Clubs taught me what my professors couldn’t

The impact of getting involved in the face of decreasing student engagement

Ahrani reflects on how her involvement in the Queen's Tamil Students’ Association (pictured) shaped her undergraduate experience.
Ahrani Gnananayakan

January is almost over, and as Journal readers know, the annual search for new student government and club executives is underway. As much as this time is about new beginnings, reflecting on the past helps help shape our goals for the new year.

Here’s why joining a campus organization should be one of them.

In January of 2020, my executive team had just hosted a cultural formal for our club’s 35th anniversary. We had been going door-to-door for months, looking for guests to invite and sponsors to cover costs. The fact a club based on cultural identity has existed at Queen’s for more than three decades was astounding to many we talked to.

I wasn’t surprised. When we talk about student engagement on campus, the discussion centers on student governing bodies such as the AMS and Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS), or faculty societies like ASUS and EngSoc.

Student government has achieved many things. Both the AMS and SGPS recently divested from fossil fuels with encouragement from Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC). The AMS, working with Queen’s Period, brought free menstrual product dispensers to bathrooms on campus.

However, student engagement with these governing bodies is steadily decreasing.

Voter turnout for AMS elections is at a dismal fraction of just under 30 per cent. The race for the position of EngSoc president was uncontested for the fourth year in a row. Up until a last-minute nomination and adjustment of the rules, we were also looking at a fourth consecutive year of an uncontested AMS election.

Others have written about the importance of participating in student government and why uncontested races are a threat to democratic representation on campus.

But there is more to participation on campus than running for student government positions, which, while important, can be intimidating.

There are a huge variety of student-run organizations on campus. The AMS alone has ratified nearly 300 clubs. They’re not all about extracurriculars specific to disciplines; many centre on identity, social issues, and hobbies.

You should consider joining one—or more. 

We hear that extracurriculars look good on a resume or grad school application. It’s true. Positions on executive teams teach you skills you can’t pick up in the classroom, despite the valiant efforts of professors who assign group projects.

As a president of a club, I had to be familiar with what all my coordinators were doing and be ready to offer assistance when they needed it. That included fundraising, marketing, outreach, event planning, finances, and so on.

When you’re tracking down alumni to be guest speakers or figuring out logistics with a caterer, you quickly get used to speaking on the phone and writing professional emails. I also found myself preparing budgets to figure out ticket pricing, make pitches to sponsors, apply for grants, and submit a report to the AMS at the end of the year.

The most surprising communication skills I gained were through conducting interviews. I realized which answers I was looking for from applicants about team dynamics, so now I know which answers to give when I’m on the other side of the table.

There’s more to clubs than people skills, though.

Being on a club helps familiarize yourself with the Queen’s community. I’ve heard many students say they hadn’t been to a particular part of campus before—looking at you, third floor of the ARC—until they joined an AMS club. Most students don’t know what services the Student Life Centre (SLC) provides until they have to book a room for an event, or know what the AMS really does until they need to meet a commissioner to discuss an initiative. 

Many Queen’s clubs also do great work on campus and in the community, so being on an executive team is a great way to give back and make some friends while doing it.

Still, you don’t have to join an executive team to get some benefits. Even attending events can go a long way, especially in first year.

Feeling lonely or alienated in first year is one of the most common concerns I’ve heard from current students and incoming applicants.

Some first years are quick to identify what’s bothering them right when they start at Queen’s. Others might take longer to come to that realization, as we often take our support systems and communities for granted until we need them. COVID-19 has been proof of that.

Isolation is especially significant when you consider that around 95 per cent of Queen’s students come from outside of Kingston. Compared to the cities they come from, living in Kingston can be a sudden shock. For the five per cent who are local, opportunities to interact with peers are limited due to living off-campus.

Some students enter university with expectations of instant friendship with their classmates. If they feel like they don’t fit in, they become lonely or even question their choice of major.

Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you interacted with a Queen’s student who isn’t in your faculty, that you don’t share a household or workplace with? This question is even harder to answer during a pandemic that has all of us studying from our homes.

Club events provide a platform to meet other people with the same interests you have and provide an opportunity for first years to find upper-year mentors they wouldn’t have otherwise.

This is still true this year, as the same events have merely moved to digital platforms.

Speakers at club events cover topics that may not be discussed at length in the classroom, or just offer an opportunity to hear about subjects not covered in your courses. Interdisciplinary interaction is valuable, and more representative of the world we will graduate into. Who knows how something you hear at an event might end up complementing, or even shaping, your career path?

Even if not, there are still plenty of experiences and skills to gain while being on a club.

Last January, my club was lucky to have pulled off the cultural formal just before COVID-19 hit. It was a great success—I watched students, local community members, and Queen’s alumni celebrate culture together on campus.

At some point during the event, one of the first years said they couldn’t imagine a Queen’s experience without the club and the community formed around it. I’ve also heard upper years lament the fact they hadn’t known about these clubs in first year.

I think that’s my biggest takeaway from all these reflections, and I hope it’s yours too. Student engagement matters. It can shape someone’s entire experience at Queen’s, for the better. 

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