Dispelling some myths about student leadership

Why they do it, where it leads, and what it’s really worth


I hate the term “student leader.” I think a lot of people do. It just seems smarmy and self-congratulatory. And I’m speaking as a guy who lived that role. I can only imagine how the term must aggravate other people. And yet, we do need folks to run our student unions and our residence councils and our campus media and our clubs and more besides. And often we want to talk about those people as a group. So for lack of a better term I’ll call them student leaders.

Some recent discussion about student politics and student politicians (see here and here) got me thinking about this topic. Surrounding the debate about the appropriate role of unions and the right (or lack thereof) of elected students to hold and express their individual opinions, there were a few references to the perceived benefits and opportunities that come along with leadership roles on campus. I’ve heard it all before. Quite a lot of people seem to believe that the whole student leadership scene is just using it all to get … something. Something more than just the opportunity to do the job, anyway. Maybe that’s why the term is so annoying.

Now I don’t want to get into an extensive debate about what union execs are getting paid (see here for that debate) or whether it’s appropriate. That’s only a small fraction of the many student leaders on campus anyway. A very few students get paid something approaching real salaries to do essentially full time jobs. Some others receive honorariums that are probably quite small in relation to the amount of work they put in. And most are simply volunteers. But even the best paid aren’t receiving more than they’d earn for entry-level clerical work. So let’s just agree that it isn’t about the money, and when people suggest there’s something selfish going on they mean something different.

Back to this idea that students get involved in these positions with the expectation of some secondary gain. Most often this accusation is very vague. “Oh, you don’t really care about X (the club, the union, the position), you’re just in it for yourself.” But that’s got to mean something like awards, personal connections, job opportunities, political careers, etc. We’ve already excluded money as a realistic motive, and it makes no sense to suggest that someone is using one student position only to get to another student position. The end goal has to be something more significant than that – some reward or advantage that comes after university is done.

Brief pause. There is always the rare instance of actual abuse. Unfortunately, any time someone has access to a budget and some responsibility there is the chance they might do something fraudulent. Here’s one example of that. I would never attempt to excuse or justify anything like this. I’ll just say that it happens in student activities just as it happens everywhere else. People steal from charities too. It’s very sad. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about every student leadership position I’ve ever held or interacted with. It’s worth basically nothing to just have the job. I mean it. Sure you can use it as a line on your CV. But then people fill their CVs with bullshit all the time. And if you really want to create an impressive sounding title for yourself just invent a club, register it with your Student Affairs office (or local equivalent) and declare yourself President. It’s very easy. And exactly because it’s easy to manufacture empty claims of this sort, anyone who might possibly care about your activities on campus will not be suckered in by lines of empty crap. Will they care about what you’ve really done on campus? Very possibly they will. But now we’re talking about your actual work and achievements – not the mere fact that you filled a position and held a title.

I definitely know students who found their direction as a result of some role on campus – elected or otherwise. I’m one of them. Certainly there’s a lot of what I do, right now, that I can trace back in some way to my student union days. But I could never have guessed at where I’d end up when the whole thing started. And that’s also true of just about everyone I know. Building on your experiences, finding some success at the things you do well and getting noticed for that … there’s nothing illegitimate about it. That’s just the way people build careers in any environment. And sure, that happens in student leadership as well. Maybe academic advocacy leads you eventually to law school, as it did in my case. Maybe experience with the student press leads to a career in journalism. But not automatically. Not just because you won an election or got hired for a job.

I also know many “student leaders” (and in this case I’m particularly motivated to use quotation marks) who have done nothing special since their student days, nor derived any apparent benefit or direction from the roles they occupied on campus – no matter how prominent. And not surprisingly, these are people who, for the most part, didn’t do much with the roles they held. Either they quit partway through, or did the bare minimum required of them, or they just didn’t care. Do you sometimes end up with “student leaders” of this sort? Absolutely you do. That’s one of the perils of annual turnover. Inevitably, not everyone you elect, hire, or appoint is going to work out. But this persistent myth that they all reap some fantastic benefits from just being there for a year is not remotely true.

Now I hate this idea that rewards just rain down on everyone who wins an election on campus for two reasons. First, I find it rather insulting. That’s a personal bias. But I really hate it when people assume that anything I’ve achieved was just handed to me because I was a union exec for a couple of years. Certainly I got noticed for what I did well. But that’s not cheating, as I said. And as for my current stint in law school, I’ll just say that my grades and LSAT were plenty good enough on their own. I hope I don’t sound too bitter here. I loved my time representing students. But just like anyone, I also want some credit for my other accomplishments. And I was actually a good student at the same time.

Second, and more importantly, it isn’t only outside observers who get this strange idea that occupying a prominent position will (hypothetically) get you that great job offer, or that scholarship, or that spot in medical school. Inevitably, some of the people who have this idea decide that they’ll get in on the scam. So they run in elections or they apply for positions or they take on jobs they don’t really want simply because they are out to gain the perceived advantages. Do I seem to be contradicting myself here? Notice I’ve never claimed that all student leaders are in it for the right reasons. I know full well that some of them aren’t. Because some of the time those people who think it’s all a great scam do end up in the positions. My only point is that it doesn’t work the way they think it will – at least not for them. As I’ve said from the beginning, it isn’t the job or the title that matters, it’s what you do with it.

