Thinking of Getting Involved in Student Leadership? Read This First.

Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash

So you’re walking to meet up with some friends to study, and on the way, you bump into a classmate. They’re running a bake sale for their student club, the mental health education organization. As you’re chatting with them about the bake sale, they interject:

“Hey, you should consider running for a position next year. We could use you for our finance & budgeting, I know you’re really good at that. Plus I know you’re interested in this stuff too, so it’d be right up your alley.”

The moment passes by, and before you know it you’re trekking to meet up with your friends. But the thought stays in your head. You have friends who have struggled with mental health challenges and had no idea what they could do about it. You’ve struggled with it yourself. You do have a knack for handling money well, and you’ve got plenty of time this year due to a lighter class schedule.

Do you throw your name in the hat?

If you’re in this position or have been in before, congrats: welcome to the crossroads. This very scenario has been the common thread amongst many of my colleagues and friends throughout our student leadership journeys. It’s a seemingly harmless moment, but it carries so much weight and potential that it can change your life completely. All from deciding-or not deciding- to get involved in one simple role.

Before you continue your journey (especially if you’re considering getting involved), please hear me out. I’ve been a part of many clubs, organizations, and roles. As have my friends. We’ve learned lessons that have gone on to change our lives… And we’ve struggled along the way too. Every one of us has thought to ourselves: “If I could just go back and give myself a few pieces of advice, that would’ve made a world of a difference.”

Unfortunately, we can’t do that. Time travel has yet to be invented (still holding out). But we can offer our experiences to others in the hopes that they learn from our mistakes, heed our lessons, and embark on their own journey with newfound wisdom.

So if you’re considering getting involved in student leadership on your campus, great. Here are a few things I think (and many others I’ve spoken to) you need to keep in mind before diving in.

Make It Personal

Ineffective leaders are ones that are not in areas they want to be in. There’s nothing beneficial in running for a position that you’ll treat as a title and nothing more, or one you aren’t invested in. If you’re planning on getting involved on or off-campus, it’ll benefit you greatly to do your research and find what you’d like to be a part of. However you do this is up to you: ask friends, attend events, write out what excites you and what you’re about, etc., etc. The purpose is to better understand your campus makeup, yourself, and what opportunities there are for you.

I served on the Board of Governors for my university for one term (IE: a year). I wouldn’t have heard about it if it wasn’t for my friend, who also served on the board, telling me about the election coming up. Why’d she tell me? Because she thought I was a good fit. I was going into my fifth year of University, coming down on several years of too-much-involvement and a wealth of experience and insight on the lifestyle of students. She felt it would help the universities senior administration to have that insight. I ran and thankfully won the election: and for a year and a half, I had the opportunity to share my experiences and thoughts with the highest decision-makers of my alma mater.

Running for the Board was one of the best decisions I ever made because I knew it fit with what I wanted to do: address complex, multi-faceted problems that affected the student body as a whole. I didn’t want to run for any executive positions for my program’s student government body because it genuinely didn’t interest me as much. My other friends did, and they accomplished much more than I could have in that role (and vice versa, if they would have considered a run at the Board of Governors).

So, sit it down and think about who you are and what you want to accomplish in your time on campus. Find the organizations, roles, and opportunities that excite you, and apply yourself in that direction. You’ll not only help your chances of winning by committing to something that excites you and fits you, but you’ll also do a much better job in the position if you win.

Ask Yourself: What’s The Commitment?

So you’ve figured out what kind of involvement you want to have, and you’ve narrowed down a potential position you’ll run for. Dope. But first, you need to figure out what you’re actually getting into. Each position in student leadership is different, and with that carries different weight: are you serving as an executive for a social cause where you have to run and attend events throughout the semester? Do you need to be at board meetings once every 2 months that are a full day? Does the position require you to hold office hours?

Some positions have a fair amount of oversight, which means you’ll inevitably have an advisor or staff member that guides you along with the role. Some have absolutely no oversight whatsoever, or atleast very hands-off “advising” where staff rarely get involved. Some roles create a conflict of interest for others, which can make chasing new opportunities much more difficult. Others open doors we never would have expected.

