Visit the Center for Student Engagement in 316 Leavey and you will find that our intentions for Georgetown students are very clear. The emblem on the wall says it all: “Be Inspired. Get Involved. Stay Engaged.” After reading Sydney Jean Gottfried’s thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on the Huffington Post blog, “Is ‘Sleep When You’re Dead’ Georgetown’s Unofficial Motto?,” we’re considering adding “Get Some Sleep” to our mantra.
Gottfried makes important connections between different threads of co-curricular life on the Hilltop. Engaged students create a strong sense of culture and community on campus, to the benefit of all who live here. More importantly, students can learn actively through leadership. According to a Gallup-Purdue Index 2015 Report, students who were engaged as undergraduates — specifically through involvement in co-curricular activities and organizations — have higher levels of well-being after college, including in workplace engagement, social relationships and sense of purpose in life. Gottfried underscores the value of the social connections, networks built and skills developed from these experiences.
But too much of anything is never a good thing, and there is a perception here at Georgetown that many students go overboard when it comes to being involved, to the great detriment of their sleep patterns specifically, and their well-being in general. Our campus has a variety of resources in place to address health and well-being, but we owe it to ourselves and our community to try to get at the root causes of the “Extracurricular Epidemic” and make changes that can defuse this arms race of engagement.
Periodically, the Center for Student Engagement gathers data on Georgetown students’ leadership values, attitudes and experiences through participation in the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership. This international study tries to better understand how campus environments shape college student leadership development. Last spring, over 1,000 Georgetown undergraduate students completed the survey, and as you might predict, our data shows a campus community that is highly engaged with relatively high mean scores on many measures of leadership values. For example, when asked “Since starting college, how often have you been an involved member in a college organization?” the percentage of Georgetown students who responded “Much of the time” was nearly 20 points higher than students nationwide or at participating Catholic schools — specifically, 43 percent of students at Georgetown compared to approximately 24 percent of students nationwide. The combined percentage of Georgetown students who responded to the same question with: “Sometimes,” “Many times” or “Much of the time” was a whopping 94 percent. Even accounting for participation bias, with minor qualification, this statistic supports Gottfried’s assertion that almost “every student is a part of at least one campus organization.”
The question of group exclusivity is distinct but related. Social scientists have known for a long time that humans create relationships with varying levels of social distance; while we may seek a number of acquaintances, it is human nature to invest in a small number of tightly knit social connections to form authentic, intimate friendships. Forming groups almost always requires an element of exclusivity to ensure that true intimacy, cohesion and emotional support can thrive. But is this the responsibility of student organizations? We argue that it is not.
Student organizations exist for many reasons, but chief among them is to provide a space for student creativity, leadership, and learning that results in programs, publications and projects that create and impact a vibrant and diverse community. Exclusive groups have their place too: to create spaces for rich, intimate, close friendships to form. Conflating the two — creating mechanisms of exclusion in student groups under the guise of making them better at supporting these social bonds — serves neither purpose well. Student groups are part of a system that inherently brings a wide variety of people to the table to debate ideas, contribute time and energy to projects and draw bigger crowds to events. In fact, most leaders of student groups make it a goal to attract more people to their programs. So why do these same leaders create barriers for involvement?
As the semester gets underway, we challenge all involved students — so, basically, all students — to take these questions to heart. Live our shared Jesuit and Catholic mission by reflecting deeply on how you are called to spend your time. If you are a new student looking to get involved, attend the spring Council of Advisory Boards Fair on Sunday, Jan. 24 in the Healey Family Student Center. Sign up for a new group or two, but don’t overcommit. If you find yourself in a leadership role with one organization, consider stepping back to a general-member role in another. Say no to one opportunity so you can say yes more enthusiastically to another. Student organization leaders, if you are in the position to recruit new members, consider reducing those barriers to new members. Host a general membership meeting for everyone who wants to be involved — not just once in January, but three or four times throughout the semester. You may be surprised at how many students want to get involved after the initial exploration phase of the semester. Change that “application” to an “interest form.” Each one of us can make adjustments to the ways we think, talk and program to ease the pressure to be part of exclusive groups and support the priority for sleep and overall well-being.
Culture cannot change overnight. But we hope this can be an ongoing conversation, and that we can work together to make the kind of changes that reduce the pressure to buy into this exclusionary and overinvolved culture. If you want to be active in changing the culture, join us for a casual conversation in the Center for Student Engagement, third floor of the Leavey Center, on Friday Jan. 29 from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. — there will be snacks! Maybe afterward you can take a nap.
Erika Cohen Derr, assistant dean for student engagement and director, Center for Student Engagement, and Amanda Carlton, associate director, Center for Student Engagement