So here’s the great paradox of student leadership. For the people who do it because they really want to do it (again, whatever “it” may be – union, media, club, etc.) the experience may be immensely rewarding. These roles are a great chance to really throw yourself into something and have the opportunity to do things you would never otherwise do. Run an actual newspaper? Sure, go for it. Manage a six-figure events budget? Away you go. Handle HR for an entire office? The job’s all yours. It’s really amazing how much responsibility some of these roles come with. When good students pick up the ball and run with it it’s a real joy to see. And yes, they may be acknowledged for it too. But when they drop the ball it’s equally obvious. Things fall apart very quickly. And then awards are not forthcoming. And if you’ve ever sat through a job interview where someone tries to explain how they have great experience from their former position (with the impressive sounding title) but can’t actually point to anything they ever did … it’s obvious to even outside observers.

So here’s my advice. First, and most obviously, for any would be student leaders – only take on positions and roles that you actually want! If you do want the job, and you find you enjoy doing it, it could lead to great things. But if you don’t want the job and only want the “great things” I guarantee that isn’t the way to get there. It will be way more trouble than it’s actually worth and you’ll be miserable doing it. Second, to those who are cynical about the “student leaders” on your campus, be aware that you may be contributing to the problem. If you go around broadcasting the idea that everyone is in it for the wrong reasons and they all get these immense benefits from doing it, sooner or later someone’s going to believe you. And so your reward may be that you motivate one of these self-interested jackasses into taking over your union or your paper or your residence council. Now I’m quite convinced it won’t work out well for them, in the end. But in the meanwhile you’ll also have a badly run student organization when you could have had a better one.

Yes, some people get in it for the wrong reasons. And yes, they deserve all the criticism they receive. Even the students who assume prominent positions for the right reasons may screw up sometimes, or have a bad day, and it’s perfectly valid to critique them also. But please believe that it’s at least possible, and it does often happen, that students elect or hire or appoint the right people. There are many student leaders on campus who got into it only because they really want to do the job well. And if things work out for them down the road, partly as a result of that, I don’t see anything wrong with it. You may choose not to believe it’s possible, or doubt everyone’s motives as a matter of policy, but just remember. The harder and more frustrating you make it for people to do it all for good reasons, the more likely you are to end up with people doing it for bad reasons. And that’s a loss all around.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


Dispelling some myths about student leadership

  1. This may be lame, but:

    [insert standing ovation here]


  2. You’ve certainly touched a nerve for me Jeff. As a fellow and former ‘student leader’ (and it makes perfect sense to put that term in quotations), I’ve often questioned the motivation behind getting involved in campus life and student politics (my own motives included). When I advertised and recruited for those volunteers and staff working under me, I would often mention how these positions are great professional experiences where students could gain important skills that would help in their future employment or academic endevours. This was often done under the belief that most students (this is a very braod generalization I know this isn’t a universal truth) enter university because of a desire to further their employment prospects (get a degree – get a better job – get more money) and many of the activities they engage in are to support this. Many students who worked for me would ask for reference letters and other recommendations after their tenure with me was over, and those students that I did hire were often chosen based on skills and past experience more than passion for the job (though that was taken into account as well). Much of my work was operational – I had events that needed to be run and tasks that needed to be completed – so there wasn’t a lot of room for discussions on interests and motivations. Staff were hired, things were done, and what was learnt beyond pragmatic skills and competencies often didn’t emerge until much later on.

    All that being said, I’d be interested in hearing more of your opinion on the motives behind why students get involved in the first place. Your adivce for would be student leaders is ‘only take the positions and roles that you actually want!’ My question, however, is why do students WANT these positions in the first place? You make passing mention to student leaders who are a touch corrupt or shady in their work, but at some point or another did they not want their jobs as well? Does something change when they get into the role? Does absolute power corrupt, absolutly? I’ve heard people talk about students leaders getting ‘carried away’ with their supposeded new power and authority as a way to reward friends and shut out people with opposing viewpoints. Does something change, or was that the motive all along?

    I would go on but I remember seeing a comment about long winded postings. I’ll digress before I write another novel. :)

  3. Thanks Lisa – way to press your thumb down on exactly the spot where my entire position could shatter. It’s true. Much as I insist that the only way it really works out is if you care about what you are doing first and then build on that interest towards whatever you subsequently gain from the experience. And yet, many opportunities for involvement on campus are advertised in a way that emphasizes the individual benefits. So how does that make sense?

    I think I’d have to acknowledge, much as I blurred the line through everything I wrote to this point, that not all student leadership is at an equal level. Some positions and opportunities represent fairly low-level commitments (a chance to get your feet wet, if you will) while others require a very high level of engagement. As you talk about mustering a lot of volunteers I can’t help but imagine you are thinking about that kind of lower-level engagement, while I was thinking more about high-order student leadership when I first wrote.

