This study sought to learn more about why students decide to get involved with student organizations during their undergraduate academic careers and to identify the characteristics and motivations for college student involvement with student organizations in order to understand the mechanisms needed to design and implement intentional engagement activities.
In recent years, various sources have expressed widespread concern whether undergraduate students are learning enough in college and whether institutions are providing intentionally purposeful learning opportunities, so it is important that higher education professionals understand the role of cocurricular activities in response to how best to support pathways for student learning. By learning more about the lived experiences of students who actively engage in a student organization, student affairs professionals will be able to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the circumstances that contribute to a student’s decision to join.
The qualitative research on why a student chooses to engage is minimal and this gap in the research has a direct impact on implementing a strong student organization program for higher education institutions. Much of the research on student organization involvement highlights the impact of student involvement in student organizations, particularly with regard to the influence on student development and growth. However, that impact is only a piece of the framework needed for designing intentional cocurricular activities that are educationally purposeful. It is crucial for educators to understand all of the components relating to student organization development. Understanding the correlations between the student, student organizations, and student engagement helps to enhance the learning environment and provide opportunities for student growth and development.
This study emphasized the additional elements needed, by including the student perspective and combining it with current research, on how to inform the programmatic design and relevant best practices for student organizations. It serves to expand practitioner knowledge on student organization development by understanding the lived experiences of students and their rationale
It may be particularly beneficial to student affairs practitioners and higher education professionals involved in developing curriculum, training, and experiential learning opportunities related to student organizations involvement. It may have implications for other non-curricular learning. By understanding levels of engagement from a student perspective, this research helps to align student activities and student organization best practices with educational systems and procedures that support specific learning outcomes associated with student organization involvement. This allows campus leaders to structure programs, services, and the allocation of resources reinforcing the importance of student organization involvement. Student affairs professionals also need to recognize what attracts students to a specific collegiate opportunity in order provide a robust learning environment influenced by both the professional and student perspectives.
Twenty students participated in focus groups to assist the researcher in learning about why students decide to join clubs and organizations. Selection involved a purposeful sampling of students between the ages of 18 and 25 verified via the institution’s student organization software as being current members of a registered club or organization. More specifically, the identified participants are part of one the subject institution’s student organization categories, acknowledged as club sports, fraternities/sororities, academic, fine arts, service, or cultural councils.
The following research question, “Why do students join student organizations?” guided this study. Additionally, the following question, based on a student’s response, served as a sub-question: “Upon reflection, was there something that drew a student to get involved with student organizations and was that need fulfilled?”
The case study also incorporated specific data points beyond just what was collected through interviews. Additional sources included a review of institutional programs, such as new student orientation, and the campus’s student organization fair, along with an analysis of these programs to determine if the programmatic intent of the activities related to student organization involvement.
The documentation associated with new student orientation provided an analytic review of how the institution at the center of this case study might influence a student’s decision to get involved with student organizations by discussing engagement opportunities during the two-day orientation and reviewing the survey results for the program. As part of this study, it was important to create an understanding of how institutional programs encourage student organization involvement.
Also analyzed were relevant data from the institution’s student organization management software. Reports and documentation directly linked with the software Engage were studied, providing context for who uses the management tool and how often. An analysis of participation rates was conducted to understand what particular organizations students were joining and to provide perspective on the connections between student and organization.
Observations were also a tactic used as part of the methodological approach for this case study. Specifically, researcher observations were conducted during the student organization involvement fair, held each semester.
Lastly, institutional data from the National Survey of Student Engagement related to student involvement was examined to determine potential relationships relevant to student organization involvement. NSSE is an assessment tool to analyze the outcomes associated with a student’s investment in their academic journey, and it serves as a mechanism for higher education institutions to assess engagement practices and experiences on their campuses purposefully focused on student learning and
In addition to the engagement indicators, the NSSE shares how the Association of American Colleges and Universities high-impact practices aid in increasing levels of student learning and retention at institutions of higher education. Based on recommendations from NSSE and AAC&U, a large number of institutions have adopted many, if not all, of the recommended 10 high impact practices:
- First-year seminars and experiences
- Common intellectual experiences
- Learning communities
- Writing intensive courses
- Active and collaborative learning
- Undergraduate research
- Diversity/global learning
- Service learning
- Capstone courses and projects
All of these additional data sources provided the breadth of details needed to address the research problem and analyze it from a landscape wider than just interviews.
