One year ago this May, I accepted my first professional role as the Assistant Director of Student Involvement and Greek Life at a tiny, wonderful college in rural South Carolina. With a solid background in advising and volunteering within fraternity and sorority life, I was fully prepared for every aspect of the “Greek Life” half of my position, but quickly learned how absolutely clueless I was when it came to the “Student Involvement” piece. As the advisor for the sole organization responsible for campus activities and programming, I believed that I would have an army of students to help imagine, organize, and implement some of the grand programs I had experienced as an undergraduate student at the tenth largest school in the country. What I was met with was four young ladies who had as much knowledge and experience as I did, and a budget that would cover a quarter of the cost of just one event at my undergraduate institution.
In order to gain some institutional knowledge, I asked the women to walk me through what had been done in the past. According to them, they did the same programs every year, which were calendared for them by their advisor one year in advance. When asked I asked why, I received the same response that I am sure I have heard at least two hundred times since my arrival at the college- “that is the way it has always been done”. This concept of using the word tradition as an excuse to keep doing what is safe and what is comfortable is one that I am all too familiar with from my time advising fraternities and sororities. We, as student affairs professionals, and our students are often terrified to try anything newbecause the risk of failing is all too real. What if no students show up? What if this is a waste of money during a fiscally challenging year? Or what if our event or organization becomes the laughing stock of YikYak?!
“Two roads diverged in the woods… and I took the road less traveled… AND IT HURT, MAN! Really bad. Rocks, thorns, and glass! My pants broke! Not cool Robert Frost.” –Kid President, A Pep Talk from KidPresident to You
All it took was one simple question to start a small change that has led to an innovation in campus culture: What would you do if there were no expectations, no boundaries, or no fear of failure? Over a four hour retreat, we created a list of twenty-four potential programs and set our plan for the semester. We threw out the pre-conceived notion of how a programming board should be structured and decided to challenge our student population to try something new, whether that be giant bubble soccer or Hunger Games-style archery with soft-tipped arrows. Admittedly, we experienced some failure, which resulted in the five of us gorging ourselves on candy and watching Grease on a giant blow-up screen… by ourselves. However, we also experienced great triumph in the form of development and interest in our small organization, growing from four members to fifteen members strong over the course of one semester.
Our journey towards risk taking is culminating in the most controversial break in tradition that the college has yet to experience. For the last thirty years, the end of the spring semester has been celebrated with the Spring Fling concert. Due to the size of our student population and the college’s commitment to being fiscally responsible, we are unable to afford the big name artists that many of our neighboring colleges and universities bring in. Last year, we spent several thousand dollars on a concert that only three hundred students attended- an issue attributed to the lack of notoriety of the band and the apathy of a student population bored with “the way we have always done it.” At the end of April, the Student Union Board is saying goodbye to “tradition” and bringing in the first Spring Fling Carnival, featuring everything from a Ferris wheel to cotton candy. Although some students have expressed frustration in the change, the exhilarating feeling of innovation that is slowly creeping across our campus has changed the atmosphere of our school. We are now seeing other student organizations taking a chance by introducing their own programs and developing new opportunities to for students to interact beyond the classroom. And it all started with a little risky business.
This post is part of our month-long series #OrgAdvising, an in-depth look at the different aspects of the student organization advisor role. This series hopes to bring front-and-center a role otherwise overlooked or forgotten in the discussion of “advisor.” For more information, see the intro post by Cindy Kane! Check out the other posts in this series too!