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Sustainability Projects and Student Groups

As a staff member or administrator, working with student clubs and organizations can sometimes be both the most rewarding experience and sometimes the most frustrating. Don’t let this potentially great experience be doomed by false expectations.

Past performance is no guarantee of future success

Just because you had a great experience (or a bad experience) with a club last year, don’t presume that will continue this year. Every year, if not every semester, a club or student org gets new students, loses students, each student has a different availability around their work and class schedules, and, in general, the mix and chemistry of the students changes. All of that can add up to a very different experience from year to year and semester to semester. That can be exciting because you never know what you’ll get and every year has the potential to be something amazing. However if you are trying to build on previous success, this change can be infuriating because in my experience the changes are typically cyclical rather than progressive.

Finish Tasks

Finish tasks. Don’t leave them to get picked up by the club next year because you don’t know if that new mix of students will be interested in taking up that same project with the same enthusiasm. That can either leave you with a lot of projects that never get finished, which can be infuriating because of the time you committed to them, or it can lead to a 2nd group of students that feel pressured to pick up the project of the preceding group, a project they have little interest in or enthusiasm for, which can make for a negative experience both for the students and the staff and faculty working with them. Conversely, if you finish tasks, you give the students in the group a sense of accomplishment, something they can put on a resume, and something that helps them to feel that the time commitment was worth it – which may either help them justify coming back next semester/year, or at least lead them to tell friends positive things about the experience which will help to recruit new students to the club next semester/year.

The When

“When” is one of the most important facets of working with students. Students often come with grandiose ideas – that is one of the joys and advantages of working with students. However to quote Elvis, if you want a semester that is spent with “a little less conversation and a little more action,” you need to pay attention to when. At most, you have 13 weeks in a semester. Given that you will lose at least 2 weeks to exams at the end of each semester, and at least 2 weeks at the beginning of “getting to know each other” meetings in which everyone sits around and tells each other their name, major, and favorite Twilight movie or episode of the Simpsons or what sport they most liked watching during the Olympics. At best, that will give you 8 or 9 weeks for your project(s). Given that there is usually a mid-semester break somewhere in there, and at least a week of mid-term exams in which you can’t accomplish much, you are down to 6-8 weeks total for your project(s) from conception to completion. I have seen some very impressive stuff come out of those 6-8 weeks, but conversely, I have also seen a lot of unfinished projects or poorly done projects in which 6 weeks of work is rushed into the final week or two when everyone panics about how little time there is left in the semester. If you map out the semester ahead of time and are realistic about your timeline, it will save a lot of frustration and disappointment at the beginning of the semester.

Where are you both in your evolution?

Student orgs go through their own evolution. What kind of student org is it that you are about to start working with? Are they well established, or is this a new startup org that has barely had enough signatures/members to become an org, or is it somewhere in between? One key to a successful partnership with a student org is to understand where you both are on your evolution curve.

What do they get out of the experience?

What will the students get out of working with you? Yes, you are going to get their free labor and their ideas and their enthusiasm. You are going to get credibility with other students by working with a student org or club. But what do they get in return (and I don’t just mean free pizza or cookies at the end of the semester to thank them for their help)? You are asking them to donate several hours each week of time that could otherwise be spent studying, working, or hanging out with friends. What are you offering that is better than the alternative? Heck even if it is just a place to go hangout during those weird gap times during the day when a student has too much time between classes but not enough time to go back to their room or to go to the library is something that the students are getting out of the experience.

The best dynamic that I have ever seen was initiated by a former Facilities Director of mine back in the 1990s, back before sustainability was a buzzword and all this was just considered “environmental stuff.” He looked at his own operation and realized that the folks in Facilities had great ideas and sufficient funding but no time to implement the ideas and no credibility. He looked at the student environmental club that seemed to have plenty of enthusiasm time to beat him up in the student paper and advocate that he should be doing more, and he had an idea. He brought the two groups together.

For projects they would work on together, Facilities would bring a level of funding and administrative buy-in that the Environmental Club could never have dreamed of in their wildest fantasies. In the process, they got to work alongside the folks that would have to implement their ideas, and they got to learn from those folks. The students got to work directly with the electrician to see why an energy conservation idea might or might not work, they got to work directly with the custodians to see what was in the trash or why their recycling ideas might or might not work. The same for HVAC, water conservation, and green cleaning. For the Facilities folks, they had a group of dedicated cheerleaders and advocates they never could have envisioned. They stopped getting beat up in the student paper and started getting praised. They got buy in from other students that they never could have imagined.

The result was that students won an award for their work. Some of their programs are still happening today nearly 20 years later. They got direct experiences they would never have gotten in the classroom or on a student job. And as for the Facilities staff, they accomplished many of their goals in terms of programs they were looking to implement. They saw maintenance calls decrease, or at least be more productive (e.g. instead of a call that “it’s too hot in my room” they got calls that were more productive like “I already tried adjusting the temperature on my steam heat radiator the way the student group taught me to do, and I’ve noticed that all the other rooms on my side of the floor are having the same problem, but the floor below me isn’t”). Morale among Facilities staff went way up, in part because they were now the “good guys” in the eyes of the students, not “the enemy,” and in part because they had culled out many of the frustrating maintenance workorders and were now able to focus on productive ones.

Now, decades later, I can vividly describe what the students got out of their experience in that club that year. I cannot do the same for too many other clubs for too many other years before or since.

What has been your best experience working with a student club? Or as a member of a student club working with the administration? Are there ideas or experiences that you want to share? Is there something that you think I’m forgetting?

Written by

Picture of Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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