It’s important to weigh both the cons with the pros. While some positions require more time, they may come with a higher payoff. Some are so low-maintenance that you’re able to rise above the laziness of others and accomplish great things with little push back since no one expects you to actually do anything great (a pattern I’ve seen in many student organizations, where the bar for performance is so low that doing something menial like raising funds for a social cause is cause for celebration).

Do some digging, ask around, and see what the actual experience is in the role. If the pros outweigh the cons and it is realistic for your life and schedule, then go for it!

Figure Out What You Want To Accomplish

One of the biggest challenges with leadership positions on campus is the turn over rate. Students have complex lives, not to mention such a short academic lifespan. Naturally, many organizations on campus have students come in and out frequently: often 1–2 years is the length of time that a student is in a leadership position. It may seem like a while, but with the busyness of campus life, you’ll lose track of how much time has gone by pretty quickly.

That being said, we underestimate how much we can accomplish in just a year. It may not seem like much time, but a productive individual with an idea of what they want to do will inevitably accomplish a lot.

Many organizations and positions come with expectations: position _____ is responsible for _____, needs to do _____, and handle _____. The expectations are typically simple to account for other student priorities. This gives you the opportunity to rejig your responsibilities to give yourself space to accomplish what you’d like.

I’m not advocating for abandoning your responsibilities: what I am saying is that many leadership positions are flexible, and you can shape the role to accomplish much more than anticipated without working overtime in any capacity (as I always like to say, you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in 2 hours if you focus).

This is where your goal setting comes in. Now that you have an idea of who you are and what opportunities are available, you can decide a small project or two to start on in your new role. Something that aligns with the responsibilities of the role (so you’re not overworking) but unique and changes things for the better.

However you set that goal is up to you: SMART goals, 6 Hats, mind-mapping, or getting ideas from other organizations. All I recommend is that you start small, manageable, and different. You don’t need to create sweeping change, but you can introduce a new initiative, project, process, or culture that will benefit others in the future. My friends have created and led mental health panels, created new methods of fundraising for cancer research, founded completely new organizations to address needs not met on campus, and introduced a policy that supported students academically. All of these came from small ideas, built upon over time.

And Now To Start

One final thing, and perhaps a more upsetting lesson: sometimes things don’t work out. For all my successes, I have had plenty of “failures”. Projects that have been flat out rejected, or equally as worse, received the the “oh this is cool… Anyways” response. My friends have worked tirelessly to introduce new policies only to be ignored during meetings. I’ve seen my friends lose elections (I’ve lost some before as well). It sucks. And it’s frustrating. It’s a sad reality of life that we don’t always succeed. Such is life. What we can do is prepare as best as we can, work as hard as life permits us, and save what energy we have left for another day. Put that policy proposal in a document and save it. Write down the potential event idea you have. Tell your successors of what went wrong in the hopes that they can accomplish what you weren’t able to. Focus on the process, and be proud of what you did accomplish.

Student leadership is one of the most profound and complex experiences you can have during your time as a student. In just a year, you can make the best of friends, change someone’s life in ways neither of you could have ever dreamed, and stare down some of the most daunting challenges you’ve faced. And all of that can come and go in the blink of an eye. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. These seemingly simple opportunities can be the catalyst that changes life: yours and others.

So go after it. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, and embrace the uncertainty that comes with a new experience. I can’t promise you sunshine and rainbows: but I can promise you that you’ll be different, perhaps even better, for it.

It is my hope that whatever you take from this post, you use to wield some semblance of power to better ends. Use what you learn to make your campus, community, and world a better place.

Carpe Diem, kids.

Hey everyone! If you enjoyed this, leave a clap or a comment below with something that stood out to you. If you want to keep up with my writing, give me a follow! Thank you so much for reading :)

Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on political psych, practical philosophy, and random stuff

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