my first job for an association. From there, I worked for the national group.

I became executive director of the national group for surveyors. I found the work with the association interesting and earned certification as a certified association executive. I really enjoyed association work, too.

That brought me to AUSU.

What tasks and responsibilities come along with AUSU work?
It’s a non-profit. It has a small staff. So, everything! (Laughs)

I make more copies, send emails, and so on. All the way to assistance with governance, strategic planning, and everything else. In the executive director role, the role, or set of tasks and responsibilities, varies depending upon the size of the organization.

If a non-profit has a large staff, there’s more delegation of tasks and responsibilities. The executive director oversees administration and management. However, when the organization has fewer staff, it needs help with everything. The delegation goes to volunteers and committees. It is overseeing and assuring all of the “cogs in the wheels” are functioning. That is, people know their roles, and things are done, which means supporting committees, supporting executives, and various governance and strategic planning roles. The Council sets policy and direction, but then the executive director has to make sure that the work actually happens.

In terms of a personal level, for you, AU is the largest online university in Canada. This means interaction with students can be at an emotional and physical distance, and that can create difficulties in knowing students more. What is your own experience with AU students?
You’re right. It is hard because there’s little one-on-one interaction. First, there are so many students. And there’s not a lot of student interaction until the individual student has a problem. At that point, they ask us for assistance with the problem. So, that means answering the phone, answering emails, because they’ve come to us with a specific problem and need help. We don’t know if students are reading a newsletter. We have accounts from them and have statistics, but that doesn’t tell you who’s reading the newsletter or who’s getting the message. So It’s an ongoing challenge. But I’m used to it because my last position was with a national group. It had had members all across the country. Everything was done at a distance as well.

It is a matter of issue-by-issue of the student newsletter and person-by-person finding opportunities to connect. Once you become known as open to connection, then, people reach out to you. Besides, I cannot possibly reach out to 25,000 or 27,000.

Some of them are registered and interested in talking to the association. And That’s fine. It’s a matter of one piece at a time showing the organization to be open to communicate. People get that message and come to us.

What is the greatest strength of AU and AUSU? Even though they exist as independent from one another, I see a link.
I had little knowledge of AU before I took this position in August last year. It has been 7 months. On the surface, I see amazing opportunities for the person who finds a traditional bricks-and-mortar institution doesn’t work for them.

I went to a conventional university for a degree, myself and I have a child there now. That worked for me at the time. I was young. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids yet. But I imagine that if I wanted to do something similar again, because I could go back and get other credentials, etc., I could do it. This would be an amazing way to fit into any number of lifestyles; whereas the ?bricks-and-mortar? institution sticks to a narrow lifestyle: the young, those without commitments, and the recently out of high school.

Where do you see the AUSU going in the next few years?
I think continuing on the track of really trying to open communication from our members, improving transparency, and keeping ongoing communication. We’ve started that. There’s lots of good intentions. We have a good direction, but we need to work on it.

Another thing, I want to work on advocacy. Individual advocacy, we do decently. A student comes to us and they have an issue; we can point them in the right direction and contact the right people. However, I want to work on advocacy in an institutional context. It is assuring we listen to student voices. It is assuring student voices are listened to by government.

We have done great things in that regard. I want to build on it. It will be somewhat grassroots. It’s going to involve Council members. But we’ve got Council members from across the country. We’ve got students from across the country. We’ve got a presence here in Alberta. We have potential to focus on advocacy as in institutional advocacy in addition to continuing our individual advocacy.

Do you have any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
I am enjoying these first few months. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. It was a really steep learning curve. We have new Council, new executive, and new staff. It was all at once. We have some challenges, but we’ve made strides. I am looking forward to the next six months and being able to reflect back on the serious accomplishment in this year with the Council members, Executive members, and the staff that we’re onboarding as of recent. Six months, It’s been a huge challenge, but a fun one.

I am looking forward to it continuing.

Thank you for your time, Sarah.