So you’re thinking about starting a group on your campus.
You love discussions and you’re passionate about a number of topics.
Where do you start?
Will it take more time than you can handle?
Will people still be showing up three weeks in?
These are all good questions, but starting a sustainable campus group doesn’t have to feel like an assignment. It’s not as difficult as you may think, and it doesn’t need to be a part-time job either.
We chatted with Elizabeth Yeh and John DiGravio, students at Brown University and Williams College, respectively, who run interesting and exemplary campus societies. We condensed their experience and insights into seven best practices. Follow these and you’ll be well on your way to starting a campus group that is both meaningful and lasting.
You chose your college or university for specific reasons: the available majors, the culture, the extracurricular or study-abroad opportunities, the campus architecture, the cafeteria. So the first thing you need to do is scout your campus for what’s missing.
Sometimes the key to finding your niche is what disappoints you.
John DiGravio went to Williams College hoping to find intellectual diversity. Instead, there were more than two dozen classes that taught the doctrines of Karl Marx.
“All 76 of the political contributions by faculty went to liberal causes,” he said. “I wanted to be in a place of intellectual diversity, diverse thought, but when I came here, I saw a dearth of political and social thought from all areas of the spectrum.”
John’s disappointment was just the catalyst for a group that now brings together students of every political inclination to read thinkers like Russell Kirk.
On the flip side, you might just want to start a group because you fell in love with a particular theme or topic. Elizabeth Yeh liked an optional C. S. Lewis course so much that she launched a group to dive deeper into the thought and writings of the great Christian thinker. Turns out she wasn’t the only Lewis admirer. Students of every faith and philosophical background wanted to discuss him, too, and the group flourished.
Keep in mind that what you read doesn’t need to be limited to book excerpts or articles. You can also try movie scripts, plays, and even poetry. (If you decide to go with the movie scripts idea, you can find complete scripts of good films here.)
If you can both fill an intellectual gap on your campus and do something new and unique, you’ve probably found a winning combination.
Whatever niche you decide to fill, John recommends that you tailor your messaging appropriately for your campus environment, especially if your themes tend to be conservative on a more progressive campus.
“Don’t be afraid to express your ideas, values, and principles in ways that students who might not agree with you will understand,” he says. “Use a lot of phrases like ‘diversity of thought’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusive’ when it comes to your advocating for conservative principles and conservative thought.”
Don’t worry about bringing large numbers together every week when you’re just starting out. You may be discouraged when only three people show up Tuesday evening and you’re the only one who actually did the reading, but that’s no reason to quit.
Instead, be content with being small. Elizabeth recommends beginning with a core group of friends.
“Get a solid group of friends that want to do it with you, or a few people you know would want to be OK with failure,” she says. “Do it because it’s good for its own sake and because you’re a better person for doing the readings even if no one else comes.”
Chances are, if you’re interested in filling a void or need on campus, some of your faculty and administrators are, too.
John DiGravio developed a relationship with one professor who connected him to several faculty and administrators who wanted to see more intellectual diversity at Williams College. Their network and resources proved to be a huge asset for his campus society.
He also found that collaborating with other campus and even local groups created awareness about his group and made it feel more permanent to the college.
“LGBT were successful because they institutionalized their agenda,” he says. “Your societies should look for options where they can incorporate a lot of their values and causes and embed them in their university any way they can.”
You probably know this one already, but it’s worth putting out there: don’t overwhelm everyone with reading selections. It’ll require more time of you as well as your group members, and you all have enough homework as it is.
Two to three pages should give you plenty of food for thought, and it should take you only around fifteen minutes to come up with questions for discussion.
And not just in the discussions. To keep people coming back, invite them to take turns selecting the next passage from the book you’re reading, to be the group treasurer or discussion leader, and so on.
If you can make people feel included and needed, you’re likely to keep them coming back.
Do you want your group to outlast your time in college?
Then it’s critical that you build a succession plan into your group from the beginning.
Identify impressive, driven freshmen and cultivate in them the relationships, values, and ideas necessary to take the reins of leadership when you’re about to don your cap and gown.
The only thing Elizabeth regrets about her experience running a group on campus is that she waited until her senior year to do it.
If you’re interested in starting a group and are passionate about ideas, don’t hesitate. Do it! You’ll create a space for building friendships, develop a routine that helps to maintain existing friendships, and enrich your time at school with discussion. It’s one of the things college is all about.
What did we leave out? Leave us a comment to let us know!
Want to defend freedom of speech at your school, bring together principled conservative students and professors, discuss big ideas, bring prominent speakers to campus, and stand up for truth and intellectual diversity in an increasingly hostile campus climate?
We can help.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute Societies stand up for the free exchange of ideas and the principles that make America free and prosperous. We can provide you with the funding and mentorship you need to get started. Learn more about how to start your society today!
Complement with Jessica Hooten Wilson on the 10 books you need to read before you graduate, Gracy Olmstead on treating friendships like spaces, and Donald Kagan on why we should study Western civilization.