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In my opinion

Let’s take student clubs seriously

Social entrepreneurship in a living laboratory.


University and college clubs are good places to meet people, gain valuable experiences, sometimes raise a bit of money for a good cause and have some fun. There’s no doubt that clubs are all of the above, but they’re also a great deal more.

What is a club anyway? A few people decide one day they share an interest, a passion or a cause and want to meet regularly to do something about it. Of course, that happens all the time both on and off campus – so why are university and college clubs so special? For the answer, ask yourself: is there anywhere in society besides university and college campuses that offer your shared interest some funding, technology, a professional meeting space, built-in audience, volunteer base and means to market? The answer is more or less no.

Universities and colleges are fantastically unique in that they are huge, well-established infrastructures offering large amounts of easily accessible resources to pretty much any student who knows five or 10 other people and can fill out some paperwork. We’re used to hearing about how universities and colleges are playgrounds for ideas and even start-up companies. Do we ever hear how they’re the perfect breeding grounds for civil society organizations, citizenship groups and charities? Because at the end of the day, that’s what clubs are.

Clubs offer, not only to students but to the rest of the community, enormous opportunities to turn a social learning experience for students into meaningful contributions and innovations to civil society. The simple act of meeting regularly, often with strangers, builds that crucial thing called social capital, which Alexis de Tocqueville identified as being essential to a healthy democracy. Clubs have been the training ground for countless non-profit sector workers. For many NGO workers, the first time they learn how to organize an event, set up meetings or maintain a contact list is for their trivia club or their pancake appreciation society. These seemingly fun and frivolous activities are the perfect self-motivating contexts to get people learning these valuable organizational skills and putting them to practical uses.

There’s no doubt that college and university clubs, left pretty much to their own devices, have historically made all the vital contributions mentioned above. Yet, they are chronically the extra-curricular, a nice add-on before you enter the “real world.” So why should university administrators and educators care?

Researchers should care if they’re interested in civil society and social organization because university clubs are basically organic labs in their own backyard. But it is hard to find any serious research on the subject of university clubs.

Administrators should take note because clubs are relatively cheap and create numerous intangible benefits for the institution, including ties to the community, fostering a sense of belonging for students, sometimes prestige – and much more. All of these things should be on an administrator’s wish list. While clubs achieve these qualities naturally, it is very difficult (and expensive) to centrally manufacture a sense of belonging or community ties.

Teachers should pay attention because they could potentially be valuable resources to club organizers and important mentors for many students. Despite this potential, it is rare that students are invited in the classroom to seek out advice on their community projects.

I’m proposing a shift in how universities look at clubs. In the same way that student researchers, and more recently student entrepreneurs, have been given great amounts of attention, mentorship, funding and resources, so to should club organizers have access to these resources. Knowledge-sharing networks, advice, opportunities for direct engagement between the administration and clubs could all contribute to making the 21st-century university the dynamic, practical growing space that it needs to be.

In short, it’s time that the organizing of clubs is taken seriously in ways we have not yet begun to explore.

Benjamin Miller is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa who has founded and helps run several clubs on and off campus, including the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Student Foundation, Ottawa Yiddishkayt, Co-op Student Association, and Youth Ottawa’s CJOYC.

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