I am writing to you on the Monday after Homecoming weekend. I enjoyed connecting with alumni, particularly with former student leaders. When I talk with alumni, I often ask them what experiences from their time as a UI student had a significant impact later on in their lives.
Very often, they cite participation in a student organization.
Sometimes the way this plays out is pretty specific. For instance, I had lunch not long ago with an alumna who did marketing and public relations for the Homecoming Council. She is now the CEO of her own market research firm. Another example is our several alumni who helped produce concerts as members of SCOPE who now work in the music industry.
I had a conversation at the football game Saturday that pointed to more general skill development. I got to catch up with Meghan (Henry) Gutierrez, who served as vice president of University of Iowa Student Government in 1997–1998. When I asked her what she had learned as vice president, she told me that her outside-the-classroom experience taught her just as much as her classes. She gave a number of great examples.
Even as nerdy as I am, I don’t usually take notes during casual conversations, so I know I’ve forgotten some things already, but here are some that I remember:
- Consensus building. As vice president, Meghan had to bring together people with a wide range of viewpoints and priorities if she was going to accomplish anything. With mentoring from staff in the Division of Student Life, she got very good at forming coalitions. That skill served her well as a congressional staff member and continues to in her current position leading communication and advocacy efforts for a large non-profit organization.
- Strategic thinking. I’ve written before about the importance of strategic planning for any organization. Meghan told me about how, as vice president, she learned to think clearly about what goals were appropriate, how they might be accomplished, and what would serve as evidence that they had, indeed, been accomplished. (Link to earlier letter.)
- Budgeting. I commented to Meghan that our student government manages a budget of nearly $1 million, making appropriations to various student organizations. I don’t think I was responsible for a million-dollar budget until I had been out of school for something like 30 years. Meghan told me that the first time she worked on appropriations as a congressional staff member, she could see analogies between the budget she was trying to understand and the budget she had managed in student government, and those analogies helped her come up to speed quickly.
- Hiring. One of the responsibilities of the vice president when Meghan served was to manage the selection of a host of students to serve in various positions. She learned to clearly define the responsibilities of the position and understand what she was looking for in a candidate and to conduct interviews that would identify the candidate with the most to contribute to the team. She uses those skills to this day when she hires members of her staff.
- Policy analysis. Tuition is an issue for every student government, and as vice president, Meghan researched and wrote a policy brief on tuition. When she worked on Capitol Hill, her boss asked her to write a policy brief and described what it should look like. Meghan said that she had done something like that as a student leader and shared a copy of her tuition brief. It turns out that that was exactly what her boss was looking for, so Meghan already knew how to write a policy brief. By the way, this illustrates the intersection of in class and out-of-class learning very nicely. I’m pretty confident that the classes she took as a history major helped her hone her research and writing skills to a fine point.
I was thrilled with this conversation, because the central reason we have student organizations is to promote student learning. In many cases, student organizations, including student government take a lot of staff time. We want our students to innovate and take risks, and we allow them to occasionally fail as they learn. We also maintain a safety net to manage the risks they take. More importantly, we try to give them guidance as they revise policies, plan events, conduct meetings, and do all the other work of a student organization.
We want all of our student leaders to go out into the wider world prepared to be as much of a brilliant success as Meghan has been.
By the way, I didn’t monopolize all of her time during the game. I let her see at least some of the game.
As always, I enjoy hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe you have a story of what you learned from involvement in out-of-class student activities to share?
Vice President for Student Life
249 Iowa Memorial Union