Class matters: Student organizations at colleges and universities

Attention former collegians: Did you participate heavily in campus activities?

If so, you’d feel at home at some of today’s colleges. James Petersen, writing for the Education Life supplement to the New York Times, highlights the proliferation of student organizations on some of America’s campuses:

Organizations have gone viral. Harvard has more than 400, up from about 250 six years ago. The University of California, Berkeley, has more than 1,000 organizations. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, estimates more than 800, with a Web site that encourages students to “Discover your passions. Bring your résumé to life.” The Web site of the College of William & Mary, which has 400 clubs, boasts “endless geekery from quiz bowl to Ping-Pong to heavy metal.”

Meaningful activities

Student organizations offer marvelous opportunities to gain skills, nurture new interests, make friends, and generally enrich one’s college experience. Students learn how to work with others, coordinate projects, and organize events. For many, friendships forged while helping to run college publications, creative projects, affinity groups, student governments, and fraternal organizations lead to bonds that endure long beyond commencement.

Class differences

Grinnell and Brown are among the other schools mentioned in Petersen’s article. Get the picture? Yes, extracurricular life is especially rich and abundant at prestigious schools. Parental earnings and/or financial aid packages make it more possible for students at these schools to get involved in campus life. Their university administrations love to tout campus activities to prospective students and their parents.

But it’s not like that for everyone who goes to college, not by a long shot. Although the coming-of-age “college experience” of going off to a campus away from home has been part of the middle-class American Dream for many decades, it has been more aspirational than real for many who pursue bachelor’s degrees. Nowadays, with sky high tuition straining the budgets of even upper middle class families, and more students obliged to work to pay for expenses and to obtain internships to pad resumes and grad school applications, extracurricular life can be among the casualties.

Nat Hentoff at Northeastern

Memoirs about immersion in campus activities often come from professors recalling soggy details of life at Ivy U. or Oxbridge back in the day. However, at least in the past, it has been possible to create enriching extracurricular experiences at practically any college or university. On this point I think about journalist and free speech advocate Nat Hentoff’s memoir Boston Boy (1986), where he recounts the seminal experience of working on the Northeastern University student newspaper in the 1940s.

Northeastern has since become a “hot” school for budding collegians, but during Hentoff’s student days it was a hardscrabble college for Boston-area working class kids and others who fell short of admission to more prestigious venues. Nonetheless, the student newspaper served as his classroom and apprenticeship. Through student and faculty mentors he learned about covering the news. From clashes with the University administration, he learned about censorship. Without this experience, it is very possible that his life and career path would’ve been different.

Providing opportunities

Today it’s much harder for the typical student to replicate Hentoff’s experience at Backyard U. Many students now opt to go to community college as a cost-saving measure, thus breaking up the continuity of their college experience. Those enrolled in 4-year schools are often juggling part-time jobs and internships with their studies.

What’s often lost is a path toward finding one’s interests and even calling through the kind of experiential learning that extracurricular activities can afford.  They also provide opportunities to develop social competence and leadership skills — qualities that will help anyone in work and life in general.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that an individual is forever deprived because she didn’t get to write for the college literary journal or run for the student government. However, I am suggesting that lives can be enriched and seeds of meaningful careers can be sown through immersive extracurricular activities, and that it would behoove us to offer these opportunities to as many students as possible.

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