At the beginning of his sophomore year at The University of Iowa, Jon Nelson was not a happy camper.
“I was feeling insignificant,” Nelson says. “I was part of a lot of activities in high school, but here there is so much to do, I didn’t even know where to get started.”
He shared his feelings with his roommate, Mike Brooks.
“Mike encouraged me to get involved, to increase my sense of community and help me feel like I have a voice,” Nelson says.
Brooks invited Nelson to a dinner with members of the University’s Committee on Lectures, one of 18 Charter Committees, small working groups made up of University students, faculty, and staff, who help provide guidance, develop plans and programs, and respond to suggestions and concerns related to the University.
Nelson was hooked. He applied to serve on the Campus Planning Committee, the group charged with providing advice on campus building projects, facilities, and grounds.
“It related to my civil engineering major and to the urban planning classes that I planned to take,” he says. “But I’ve learned a lot about the entire way the University works.”
The University’s first Charter Committees were established in 1974, during the presidency of Willard “Sandy” Boyd, and additional committees have been added through the years. Full-time students may apply to serve on the committees, which include the Council on Teaching, University Libraries, Recreational Services, Student Health Services, Financial Aid, Board in Control of Athletics, and others. (Specific information about the University’s Charter Committees organizational structure and purpose can be found online in the Operations Manual at www.uiowa.edu/~our/opmanual/i/028.htm#2808. A listing of all committee members is on the UI president’s web site at www.uiowa.edu/president/charter_committees/.) Each committee is overseen by an administrative liaison, typically a University vice president, who provides information and support to the committee.
Students who apply to serve on Charter Committees must fill out an application and interview with members of UISG (University of Iowa Student Government). Typically this is done each spring, so that new members begin serving when they return to school in the fall. Student terms are generally for one year, although students may reapply to serve additional terms. Faculty and staff serve longer terms.
Faculty and staff members who serve on the committees find the students’ input very valuable.
“Students bring so much enthusiasm,” says Carol Senneff, director of the University’s Internal Audit Department and the cochair of the Hancher Auditorium Committee, which has six appointed student members. “We’re often asked to review productions, and students bring a totally different perspective—a youth viewpoint and a student viewpoint.”
Senneff says that while the students on the committee are all involved in the arts, they will often solicit opinions from other students who don’t attend performances, which helps the committee to provide advice to the Hancher staff about ticket pricing and the kinds of shows to bring to the venue.
One of those students is Sarah Mimick, a senior violin performance and communications major from Minneapolis, who saw an announcement about the Charter Committees in The Daily Iowan two years ago.
“I’d always thought about going into arts management and I thought this would give me some insight into what it was about,” says Mimick, who serves as the committee cochair. “I’ve learned so much from Chuck and Judy [Chuck Swanson and Judy Hurtig are Hancher’s co-directors]. We’ve learned what it really takes behind the scenes to put on a show, and it takes so much more than I ever thought it did.”
Another student whose career path has expanded in part because of his experiences on a Charter Committee is Marc Doobay, a senior biochemistry major with a global health studies minor from Ames, Iowa. Doobay came to the University interested in a medicine. The knowledge he gained as a member of the Human Rights Committee, in addition to his travels to Cuba, where he saw the effects of human rights policies in action, provided him with a broader world view and helped convince him that he could do the greatest good as a family practice physician in rural medicine.
And Jon Nelson says that the Campus Planning Committee has helped convince him that he doesn’t want to be stuck behind a desk all day.
“I’ve learned how much I enjoy the exchange of ideas when we talk about a particular project, the brainstorming, and the personal interactions,” he says. “I’ve also learned that asking what may be the ‘stupid’ question can actually help everyone understand a concept.”
It’s these kind of less tangible lessons that also make Charter Committee involvement valuable.
“When I first saw the list of the committee members, it was intimidating,” says Mimick. “There was a dean from the medical school and one of the heads of the dance program, Basil Thompson. But as soon as we started meeting, I realized that they’re just people too, and we all share an interest in the arts.”
Doobay notes that faculty and staff ask for his opinion.
“The other committee members are very interested in students’ points of view, and they actively seek our input,” he says. “They’re very respectful of my opinion.”
“The committees give students a different perspective on the institution,” says Belinda Marner, assistant vice president of student services. “They provide opportunities that don’t always exist in classroom settings.”
Mimick says that serving as cochair has greatly enhanced her leadership skills.
“Being up in front and leading a meeting has been a great experience,” she says. “It’s something you don’t get in your everyday lecture. You have some ownership in the committee and you feel a great sense of responsibility. It lets you use your skills in a different way than you can use them in class.”
Marner is quick to note that serving on Charter Committees is just one way that students can get involved in campus life.
“There are numerous committees that seek student involvement, including student government committees and committees within colleges,” she says.
Nelson notes that serving on the Campus Planning Committee has led to his involvement in other activities, including Habitat for Humanity and the College of Engineering’s Center for Technical Communication. It’s also completely changed his outlook on University life.
“I was that disconnected, disinterested kid who complained about the University my freshman year, but now I see things differently,” he says. “I learned it’s possible to be constructive with my opinions and do something to actively change things. It’s been a great opportunity to make friends, meet new people—I’ve even met engineers who have presented projects to our committee and may be able to provide job connections in the future. That’s not why I’m doing it, but it’s been a benefit.
“There are lots of opportunities for those who want to pursue something in addition to their diploma. You have nothing to lose by being involved.”
by Linzee Kull McCray