By George J. Hill
One of the biggest mistakes that I made in my freshman year was that I didn’t get involved in any of the extracurricular activities, programs, or clubs that my college offered. Almost every college has an office of Student Activities or Student Life that schedules clubs, activities, and special events for students to participate in. These programs are partially funded by your “Student Activity Fee” listed on your semester bill. Multiply that fee times the number of students at your institution, and you will see it adds up to a lot of money to do fun things.
Why do colleges have Student Activities offices? College is not just about academic learning. It’s also about helping students grow and develop. A large part of learning happens outside the classroom and getting involved in campus activities is an important part of that. Studies repeatedly show that college students who are involved in activities, sports, or clubs are more likely to stay in college and graduate.
One of my students, Benji, had difficulty adjusting to college. The pressure of being responsible for his family’s welfare, along with a challenging Biology class was starting to take a toll on him. Both the Biology professor and I were concerned because sometimes he looked like he was about to break down. Benji needed a sanctuary, a place where he could go to get away from the stress for a while. He found it in two places: the school video game club and the Urban Farm.
The farm is our campus community garden where student volunteers help grow organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The produce grown on the farm is used by the Culinary Arts students in their classes, or is donated to students in need. At the farm, Benji learned a lot about the food system, plants, and cooking. He devoted almost every free hour that he had to watering plants, pulling weeds, leading tours, and harvesting crops. If Benji hadn’t gotten involved in these activities, if he hadn’t found a place to connect with on campus that mattered to him, it’s entirely possible that he would have stopped coming to school because of the pressure he was under.
Another former student of mine, Pyi, had challenges of a different nature. Pyi had only been in the United States for less than a year when he enrolled in a two-year college. Having immigrated from Myanmar, he had expected to be put in an ESL class. However, being a bright and capable student, Pyi scored well on the placement test and was placed into a credited Freshman English class.
The first few weeks Pyi came into my class with a shy smile and sat quietly off to the side of the room. He never talked to the other students, nor did he raise his hand to volunteer. After about two or three weeks of this, Pyi came to visit me in my office. We talked about his college goals, where he wanted to transfer to, and the different majors that he could pursue.
Finally, Pyi asked me, “What can I do to improve my English?” He explained that he was scared because he had assumed that he would be with other students who were learning English, but instead he was in a class with native speakers. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with them.
In terms of classwork, I recommended that he write multiple drafts of his term papers and seek out a writing tutor for additional help. I also suggested that he watch and listen to English language TV and radio, so that he could familiarize himself with the varied nuances of speech.
Most importantly, I said to Pyi, “You need to get involved. You can’t just show up to class and sit quietly. If you want to improve your English, you need to practice speaking it. Talk to your classmates after class. Join a club and talk to the students there. You have to be engaged if you want to succeed in college.”
Pyi took the advice to heart. The next time we had class, he struck up a conversation with two of the other students at the end of the period. Pyi also joined two clubs on campus: an environmental club and an on-campus organization called the Student Ambassadors. Eventually, Pyi joined the Honors Program and became deeply involved with one of their projects that included traveling to Austria.
By the next year’s first day of classes, Pyi was wearing a Student Ambassador t-shirt and cheerfully greeting everyone as they came onto campus. “Welcome to college! Let me tell you about our clubs. Let me tell you all about the events we’re having this week. You’re not just going to come to class and go home. You need to get involved!” This was a different person from the young man who had come into my class just one year earlier and hadn’t done anything except nervously smile at everyone.
Pyi graduated from the two-year school and transferred to a four-year college. Upon graduation, he earned the college’s Student Leadership and Service Award. When the dean presented it to him, she said that she could not think of a more deserving person than Pyi. He graduated from the four-year college with a high GPA, worked in media for a few years, and then went on to study gemstones and jewelry design. He has produced some exquisite pieces. None of this would have happened if Pyi had not decided to get involved and practice his English-speaking skills.
Benji and Pyi’s success in college was not solely based on grades, but also their participation in campus activities. Getting involved strengthens your connection to the school, provides a support network within the campus community, and builds long-lasting relationships. These aspects contribute to the overall success of your college experience.
Ge0rge J. Hill is an Academic Advisor at Kingsborough Community College.