When it’s hard to get involved on campus

Why the doors are closed, even when you have time to give, and what to do about it


A very common complaint from students is that they find it hard to get involved. They care about things going on around them, and they want to volunteer or otherwise become more active on campus, but they are turned off by a lack of any encouragement. They show up once and find an office is closed. They send in an e-mail and get no reply. And usually that’s the end of it. Students are human, after all. They’ll take a kick or two at the can but if there’s no response they move on.

My basic advice for this situation is to not take it personally. Many campus organizations just aren’t very organized. There’s always annual turnover. The people who end up in charge may or may not be especially effective and, in any case, have their own studies to worry about. So it isn’t surprising that offices are often closed, e-mail goes unanswered, and so on. I encourage anyone who is determined to get involved to do more than simply knock a couple of times. Knock first, then kick hard, and if need be kick until the door falls over. You may find the organization on the other side of the door is so badly off there isn’t even anyone to invite you in. Then once you’re on the inside, hopefully, you can do a better job of inviting more people to participate.

The more complex advice, however, gets to a root problem that is more serious than mere disorganization. Volunteers take time and effort to coordinate. Even the best-intentioned people are sometimes more “trouble” than they are worth – when measured merely in terms of how much they can accomplish as volunteers. It’s that classic problem where I can do something myself and it will take two hours to get it done (because I already know what I’m doing) or I can spend four hours training and coordinating someone else to do it. And when things are busy – as they almost always are for students – the former option is very attractive.

This is the real reason, in my opinion, why students so often feel stone-walled when they try to volunteer or want to get involved with an organization on campus. Even though the volunteers have the very justified expectation that if they have time to give someone should be eager to recruit them, the reality is often quite the opposite. The organizations operate year-to-year. The people in charge are very pressed to accomplish whatever they intend to accomplish quickly, and aren’t in a hurry to welcome new people to the fold. And even the best volunteers rarely stick around for very long, meaning that the upfront effort required to train and involve them will yield only a limited return.

That’s the downside to involving new students in campus organizations. It often takes more effort than it’s worth, in immediate terms. The upside, however, is that you renew your organization in the process. The very nature of student organizations, that demand new leadership each and every year, is that without new students ready to take over the organizations simply die. Organizations that aren’t vital in some sense (clubs, for example) simply dry up and blow away, while organizations such as unions, residence councils, and the press may continue but tend to decline. Each successive year gets handed over to less-prepared students, who then have even less spare time to involve new people and end up doing everything on their own (in a state of perpetual stress) and the cycle continues.

My advice to students looking to get more involved is to be aware of this problem. You have every right to expect a warm welcome to the organizations around you, but try to understand why you might not receive one anyway. You can make things easier by making a concrete commitment of a specific amount of time, by learning whatever you can on your own, and by identifying areas where you can contribute with a minimum of start-up investment. And if you’re still getting stone-walled you can always raise exactly the point I just made. If those in positions of authority this year won’t let anyone else participate, then who do they imagine is going to take over next year?

And conversely, once you get into a position yourself where you can involve new people, remember to do so. Don’t even wait for people to come knocking – as they often may not – but rather make the effort to invite them in. It will always be tempting to simply do things on your own. It’s almost invariably more efficient in the short term. But in the long term it comes at a cost to your organization. The real measure of a successful student organization is in long-term stability, and that can only come when there’s constant renewal and always some new blood involved each and every year.

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.


When it’s hard to get involved on campus

  1. Hi Jeff,

    As a self-described student life junkie, I found this entry rather interesting. Having been on ‘the other side’ trying to recruit students, I never found myself wanting for volunteers. That being said, what I was always on the look out for was COMMITTED volunteers. There always seemed to be a great rush of students looking to volunteer, but that number would slowly trickle as the term or year went on. This isn’t to say that these volunteers weren’t fantastic – it was just a rather frustrating reality that volunteer attrition was always high. This pattern closely mirrors those executives and other student leaders who, year after year, are replaced by those ‘less-prepared students who have even less spare time’.

    As much as I will always be an advocate for student involvement in campus life, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to keep students engaged and involved. Much like the work I did related to student retention and recruitment for institutional goals, the same sort of attention needs to be paid to succession planning for student leaders and organizations. Having been a student union executive myself, I saw a real need for an additional level of succession planning beyond handing over a set of keys and a computer full of files. I couldn’t argue that everything an organization does needs to be the same year after year (as growth and renewal are certainly necessary) and there is indeed room for student leaders to make their own mark on an orgainzation, the sustainability of the organizations themselves could be improved. Of course, this does bring up the question of why these organizations aren’t sustainable in the first place – it’s not always just a lack of volunteers that can cause an organization to fade away.

    Interesting reading as always Jeff. Looking forward to your next posting.

