Let me make one thing clear before I get right into it: Being on a student government team is rewarding. There are moments when you will be totally enamored with a campus leadership role and relish the opportunities and responsibility that come with it. Plus, putting on great events are a key catalyst for building community during your time at a university.
That being said, student government can also be one of the most infuriating tenures you endure, especially if you walk into a position blindly. Here are a few things I wish I’d known before I said yes to the dress of student government.
Putting on Events
Put straightforwardly, the chief function of a student government team is to host a variety of fun, thought-provoking or career-building events for the rest of a university’s student body. As compensation, students in leadership positions might receive scholarships or some other type of financial stipend (which, depending on the university you attend and the size of the scholarship, can be less than working a minimum wage job for the same number of hours each week).
Successful events bring large numbers of students from on and off campus together, but getting there requires an almost grandiose marketing approach.
Thinking about sending out a campus-wide email or text to the students about an event? They probably won’t read it, let alone sign up to receive information from your student government team. Printing out posters to hang around campus? Even if the weather permits, the money posters demand make it a poor marketing strategy. Posting on social media? A fraction of the campus will follow it. Well, what about word of mouth? Good luck talking to every student.
Marketing is hard. There’s no easy way around that. Hyping up an event in an effort to increase its attendance is not light work, and to successfully maneuver marketing, you’ll have to find creative solutions.
There is also a veritable legion of hoops you have to jump through before an event can be given the breath of life. Imagine that you’ve extensively planned out an ideal event, having already allocated time and resources to it.
Your team supervisor has already approved it, and you and your student government team are ready to make ends meet to add the finishing touches. In the week or two leading up to the event, a university bigwig has fears about some irrelevant problem, and now the integrity of all of your organizing is in jeopardy.
Now, I don’t mean to make light of such fears. There are, undoubtedly, reasons why the process of getting all sponsors on board with the event is so incredibly laborious. So, here’s my advice: Approach more people than necessary for an event’s approval. Talk to as many secretaries, vice presidents, organizers and team leads as you can, as it’s better to annoy people with persistence than circumvent a necessary step that could result in an event’s termination.
Of the lessons I’ve learned after two years on my university’s Student Government Association (SGA) team, this was the most surprising: Working with other student leadership teams can be a hostile environment. Many people are perfectly kind and welcoming, but be prepared — events are territorial. Most universities equip these leadership teams with a campus calendar that activities are posted on. Even then, fighting for a date to host an event is a challenging affair.
There will always be a sporting game, speaker or club in the midst of something. Finding a time that is likely to attract students without competing is not impossible, but negotiations are inevitable. It truly is a dog-eat-dog world at times, but that doesn’t mean you have to succumb to the vitriolic environment.
The second most surprising lesson was not a far cry from the first. On student government teams, the work will not be divided equally. Yes, almost everyone will log their hours and put their own fair share of elbow grease into the job (probably because of the hundreds of students eyeing their position should they stumble), but there will be a bevy of times when you put more time and effort into an event than your teammates do. As such, patience is paramount to engendering a positive work environment for you and everyone else on your student government team.
Having patience extends beyond the borders of your own team, however. Patience with the rest of the student body might be required on several occasions throughout your time in office. There have been countless times when I’ve heard people complain that my university’s SGA team does not put on enough events, when in reality the offenders simply do not attend them. Just as in the nature of any other elevated position or status in society, you will be subject to scrutiny and bombarded by unhelpful complaints. Ignore them.
While hearing out the needs and wishes of the student body is an incredibly important part of tailoring events to their interests, carrying a minority’s negativity for the duration of your time in student government will only be a hindrance. You have to learn to tune them out.
Admittedly, notoriety isn’t that bad of a side effect. Being on a student government team not only makes you a recognizable face to the students, but to some of the staff and faculty as well. There will be people who recognize you all around campus, even if it seems like you’ve never seen them before. In that regard, it’s important to present yourself in an upstanding manner whenever you’re out and about at your university.
The notoriety of a student government position isn’t all bad, though. It can lead to unprecedented connections and opportunities, such as when I received the chance to interview the next president of my university. Think of it like this: The time you spend in student government might feel like an incredibly long, extended interview — so don’t forget to wear a proverbial tie.
Nothing Lasts Forever
The last piece of advice I can offer for any student government hopefuls is a bit somber: Nothing lasts forever. Something I’ve had to learn is that there will always be new students, and student government’s impact on campus has to essentially hit the reset button every year. New leaders will bring new perspectives, and new students will want similarly fresh events. Adapting is the nature of the game.
With all that being said, I must impress that I would never change the past two years. Student government can be grueling, but there really is nothing like it. If you’re interested, I highly encourage pursuing the opportunity. It looks pretty favorable on a resume, too.
Good luck with any of your future campaigns!