This is the second part of a two-part series looking into student involvement on campus. Read part one here.
Every August, on the Saturday after move-in day, student organizations on campus arrange their tables into a maze on a stretch of green grass somewhere in the bounds of campus.
The Student Organization Fair is their first and perhaps largest push to recruit new students into clubs. This fall, the pool of first-year students to interact with grew by 6.4 percent from 2017 and 14.4 percent from 2014.
But growth in overall enrollment does not guarantee growth in student organizations or other sectors of campus. In fact, the university employs a handful of professional programmers to ensure the parallelity of enrollment and engagement figures, both inside and outside student organizations.
And it all begins before classes do.
The Student Organization Fair gives all organizations a chance to introduce themselves to the newest body of students, encouraging those interested to join. However, organizations aren’t utilizing the fair to its fullest extent, Sydney Schad, a senior health science major, said.
“Looking back to my freshman year, when they had the Student Org Fair in the old ice rink, it was a weird environment,” she said. “It didn’t seem like any organization was truly welcoming, but were there because they had to be. No one was interested in sharing their passion for the organization.”
After the Org Fair, organizations drop the push to recruit as they take on other projects, which creates a communication gap between organizations first-year students who are still acclimating to campus, said Josh Anderson, a senior political science and business double major.
“I think one of the biggest hesitancies with incoming students is they don’t want to get too busy. They don’t know what they can handle,” Anderson said. “You have that gap of students who get involved right away and those that try to get involved later. But it’s different for them because you’re not doing recruitment events.”
Hannah Booth, SGA Vice President and sophomore political science and criminal justice double major, was one of those students.
“I think the first weekend we have people on campus, with the Org Fair, is awesome. But one issue we have with that is retention,” she said. “Even myself, when I went to the Org Fair, I probably signed up for eight organizations. You get signed up on the email list and you’re like ‘oh, I don’t really need to go to this meeting.’”
Anderson suggested creating another recruitment effort six weeks into classes after students evaluate their workload.
“Maybe we need to transition it into doing what we do at the beginning the same way, but maybe after six weeks doing it again and trying to get more students. It’s never too late to join an organization but it can be awkward when you don’t go to the ‘get to know’ meeting and then you just show up at a regular meeting.”
Maddy Stevens, a first-year health service administration major, is part of the marching band, Color Guard, Alpha Xi Delta, Amnesty International, Health Executives Advancing in Leadership (HEAL) and the Special Olympics club. Though a member of six organizations, Stevens said she didn’t attend the Student Org Fair.
“I actually was gone that entire day because I drove back for my art museum’s grand opening,” she said. “HEAL I got from my business class because we had a presentation then. And then the other clubs kind of happened because I knew people who were in them and they were like ‘hey, you should come join this.'”
The Implication of Greek Life
Four sorority and eight fraternity houses are home to 20 percent of USD’s undergraduate population. Though just a fifth of campus, members of Greek Life have an outstretched influence on the rest of the student population.
22 of 24 students on the executive staff of Dakotathon— USD’s largest organization with 630 members— are a member of a Greek organization.
Three of five members of the SGA Executive Team are members of a fraternity or sorority, including Carson Zubke and Booth, SGA President and Vice President, along with 11 of 24 members of the SGA Senate.
“I think it’s hard to be involved as a freshman, especially if you’re not involved in Greek Life,” Schad said. “In Greek Life, you have a lot of influence from already being in a close-knit organization. I think that’s a point that no one really talks about. If you’re not in Greek Life, you’re already at a disadvantage for being in other organizations just because you don’t have that ‘in’ already.”
The ‘in’ Greek Life provides comes at a cost not all students can afford. Houses charge dues each semester, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The fee to simply rush a sorority starts at $75.
Despite the costs, Anderson said Greek Life holds a “social benefit” that incites stable membership numbers. Students are willing to pay for the ‘in.’
“In Dakotathon, you get a personal investment, which is the biggest thing you need for an organization to succeed. Greek Life is primarily able to succeed because you still get an investment— it’s the social benefit,” he said.
Although fraternities and sororities boast high involvement numbers, it doesn’t mean they’re free of involvement issues, Anderson said.
“There are bottom-feeders that are just there for the social atmosphere. They’re the ones who take advantage of all the benefits, but they don’t do anything productive that contributes to what we do,” Anderson, the former Tau Kappa Epsilon President said. “There’s no inner drive to want to do anything besides reap the benefits of an organization— like the name or the social aspect.”
The student experience
Academics and organizations. Campus and community. Work and play. A student’s level of involvement in each section is fluid— no two are the same, Booth said.
“Everyone’s college experience is different. So maybe they’re not looking to be involved on campus,” she said. “Maybe they’re looking to be involved in the community or other aspects of Vermillion.”
Often, the two are interlinked. When the university plans events, they take into account proximity and relativity to the rest of Vermillion, said Doug Wagner, director of programming and advisor to the Dakota Days committee. Wagner said the street dance is a perfect example of the pull between campus, the community and culture.
“This year, I’m wondering how to make [the street dance] safer and more open to students. Largely, the conversation is ‘well what if moved it back on campus… to the tailgate space,’” he said. “There’s an honest conversation amongst the board of ‘if there are students who want to go downtown during that experience, will we lose them if we put it where tailgate is?’ And the feeling is ‘yeah, we probably would.’”
The battle of time management is not exclusive to the students, Wagner said, but an obstacle university programming is cognizant of.
“Time in college has become a premium. Now more than ever students are a lot more critical of what they spend their time with,” he said. “I think there’s such a demand in higher education to do more and more. And with the cost of higher education, people are trying to get as much as they can from it.”
When students feel pressure from time constraints, not only will they recede from events outside their responsibilities, but duties inside as well, said Teagan McNary, former SGA President.
“Even in organizations people are really passionate about, when it’s busy and stressful and there’s a lot going on with school, everyone has that same reaction, like ‘wow I would really rather be anywhere else but here,’” she said. “It’s the nature of the beast in student organizations.”
Student leaders take the same precautions inside their organizations as well, Anderson said.
“You still need to make it fun, because they’re still doing this out of their own free will,” he said. “When we were doing SGA stuff, we could only ask them to do so much, and we could only go about it in a certain way, because at the end of the day, they’re volunteering their time. They don’t have to be here.”
In her first year at USD, Stevens said she felt a feeling of “stagnancy” from campus.
“We’re pretty neutral people going around just going to our classes doing our things,” she said. There’s not a lot of super heavy involvement in anything. We’re kind of stagnant. The typical college student is like ‘I don’t care.’ The background I came from was more holistic–we’re encouraged to go do something.”
A university’s student demographic is ever-changing, and Wagner said his goal as a programmer is to change with it. However, there exists no perfect answer on how to promote involvement, whether it be from an administrative or student leadership standpoint.
“There’s always the question of ‘what do we do to get more students involved’ and it’s the same every single year,” Anderson said. “We’re scratching our heads about it. No one has the perfect answer, we’re all trying different things.”