We have all, at one point or another, worked with the over-involved college student. You know, the one who is in 15 organizations, barely has time to eat an afternoon snack, and is struggling just to remember which classes they’re taking. Many of us, myself included, probably were the over-involved college student.
What are we, as student affairs professionals, doing to help these students more fully understand the impact of their actions? If our approach is to say nothing, we may be silently reassuring students that it’s okay to bite off more than you can chew, to sign up for more than you can actually commit to, and that it’s better to be a member than to be a leader. And, if we’re overly vocal about the negative impacts of being an over-involved college student, we may not be allowing a student to learn that lesson for themselves. What’s the appropriate response?
I’m not sure that there is a right answer here. I do have some ideas about how to help a student navigate the shiny, exciting twists and turns of college life, though. Just this morning, a colleague and I were thinking about a group of students that we’re supervising for a large-scale campus event. We were lamenting the fact that our students don’t respond to any of our emails. They can’t commit to regular meetings, and never seem to remember the details of the event we’re supposedly planning. They “really want to be involved, though”. Here’s what we came up with:
There’s a huge difference between involved and over-involved.
We all love an involved student – am I right? They’re engaged in their university, taking advantage of all of the available opportunities and resources. We must draw a line, though. When involved turns into over-involved, the student can no longer truly meet the definition of the word involved. If a student can’t attend meetings, contribute knowledge, participate in activities and events, or hold leadership roles, how can they consider themselves to be involved? I’d argue that it’s better to be a very involved, committed member of a couple meaningful (to you!) organizations than a general body member in nine.
Productivity is important.
Working in career services, I spend a lot of time looking at resumes and cover letters. Often, when an over-involved student comes in for an appointment, I have to explain, gently, that it’s not necessarily worth listing all 13 organizations that they’re involved in. If all you can say about the experience was that you “attended monthly meetings,” what message does that send to a potential future employer? “
“How is an organization benefiting from your membership?” is a question that I often ask students when I want them to think critically about their productivity. Which skills and experiences will be transferable to that proverbial “real world” that they talk about so often?
Both a “Yes” and a “No” can be meaningful.
Students must take a moment to consider what their true interests, skills, and values are. Otherwise, they’re never going to be able to say “yes” or “no” in a meaningful way. They’ll jump at anything that sounds exciting without stopping to consider whether or not that opportunity aligns with their goals. In the same way, they may be too quick to say “no” to something that could really benefit their trajectory. Pausing to ask whether the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is meaningful allows our students to make more prudent decisions about when to get involved. We need to both model and encourage these behaviors for the students that we work with and/or supervise. Do we encourage them to be intentional about their involvement? Or do we model “over involvement” for the sake of a “perfect” resume?
We cannot expect college students to learn how to draw the line between involved and over-involved unless we’re willing to have some difficult conversations. We need to talk about slowing down and assessing goals and values. Then, we have to help them make meaningful decisions about what to pursue alongside academics. Hopefully, our students will realize just how helpful this discernment can be. Yes, they can and will be okay if their resume focuses on depth over breadth.
How do you help your students to balance their commitments and involvement?