Student engagement factors, supported by the themes sense of belonging/connection to campus, and peer influence
A dominant theme that emerged throughout all interviews was that students who were engaged with student organizations felt connected to campus. Involvement with a student organization provided students with both something and someone to relate to, which deepened their sense of community and connection to the college or university. Students remarked that if they had not gotten involved with at least one student organization, then they would not have persisted at the university.
Peers, both current friends and upperclassmen, influenced student decisions to join a student organization. Many students saw involvement with student organizations as an opportunity to make friends, sharing that their friends in a student organization served as their family while attending college, which also aligned with developing a sense of belonging and engagement.
“It is just a good way to find friends. I am going to be living with a girl that I met through one of these clubs next year just because we both went to this club and we found each other. Now we are best friends. It is a cool story. Just generally, finding where you fit in college is really important. And the best way I found to do that is to join clubs.”
— Study participant Mary
Skill development, supported by the themes potential for growth and leadership development
Students commented that being involved with student organizations allowed them to apply what they were learning academically to “real-world” settings. Moreover, students shared that being involved with student organizations allowed them to develop skills that would prepare them for future success.
For the students involved with this study, student organizations serve as a gateway to developing one’s leadership skills because holding a leadership role within a student organization provided opportunities for acquiring, developing, and practicing specific skills. Students felt equipped to successfully manage their professional futures after handling various situations as leaders in a student organization.
“My organization really cultivated me into understanding leadership in action and dialing down how I wanted to be a leader. I stress servant leadership a lot. I feel as though that really dialed into what I wanted my leadership style to be. And then, this year as president, it really gave a perspective on how to take responsibility for decisions you make, whether you thought they were good and they went terribly, or they went well but other people were still angry. You needed to be able to justify how, why, and be able to swallow that people were just going to be mad at you.”
— Study participant Ethan
Through inductive analysis of documentation relevant to current institutional initiatives linked with student organization involvement, NSSE data pertinent to the subject university, and focus group interviews, three key findings emerged. Those findings are: belongingness is a key factor to engagement, development of transferable skills is a benefit, and participating in student organizations develops leadership potential.
Belongingness is a key factor to engagement
Students consistently shared the importance of feeling connected to a group of individuals or to a student organization as the basis for joining. As research has stated, a sense of identity and belonging are directly influenced by experiences, relationships, and environment. Many of the students articulated the importance of perceived social support, of finding a place to “feel at home,” while at the same time having the opportunity to grow and learn in a safe, inclusive, nonjudgmental environment through their involvement with a student organization.
As heard from student participants, the importance of belonging is key to making friends and finding a place to belong. These factors are components of A. W. Astin’s research, Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education, particularly the influence of peers and a student’s investment in the collegiate experience. Essentially, Astin’s theory emphasized the significance of finding ways for students to connect through involvement, thus deepening their association to the university and contributing to their own collegiate success. As students are looking for ways to make friends, to connect, and to succeed while attending an institution of higher education, student organization involvement is a key way to engage students in their academic journeys and create the sense of belonging they need to both retain and persist to graduation.
Development of transferable skills was a benefit. Students join student organizations to develop their skills. Each of the students shared at least one skill they had further developed through being involved with one or more student organizations. Many of them articulated how the skills they developed would serve them in the future, in either graduate school or employment. This finding aligns with prior research on the benefits of participating in student organizations
The top 10 skills discussed were: time management, communication, ability to work with others, networking, professionalism, delegation, financial, teambuilding, self-confidence, and self-exploration. Many participants shared that they were able to apply the skills developed through their involvement with student organization to other situations. This sentiment further emphasizes the transferability of skills between different circumstances and the importance of student organizations as a venue for developing and practicing one’s skills. This is important for a student’s future because many employers are looking for the development of soft skills, similar to the ones participants shared, which is a learning outcome desired by student affairs professionals.
Study participants shared that it was through their involvement with student organizations that they realized the vast number of opportunities available to them for practicing skills in a relatively safe environment, allowing them to foster skill growth and development. The study highlighted the importance of peers in creating a sense of belonging; it is equally important to note that peers also influenced the development of skills.
Participating in a student organization develops leadership potential. Leadership development was recognized as a reason for joining by students. Students shared that they felt better prepared for the future after experiencing different leadership roles in their student organizations. Their leadership roles helped them grow more confident in their abilities and expand outside of their comfort zone. Moreover, experience as a leader in a student organization emphasized the importance of learning specific skills, such as listening, to enhance productivity. For many of the student leaders, organizational challenges presented them with opportunities to develop personally and professionally.
