Stressing the Importance of Getting Involved

For roughly 3,000 of you, Sept. 10, 2009 will be remembered as a watershed moment in your life, a day when the training wheels of life were removed and the stakes were forever raised. There are some who view a child’s entrance into university as the culmination of a lifetime of big dreams and wisely applied elbow grease, and in some respect, those people are right. Being accepted into a major post-secondary institution like the University of Manitoba is certainly an accomplishment requiring equal parts ambition and talent, along with a healthy dose of good fortune. While much praise is justly due, it is still important to remember that this day is not the end game. In reality, to survive the next four years it is absolutely crucial that you resist the temptation to fall back upon your laurels and switch into cruise control.

The students who will ultimately enjoy the greatest success are those who will quickly realize the obligation and the privilege, not the right, which accompanies a university education. From Sept. 10 onwards you will be encountered with that obligation to speak on behalf of those who cannot, to champion the cause of the less fortunate and to fight for those who were not given the same opportunity as yourself. Now, no one is asking us to be superheroes and fix the world overnight, but eventually, one day, our generation of great thinkers, scientists and entrepreneurs will be called upon to address the pressing issues of nuclear proliferation, steady environmental degradation, radical fundamentalism and the rest of the societal ills that plague our great planet.

In the meantime though, it is understandable that many students also have short-term goals that they hope to fulfill through their university experience. For the time being, many students are simply looking to live up to parental expectations, and to work towards a career that is both prestigious and financially rewarding. With this all in mind, the question becomes, how can students position themselves to achieve their personal goals, while also keeping an eye on their ultimate obligations to society? On the other side of the debate, how do post-secondary institutions foster a culture of civic duty while simultaneously providing the appropriate resources for the student’s short-term success? Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that the key to finding that middle ground between the short-term goals and long-term obligations rests in the greater emphasis put on the education that students can receive outside the walls of lecture halls. University administrators and researchers stress that there is a definite link between a student’s extra-curricular involvement on campus and their academic and personal success.

According to David Morphy, vice-president (academic) & provost, encouraging students to become engaged in campus life and involved in extra-curricular activities has become one of the U of M’s top priorities.

“The student experience has now been identified as one of the university’s top responsibilities and so we now have mandates set out on how to enhance that experience [ . . . ] the key to this [enhanced student experience] is through engagement and student involvement,” said Morphy.

Morphy added, “We would really like to see more students get involved in clubs, associations, intramurals, and all sorts of activities that we think are very important for the their overall success.”

The most commonly cited benefits of extra-curricular student involvement is the sense of community that is created from the presence of other like-minded individuals and also the opportunities that are often presented to the student once they step into an active role on campus.

Morphy said that the university administration has been steadily developing initiatives like the co-curricular record, that he believes will entice a majority of students to pursue their outside interests on campus. According to Morphy, the co-curricular record will be a newly minted feature on students’ university transcripts, compiling their volunteer contributions and extra-curricular participation within the university community.

“If students are engaged, if they are spending time volunteering or participating within the clubs and the associations that they enjoy in the university community, we are going to record that because not only do we belief that this participation will allow the student to be more successful, but we also know that employees are looking for that information,” Morphy said.

Sid Rashid, president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, stands firmly behind any efforts by university administration to encourage a culture of student involvement on campus and pledges that UMSU will work to be part of this solution in the year ahead.

“In today’s day and age, a university degree is common, but it’s the true university experience, which includes both aspects, inside the classroom and out, that can truly help make individuals stand out in the real world [ . . . ] The UMSU Executive are working very hard at opening channels of communication with all faculties, residences and colleges this year, and at really promoting their events, initiatives and opportunities to our student body. ” Rashid said.

Despite their common desire to boost extra-curricular participation, both Rashid and Morphy acknowledge that the ever-changing nature of modern technology sometimes makes effective communication with students challenging. In addition, Rashid and Morphy said that the U of M’s “commuter campus” culture, where a large majority of students live off campus, weakens the sense of a tight university community.

According to Morphy, the push to get students excited about extra-curricular participation then revolves around the steady application of three main components. The first and most obvious component is to actively stress the benefits of student involvement through the lines of administration-to-student communication. Secondly, Morphy believes the university has an obligation to guide students through the occasionally difficult transition between high school and the elevated expectations of university life, and to instill the values of hard work and dedication that will ultimately allow new students to become those great leaders of tomorrow.

“This place is different, there is definitely a significant transition that takes place for students [moving from high school to university . . . ]. By getting involved, many students are able to get a better feel for the pace and the feel of university life than they otherwise would,” Morphy said.

Finally, Morphy insists that early and effective university orientation remains a critical component in the quest to get new students engaged on campus. As part of this third component, UMSU works cooperatively with the University One program to help new students navigate an unfamiliar campus, and introduces them to the many academic and personal support structures that exist at the U of M. For instance, by attending U1 orientation, students can learn about proper note-taking techniques and of the dangers involved with plagiarism. Engaged students will also be able to sleep peacefully at night knowing that, with the presence of emergency financial aid, a short-term money shortage need not inhibit their academic ambitions.

Christine Blais, director of University 1, agrees that student orientation has become a critical asset in the campaign to boost student engagement in all areas of campus life.

“Like many schools in the U.S., our orientation has become academic, and it had to be. Orientation is one of the only times where we can have the new students together in a big group, and it’s a great time to try and communicate important points. We tell the students to go down and talk to UMSU, join a club, just get involved [ . . . ] it is so important,” Blais stressed.

Blais also took pains to encourage all incoming U1 students to engage early and to attend the optional sessions on study tips and academic integrity.

“The neat thing is that with all the academic discipline cases that I attended last year, in every single case, the student facing [the discipline] had not attended that session in their U1 orientation,” said Blais.

While beers with the gang up at Wise Guy’s, or a relaxing afternoon with friends may seem like more attractive alternatives to attending lectures on life lessons and academic integrity, you owe it to yourself, and to all of those who showed faith in you, to get involved early and often in the university community.

While today it may seem like a daunting proposition, it is clear that one day our generation will have to step up to the plate and battle the inequalities and injustices of our time. In order to surmount these challenges, we will need plenty of mature and well-rounded individuals rising to the occasion. While the journey towards this great responsibility will be long, fortunately we will have the benefit of our university experiences to draw upon. That is why it is so important to start getting involved today, not just for the sake of your own personal success, but also in the name of the greater good. It may be a bit of a rocky transition at first, but as Rashid sums up, the first step in this direction is the key.

“In my opinion, the most important step on any journey is the first one. All it takes for any student on this campus to get involved is to make that choice to get involved in that first event, campaign, student group, faculty, etc. [ . . . ] Once you get involved in one initiative, doors seem to open you never knew existed, each one a new and exciting opportunity, and if you’re lucky, like I’ve been, along the way you get to do some really amazing things.”