When it's hard to get involved on campus - Macleans.ca

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.