Student participants stated that they felt more prepared to take on various leadership roles following their experiences with one or more student organizations because they had offered a safe environment in which they could develop their leadership potential without any real negative consequences. This allowed students an opportunity to develop confidence in exploring themselves as leaders.
Moreover, both the experiences of students who were active in student organization and data from institutional documents validated prior research on the potential for leadership development. NSSE data showed that there was a significant relationship between involvement in co-curricular activities and leadership in student organizations. This was noteworthy for both first-year and seniors, with a larger effect on the student experience by the senior year.
Based on the outcomes of this study, three specific recommendations for practice are offered, each of which aims at developing and effectively managing a comprehensive student organization or campus activities program on a college campus. The three recommendations evolving from the research are: understanding the relationship between student organizations and student engagement; utilizing student organizations to develop skills; and understanding student organizations’ role in developing student leaders.
UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS AND STUDENT ENGAGEMENT
Conclusions from this study reinforce the idea that student organization involvement does contribute to students developing a sense of belonging, which has a lasting influence on student engagement and their success. Therefore, professionals working in educational settings need to understand the contributions that a well-designed student organization program has on an inclusive learning environment from both a programmatic and community-building point of view. By explaining why students join student organizations, the results inform practice, particularly when the student voice emphasizes how student organizations are responsible for their sense of belonging with others and the institution. As a practice, it is important that higher education institutions identify both fiscal and personnel resources that support the building of sustainable student organizations on college campuses.
UTILIZING STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS FOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT
It is important that students have environments that support the development of skills and that students be able to explain how the skills they acquire through co-curricular experiences are transferable to a specific job application or graduate school program. Focus group participants articulated that student organizations provide the environment they need to learn, practice, and develop skills. In understanding the reasons why students join student organizations, it is essential that student affairs practitioners recognize that students identify student organizations as platforms for career preparation
It is also evident that students can identify skill development that is derived from their involvement and are able to explain how they successfully used certain skills as members and leaders of their organizations. Given the results of this study regarding the acquisition of skills, it is important for higher education professionals to implement assessment practices that analyze student skill development following their student organization involvement.
UNDERSTANDING STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS ROLE FOR DEVELOPING LEADERS
As participants in this study shared, student organizations provided them with opportunities to serve in leadership roles that helped them practice skills and define who they were as a leader. Furthermore, students stated that they joined student organizations because of the opportunity to grow and learn as leaders.
Academics and student affairs professionals must work collaboratively to elevate students’ leadership potential through student organizations. This collaborative approach fosters a rich learning environment for students and is beneficial for student development. First, recognition of the need for this partnership in a student’s academic journey is imperative. Both academic and student affairs professionals enhance the life of students, and when efforts are combined to develop robust learning environments, the impact on a students leadership development is profound. Second, it is crucial to recognize the importance of assessing the development of leadership skills, to validate them in both curricular and cocurricular settings, and to identify areas of potential growth.
Student organizations foster the acquisition of knowledge, leadership training and development; and the application of soft skills such as problem solving, time management, and communication. These improve the preparation of future leaders. Importantly, as participants shared in focus groups, students acknowledge that student organizations serve as a gateway for leadership development.
AREAS FOR FURTHER STUDY
While the results of this study provide a strong knowledge base for student organization programmatic development, specific areas remain in need of further research.
This was a case study conducted at a single university in western New York. It is important to conduct future research to learn whether the results of this study are consistent at other institutions with similar research focuses.
Over half of the participants served in leadership roles within their student organizations and while this study’s research is important to developing a holistic perspective on clubs and organizations, it also needs to examine whether there are differences between student organization leaders and the general membership of a student organization. Future research needs to scrutinize how different levels of involvement effect sense of belonging, skill development, and leadership growth.
Determining why students do not get involved with student organizations is critical to understanding student engagement. This study engaged in preliminary discussion of this perspective with participants, but did not go into significant depth on the subject. Research conducted on understanding why students have never joined a student organization or gotten involved in any co-curricular activity is valuable. It is important to understand why that might be, and how potential changes in the programmatic perspectives of student organizations could result in increased involvement among all students.
Given the key findings of this study about why students join student organizations, a deeper dive is required for appreciating the relationship between sense of belonging and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives. This study provided a foundational perspective on why students join a student organization, but future research needs to uncover different perspectives that may exist when utilizing an EDI lens.