Recently, many Lawrentians have been speculating about a general decrease in student involvement in campus activities. Some say there have been fewer students running for leadership positions, attending meetings, and supporting each other at events. They say concert and sports game attendance is waning, and that no one wants to invest time in campus organizations. Is it true that no one is interested in participating? We wanted to find out more about this by exploring questions about Lawrentians’ involvement and feelings of connectedness on campus. Are students spreading themselves too thin? Are the opportunities available mismatched with students’ needs? What kinds of changes are we perceiving, and do the numbers back them up? We spoke with several students and campus officials to take a closer look.
Whether it comes from our parents, our professors, our fellow Lawrentians or outside society, the campus community has gotten used to the idea that Lawrentians are involved in everything. This involvement normally begins freshman year, since incoming students want to meet new people and be a part of numerous clubs, exploring new interests. As students come into their sophomore, junior and senior years, their course loads and all the extracurriculars start to weigh on them. Advisors often suggest that students focus on activities that relate directly to their major.
Associate Dean of Students and Dean of the Sophomore Class Rose Wasielewski and Dean of Students Curt Lauderdale advised us to think about how technology shapes campus involvement today compared to two years ago, five years ago or longer. It is important to consider that the ways students engage and the ways we measure and talk about engagement are always shifting. When events are organized on Facebook, they are always more private than events with physical, public advertisement, even when the organizers have the best intentions of being inclusive. Additionally, when students communicate and gather digitally without meeting in person, there are fewer opportunities for spontaneous engagement of passersby.
One thing that drew attention to this issue was the number of candidates running for Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) office this year. Many people think the number seems low, with some positions uncontested and others with only a couple of options. LUCC President Colleen Murray said that “It is fairly common to have one to three people running for one of the executive positions. There have been just a few times that I can recall where there have been three or more for a president or vice president position.” Murray says that it is misleading to construe the number of candidates as a downward trend: “In the past few years, it would appear to be more of a fluctuation than a pattern.”
Wasielewski and Lauderdale both commented on the increased cultural emphasis on mental and physical wellbeing in recent years: “Is having some free time and going to bed earlier winning out over adding another student org meeting to a to-do list?” We think so. Professors on campus are pushing the mantra, “do less, be more.” Students now have more ways to respectfully say no to taking on more time commitments. The number of student organizations has been hovering just over 100 for the last ten years. Maybe certain student organizations could find more success by merging with others of a similar theme or goal. Then, maybe students would have deeper reserves of time and energy for special events like the Great Midwest Trivia Contest.
Other factors to consider are increasingly visible Wellness Center programming, like intramurals, and less visible group trips to off campus locations, like those that ski team and ORC often take. Wasielewski also suggested the importance of considering students’ financial situations when we talk about their ability to participate on campus. How do low income and first generation students balance the need to have jobs with their academic loads? What might some students have to give up in order to make the most of their education while paying for it at the same time? Perhaps we all need to recalibrate our definitions of successful, involved students. It is apparently untrue that campus involvement is declining; rather, it is shifting in ways that are not always easy to see.