niversities are facing a lot of questions these days. How
do we ensure at-risk students graduate? How do we prepare
students for the workplace and connect them with employers? How do we build meaningful ties with the community
beyond campus? The list goes on.
Answering these questions requires vision, innovation
and experimentation. But, then again, sometimes the answers are right under our noses. I have spent many years as
a participant in, and as an executive member and founder of,
various campus clubs. This experience, and my own study of
campus clubs, leads me to believe that they are already a part
of the solution, if only we could tap into them better.
My research indicates that, in the 2013-14 academic year, there were just
under 7,500 clubs on university campuses across Canada. Almost every
campus, big or small, urban or rural, offers its students at least some opportunities to participate. Campus clubs are largely overseen by student
unions and the level of oversight, support, training and funding differs
tremendously from campus to campus. Many student unions have allowed their system of clubs to grow haphazardly without much central
planning or coordination.
There seems to be no Canadian literature on the topic and it is unclear
if universities keep any data on campus clubs. However, studies from the
U.S., England and elsewhere suggest that campus clubs can contribute to
the academic success of all participating students and especially those
from certain at-risk groups, such as indigenous and international students.
A mix of both small-scale qualitative and large-scale quantitative
studies have concluded that participation in all kinds of campus clubs is
correlated with success factors like improved critical thinking, personal
development, academic and affective growth, leadership skills and ultimately postsecondary persistence. Club participation also encourages cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions between members. This improves
members’ knowledge and awareness of diversity and social justice issues.
To give just a couple of examples, in a 2007 study in the Journal of
College Student Development, American researchers Shaun Harper and Stephen
Quaye found that campus clubs offered black students at predominantly white universities an opportunity both to develop their identity and
to engage in cross-racial dialogue, a space of growing importance given
rising racial tensions. In a 2003 study in the same journal, authored by
Aaron Jackson, Steven Smith and Curtis Hill, Native American students
expressed the importance of Native American clubs for creating a sense
of belonging and a network of support.
These findings aren’t particularly surprising. After all, clubs are just
semi-structured, semi-spontaneous regular gatherings of people who may
come from diverse backgrounds but share some common interest. These
would-be strangers are likely facing or have already faced similar problems adjusting to the new realities of university life. It is not surprising
these clubs end up providing members with emotional and intellectual
like graffiti on bathroom stalls, campus clubs are a common feature of the university landscape. Their friendly, if pushy, volunteers
handing out leaflets or peddling home-baked wares for this cause
or that are such a fixture of campus life that they’ve become part of the
background. So it may not occur to anyone to think of them, for instance,
as Canada’s largest incubator.
Think about it: If you have some idea about how to make campus
life better, you just need to round up a sufficient number of signatures
(anywhere from, say, five to 25), and you will be given access to space,
funding, training opportunities and more. Of course, starting the club is
the easy part. You then have to hold meetings, develop programming (e.g.
events, fundraisers, conferences, movie nights, etc.), maintain an engaged
membership, budget and manage funds, keep records, and so on. You’ll
have to quickly learn almost everything you’d have to do if you wanted to
start your own organization outside of university.
One reason we might not think of clubs as incubators is because the
one thing that clubs are absolutely not supposed to teach is how to make
a profit, since they are prohibited from doing so. But, then again, Canada’s
non-profit sector, accounting for roughly $106 billion in economic activ-
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