  2. I’ve noticed that many group leaders shy away from actively seeking memberships with the mentality that the product or services they offer are strong enough incentives for potential members to seek them out. Another factor is that many fail to see that their role in the group is that of a part-time job. It may not have financial benefits in the immediacy but in the end, them being in the seat of their position was due to being appointed or elected by either a constituency or a governing body yet more often than not the leaders in question treat the position as if it’s no different to simply being a regular member. They are aware of the position’s responsibilities beforehand and actively pursue the opportunity to wear the shoes they’re given yet once it’s handed to them, more often than not neglect happens due to a wrong mentality. This creates a difficult environment for the group’s progression and for expansion of members.

    The problem also stems from the fact that many of the leaders of different organizations, especially in the club level or “non-essential” groups for a lack of a better term, aren’t so open to collaborate with others due to some odd sense of competition. It may reek of machoism, but many club organizers either refuse to acknowledge the other’s presence due to ignorancy or they purposely compete head to head with them in a wild display of not-so-deserved overconfidence. I’ve witnessed countless clubs who continuously have a steady decline in activity over the last 3 years simply because they refuse to reach outside their own social circle or allow anyone in. Those that thrive or expand are the ones who are constantly partnering up with others in an effort to reach a different demographic.

    I can’t say that I agree on the responsibility of gaining active participation lying mostly in the hands of the potential participant. It is the job of these club leaders to ensure that such opportunities are available for their membership.

  3. @Henry

    “I can’t say that I agree on the responsibility of gaining active participation lying mostly in the hands of the potential participant. It is the job of these club leaders to ensure that such opportunities are available for their membership.”

    In an ideal situation I entirely agree with you. But when it comes to advice I’m all about focusing on what you can control, and it does no good to point out to someone that other people aren’t doing enough on their behalf. Whether that’s true or otherwise (and it’s often true) dwelling on it is self-defeating. So certainly, I would remind all students in any position of authority to be mindful of their responsibilities. But to those on the outside, I’d also say that you should approach the situation as though it is your job to do everything possible. Fair or otherwise, sometimes you just gotta go with what works.

  4. @Jeff

    I would have to agree that it really doesn’t do any good to tell someone they aren’t doing enough (I speak from frustrating personal experiences). That being said, it is interesting to explore why this doesn’t work. Are students in positions of authority averse to direction and suggestions? Do they purposely shut out those that Henry calls ‘potential participants’ or is there really no room for them? Henry’s comment about clubs sticking to their own social circle was certainly true when I worked with student clubs, but I also noticed a real resistance to change, whether from fellow students or administration (including the student union). This resistence to change has always intrigued me – is it a fear of the unknown? Is it a fear of change? Is it overconfidence (my way is the best way and we don’t need to change it)? This heavy reliance on tradition seems to stand in the way of refreshing and renewing policies and practices that just don’t work while excluding talented and enthusiastic students from participating in campus life.

    While Jeff is right to point out that students should ‘do everything possible’ to get involved, the same advice must be extended to those students that provide those opportunities for participation. Campus life, much like all life, depends on change and renewal for survival. Why change is seemingly so despised by student groups is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around (and may perhaps be part of my next post).

  5. “Are students in positions of authority averse to direction and suggestions? Do they purposely shut out ‘potential participants’ or is there really no room for them?”

    I’m going to add a third option here that I’ve touched upon before and it stems from a certain arrogance by the club organizers – many believe that they DON’T NEED to market their efforts to gain new members but rather their efforts in the past are enough to generate the interests from new members. Many clubs I’ve interacted with decided that they were too good to ask people to be a part of their group, that what they have in the past warrants a desire amongst new participants and that they were actually doing these new guys a favour for letting them be a part of the group. This kind of mentality amongst club executives is what freaks me out, especially when their operations become nil without the support of those they feel are what is essentially “beneath them”.

    And on the topic of resistance to change, I also find many club executives, especially a group that doesn’t have strong ties to previous years, tend to promote a stance of change for the sake of change. Usually it stems with, again, arrogance on the leader’s part because they want to demonstrate their own ideas in an outgoing manner, they don’t want to feel overshadowed for their role, or they simply have disagreements with the past executives.

    Here’s a new idea to throw in the mix – if potential participants are frustrated, I’m sure some current ones are as well. You see it all the time. And just to clarify, when I say current members, I don’t mean current executives (though that can happen as well) but the general membership who paid the member fees but are constantly being ignored in favour of others. On something along the lines of a school club, you can always come together to open a forum of dialogue with the executives. If this doesn’t help things, come together and form a group on your own and do things the way you all feel is the proper way. I’ve seen this happen many times and usually the new group ends up doing better because they have support from the student body due to their open conduct.