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Drake a ‘game changer’ for Ryerson

Surprise performances by the Toronto-born rapper reflect a transformation in Ryerson’s campus culture.

By NATALIE SAMSON | AUG 01 2016

If Drake’s on your stage, you’ve made it big. At least, that’s what the Toronto-born rapper personifies for Jen Gonzales, ‎director of student life at Ryerson University.

Surprise performances by the Grammy winner bookended Ryerson’s academic year at events hosted by the Ryerson Students’ Union on Sept.11 and May 1.

On May 1, Drake gave a second surprise performance at an event hosted by the Ryerson Students’ Union in downtown Toronto. Photo by Jake Kivanç.
On May 1, Drake gave a second surprise performance at an event hosted by the Ryerson Students’ Union in downtown Toronto. Photo by Jake Kivanç.

“This concert was a game changer,” says Ms. Gonzales, whose office oversees large student events throughout the year. She notes that the larger shows her office organizes will typically draw anywhere from 500 to 1,000 participants. Once rumours started to spread that the special guest for RSU’s annual parade and concert might be Drake (rumours the rapper gamely stoked on social media), the institution started preparing for up to 10,000 attendees, Ms. Gonzales says. That meant more of everything – more communication with the local community, more security checkpoints, more hands on deck. But what started as temporary planning measures borne out of a scramble (Drake didn’t confirm until last minute) will likely become permanent.

Enrolment, programming and space have grown sharply at Ryerson. And with that growth, Ms. Gonzales says, there’s come a shift in culture “from a commuter-student campus in which students would go home right after class” to a more locally based student body eager for events and community engagement.

“Our Orientation Week seven years ago was, like, 600 people. Now we’re in the thousands,” Ms. Gonzales says. “Everything about our campus, including attitudes and cultures, the event-management process and risk management, [are] being reviewed and enhanced in light of the very apparent student interest in having a campus culture.”

Although Drake’s appearances didn’t come without controversy (some critics took issue with Drake’s lyrics while others slammed the RSU’s ticketing process), Ms. Gonzales says it’s all part of the learning process for campus event planners. In the end, she says the Drake events serve a bigger goal to offer students “lots of different options and lots of different ways of looking at the world,” and to support students as “successful, whole” people. Music is just one way to do that.

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