On Campus

Dispelling some myths about student leadership

Why they do it, where it leads, and what it's really worth

I hate the term “student leader.” I think a lot of people do. It just seems smarmy and self-congratulatory. And I’m speaking as a guy who lived that role. I can only imagine how the term must aggravate other people. And yet, we do need folks to run our student unions and our residence councils and our campus media and our clubs and more besides. And often we want to talk about those people as a group. So for lack of a better term I’ll call them student leaders.

Some recent discussion about student politics and student politicians (see here and here) got me thinking about this topic. Surrounding the debate about the appropriate role of unions and the right (or lack thereof) of elected students to hold and express their individual opinions, there were a few references to the perceived benefits and opportunities that come along with leadership roles on campus. I’ve heard it all before. Quite a lot of people seem to believe that the whole student leadership scene is just using it all to get … something. Something more than just the opportunity to do the job, anyway. Maybe that’s why the term is so annoying.

Now I don’t want to get into an extensive debate about what union execs are getting paid (see here for that debate) or whether it’s appropriate. That’s only a small fraction of the many student leaders on campus anyway. A very few students get paid something approaching real salaries to do essentially full time jobs. Some others receive honorariums that are probably quite small in relation to the amount of work they put in. And most are simply volunteers. But even the best paid aren’t receiving more than they’d earn for entry-level clerical work. So let’s just agree that it isn’t about the money, and when people suggest there’s something selfish going on they mean something different.

Back to this idea that students get involved in these positions with the expectation of some secondary gain. Most often this accusation is very vague. “Oh, you don’t really care about X (the club, the union, the position), you’re just in it for yourself.” But that’s got to mean something like awards, personal connections, job opportunities, political careers, etc. We’ve already excluded money as a realistic motive, and it makes no sense to suggest that someone is using one student position only to get to another student position. The end goal has to be something more significant than that – some reward or advantage that comes after university is done.

Brief pause. There is always the rare instance of actual abuse. Unfortunately, any time someone has access to a budget and some responsibility there is the chance they might do something fraudulent. Here’s one example of that. I would never attempt to excuse or justify anything like this. I’ll just say that it happens in student activities just as it happens everywhere else. People steal from charities too. It’s very sad. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about every student leadership position I’ve ever held or interacted with. It’s worth basically nothing to just have the job. I mean it. Sure you can use it as a line on your CV. But then people fill their CVs with bullshit all the time. And if you really want to create an impressive sounding title for yourself just invent a club, register it with your Student Affairs office (or local equivalent) and declare yourself President. It’s very easy. And exactly because it’s easy to manufacture empty claims of this sort, anyone who might possibly care about your activities on campus will not be suckered in by lines of empty crap. Will they care about what you’ve really done on campus? Very possibly they will. But now we’re talking about your actual work and achievements – not the mere fact that you filled a position and held a title.

I definitely know students who found their direction as a result of some role on campus – elected or otherwise. I’m one of them. Certainly there’s a lot of what I do, right now, that I can trace back in some way to my student union days. But I could never have guessed at where I’d end up when the whole thing started. And that’s also true of just about everyone I know. Building on your experiences, finding some success at the things you do well and getting noticed for that … there’s nothing illegitimate about it. That’s just the way people build careers in any environment. And sure, that happens in student leadership as well. Maybe academic advocacy leads you eventually to law school, as it did in my case. Maybe experience with the student press leads to a career in journalism. But not automatically. Not just because you won an election or got hired for a job.

I also know many “student leaders” (and in this case I’m particularly motivated to use quotation marks) who have done nothing special since their student days, nor derived any apparent benefit or direction from the roles they occupied on campus – no matter how prominent. And not surprisingly, these are people who, for the most part, didn’t do much with the roles they held. Either they quit partway through, or did the bare minimum required of them, or they just didn’t care. Do you sometimes end up with “student leaders” of this sort? Absolutely you do. That’s one of the perils of annual turnover. Inevitably, not everyone you elect, hire, or appoint is going to work out. But this persistent myth that they all reap some fantastic benefits from just being there for a year is not remotely true.

Now I hate this idea that rewards just rain down on everyone who wins an election on campus for two reasons. First, I find it rather insulting. That’s a personal bias. But I really hate it when people assume that anything I’ve achieved was just handed to me because I was a union exec for a couple of years. Certainly I got noticed for what I did well. But that’s not cheating, as I said. And as for my current stint in law school, I’ll just say that my grades and LSAT were plenty good enough on their own. I hope I don’t sound too bitter here. I loved my time representing students. But just like anyone, I also want some credit for my other accomplishments. And I was actually a good student at the same time.

Second, and more importantly, it isn’t only outside observers who get this strange idea that occupying a prominent position will (hypothetically) get you that great job offer, or that scholarship, or that spot in medical school. Inevitably, some of the people who have this idea decide that they’ll get in on the scam. So they run in elections or they apply for positions or they take on jobs they don’t really want simply because they are out to gain the perceived advantages. Do I seem to be contradicting myself here? Notice I’ve never claimed that all student leaders are in it for the right reasons. I know full well that some of them aren’t. Because some of the time those people who think it’s all a great scam do end up in the positions. My only point is that it doesn’t work the way they think it will – at least not for them. As I’ve said from the beginning, it isn’t the job or the title that matters, it’s what you do with it.

So here’s the great paradox of student leadership. For the people who do it because they really want to do it (again, whatever “it” may be – union, media, club, etc.) the experience may be immensely rewarding. These roles are a great chance to really throw yourself into something and have the opportunity to do things you would never otherwise do. Run an actual newspaper? Sure, go for it. Manage a six-figure events budget? Away you go. Handle HR for an entire office? The job’s all yours. It’s really amazing how much responsibility some of these roles come with. When good students pick up the ball and run with it it’s a real joy to see. And yes, they may be acknowledged for it too. But when they drop the ball it’s equally obvious. Things fall apart very quickly. And then awards are not forthcoming. And if you’ve ever sat through a job interview where someone tries to explain how they have great experience from their former position (with the impressive sounding title) but can’t actually point to anything they ever did … it’s obvious to even outside observers.

So here’s my advice. First, and most obviously, for any would be student leaders – only take on positions and roles that you actually want! If you do want the job, and you find you enjoy doing it, it could lead to great things. But if you don’t want the job and only want the “great things” I guarantee that isn’t the way to get there. It will be way more trouble than it’s actually worth and you’ll be miserable doing it. Second, to those who are cynical about the “student leaders” on your campus, be aware that you may be contributing to the problem. If you go around broadcasting the idea that everyone is in it for the wrong reasons and they all get these immense benefits from doing it, sooner or later someone’s going to believe you. And so your reward may be that you motivate one of these self-interested jackasses into taking over your union or your paper or your residence council. Now I’m quite convinced it won’t work out well for them, in the end. But in the meanwhile you’ll also have a badly run student organization when you could have had a better one.

Yes, some people get in it for the wrong reasons. And yes, they deserve all the criticism they receive. Even the students who assume prominent positions for the right reasons may screw up sometimes, or have a bad day, and it’s perfectly valid to critique them also. But please believe that it’s at least possible, and it does often happen, that students elect or hire or appoint the right people. There are many student leaders on campus who got into it only because they really want to do the job well. And if things work out for them down the road, partly as a result of that, I don’t see anything wrong with it. You may choose not to believe it’s possible, or doubt everyone’s motives as a matter of policy, but just remember. The harder and more frustrating you make it for people to do it all for good reasons, the more likely you are to end up with people doing it for bad reasons. And that’s a loss all around.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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