    The line isn’t perfectly drawn, of course. I’d say someone who volunteers to give campus tours is clearly on one side and a full-time union exec is on the other, but I couldn’t neatly split every possible role or commitment in this way. I’ll just say that for entry-level student leadership, where the job is contained, isn’t likely to consume your life, won’t require you to be on campus at midnight on a Friday, and where you can always fall back on someone else’s experience and help if need be – well, for those, it’s more reasonable to emphasize the personal benefits of getting some experience and that’s fine. For those positions where the buck truly stops with you, however, I don’t think that’s enough.

  4. I’m sure most students get involved so they can do more than simply go to class and study for the $5000+ they pay.

    So onto the idea of why anyone would go for the job with a tenser schedule and higher commitment – well frankly speaking, that job does give better perks than the “entry level” position. Think about it from a clubs perspective, what’s the deal – simply being a member and going along for the ride or being the person in charge of making the ride? Most people join a particular club because they are interested in the work of that club and let’s face it, it sucks when you see something you’re interested in go down the shitter so to speak.

    As for unions, the positions come with a lot of responsibilities but it does come with a lot of “power”. I put THAT in quotations because this supposed “power” is all up to perception – the realist will simply see the constraints that their authority encompasses while the enthusiast will see no limits and actually BELIEVE they can do what they want in their newfound position of authority. Yes, it’s not logical to believe off the bat that union execs do this with the worst intentions in mind but you can’t ignore the fact that it does happen – alot. Especially considering what most people think the purpose of student unions are nowadays – I’m willing to bet that more than half of executives on student unions in Canada think they should have a seat on the UN because they are “president” of X and represent the interests of “Y” groups.

    And really, how much do student union execs have to do anyway. As you’ve stated, bullshitting a resume is EASY. By simply typing an email to a university admin asking about a particular issue and then say “oh well, I tried”, BOOM – you have a line on the resume saying you fought vigilantly for a particular issue and doing a halfass job at it. The fact that you got paid anywhere from $10,000-$30,000 to do it makes it even giddier.

    To say that money isn’t the issue is absurd. How often does one get to make $10-30K in an office setting with a lot of resources that can aid your own personal pursuits while being in school?

    The key word is and it has been use several times by both you and I is BULLSHIT. It’s easy to bullshit your resume with the title just as it is easy to bullshit your way through the mistakes you make in such a position because a) not that many people actually care and b) the consequences usually don’t matter much.

    So with that perspective in mind, wouldn’t anyone who wants to do more than simply go to class and study want to hold a position? Take it from the laziest person’s POV – in a club’s level, commitment is nothing compared to anything else you do with little to no consequences. I mean, worst case scenario, you lose the position but can still claim you did the work on the resume (and have photos to back it up). On the union level, it’s hugely advantageous, a comfy salary to boot, and again the consequences are small because for the most part, people are apathetic. Yes, people will bitch and moan but when it comes to actually doing something baout why they bitch and moan, they stop caring.

  5. What a lot of these comments seem to indicate for me is the more underlying issue of what sort of responsiblity or power ‘student leaders’ actually possess. The personal benefits of skill development, networking, personal connections and money (however little it may be) can be achieved in various other positions on campus and off, and can even be gained through what Jeff describes as roles with ‘lower level engagement’, though perhaps only to a lesser extent (e.g. only helping the ride along vs. planning the ride itself – thanks Lau for that interesting metaphor).

    These positions that require higher levels of commitment often do come with a higher level of power. This power may first manifest itself as simply access to resources and people (like university administrators) that other students may not have. For example, while many students were complaining about a lack of extra curricular opportunities and events on campus, my role with the student union gave me access to resources (money, supplies, event space) and people (volunteers, other union execs, university staff) to perhaps effect a real, more tangible change (whether I actually achieved that or not is perhaps up for debate). While these intial efforts and interactions may be small and largely insignificant to the outside observer (and often to the ‘student leader’ themselves), I am reminded of the words of a wise man and friend who once told me that (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘it may not be you who carries the ball over the goal line, but you may still be the one who rushes the ball a few extra yards to get you closer to the touchdown’. My lack of knowledge as to the finer points of football aside, while a large number of students may indeed be apathetic, those ‘student leaders’ who take on more active roles on campus are still very much contributing and may still have impressive skills and experiences to add to their resumes. Falsifying information and exaggerating work that was done … well … that’s a whole other story I suppose.

  6. I strongly disagree that the immediate perks of a “student leader” is not enough to entice the potential candidate from getting involved. Whether you are simply a club executive, a union rep or whatever this term may encompass, you already have something more than the general student – access to resources. This could simply be certain rights or priviledges, monetary, a pay cheque, or whatever.

    To argue against the “money is not enough” or “anyone can bullshit their resumes” – being a club leader can help you get one thing -awards and reference letters, something that weighs much more than the bullshit line people put on their resumes. Most of the time, a club executive is in a database from the university stating their title. So at the very least it provides credibility. Imagine starting a club, do near to absolutely nothing for the year so you can maintain the grades and then get a few friends to nominate you for awards and actually get it because quite frankly, how often does the administration know how much you actually did?

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