At UC Santa Cruz, the Student Agency Model is practiced in the area of campus-wide student organizations. As intensive peer group settings, student organizations have strong potential as learning environments.

As a form of involvement, a student’s peer group is the “strongest single source of influence on cognitive and affective development” (Astin, 1996). Because students choose to join or create organizations based on personal interest, they are motivated to actively engage with their peers in problem solving, analysis, and reflection to achieve their group’s goals. 

The following case study is one example of how the Student Agency Model was used to develop empowering educational experiences in student organizations. The study describes the responses of the student body over time and how students, staff, and alumni collaborated to develop the structures, resources, and processes that support the democratic principles essential to the success of this model.

Case Study: Student Agency in Organizations

In the 1980s, the UCSC student activities office was a traditional activities office, focused on ensuring that students followed time, place, and manner regulations. In 1988, a new director, Chareane Wimbley-Gouveia, introduced the approach of staff supporting student-initiated programs. She renamed the office Student Organization Advising and Resources (SOAR) and recruited staff with experience working in community organizations, student development, and conflict resolution. Staff were trained to be resources and facilitators, listening and drawing out the goals of organizations and providing resources for students to be able to make collective decisions on what to do and how to do it.

The change from a traditional activities office to a center for student agency and initiative matched the values of the campus and the students who chose to attend it. Compared to their peers nationally, UCSC frosh scored higher in interest in participating in community action, promoting racial understanding, influencing social values, and developing a philosophy of life (Zalamea, 1994). SOAR provided students with the space, resources, and advising needed to successfully gather with peers, explore common interests, and develop programs, processes, and services that met student needs.

What I treasure the most in life is being able to dream. During my most difficult moments and complex situations, I have been able to dream of a more beautiful future.
— Rigoberta Menchú

Students from underrepresented communities were especially motivated by the new approach and worked to form innovative organizations. Prior to SOAR, ethnic organizations were 26% of all student organizations. Ten years after SOAR was established, ethnic organizations comprised 41% of all organizations. Organizations gave underrepresented students a home base that strengthened their sense of community, belonging, and voice on campus. The organizations also created new social, cultural, political, and educational programs, which contributed to a more diverse campus climate. 

Prior to the establishment of SOAR, there were no Greek Letter Organizations (GLOs) due to a campus policy that discouraged exclusive organizations. With SOAR’s advocacy and policy of supporting all student interests, GLOs were established on campus and gradually grew, representing 13% of organizations in 2012. Student agency is also reflected in the unique character of UCSC’s Greek Life. The organizations are diverse and include numerous groups without national affiliation. Further, all GLOs work together collaboratively to develop democratic processes for self-governance and member education. 

With Power Comes Responsibility

Using the Student Agency Model, student organizations established major annual events, theater productions, television productions, and high school recruitment projects. To make sure their work survived budget cuts, they utilized the campus ballot to ask the student body for funding. Students voted favorably, granting them governance over substantial operating and program funds. In 2005, the Office of the Chancellor agreed to match the students’ dollars two-for-one for student-initiated programs that support diversity. Based on the success of these student-initiated programs, the Chancellor has renewed this match for the last ten years. 

For the past decade student organizations have stepped up to the responsibility of governing the funds the student body and Chancellor had committed to them. They formed summer research teams and worked with staff and alumni to assess their environment and analyze lessons from their organizations. Over the next few years, they experimented with structures and processes that would support democratic decision-making, learning, and accountability. This included designing strategic planning retreats, classes and trainings on facilitation, mutual agreements on working relations between students and staff, and engaging an active network of alumni mentors. 

The SOAR office was merged with the offices of Student Media and Cultural Arts and Diversity (CAD) to form SOMeCA in 2009. The three offices shared the student agency approach and the merger created a dynamic collaboration of staff and students across cultures, politics, ethnicity, academics, and mediums. Students, staff, and alumni shared organizational lessons, process designs, and role models, leading to an increase of 40 new student organizations between 2009 and 2012

Lessons Learned

Beginning in 2012, the students, staff, and alumni of SOMeCA started a process of examining the learning that occurs in student organizations guided by student agency principles. 

After consulting with alumni working in a variety of industries and fields, students elected to use an action research approach to guide their work. This action research approach helped students design focus groups, surveys, and retreats that were informed by the history, principles, and values of their organizations, student need, and issues impacting their communities. Students focused on engaging in data collection that incorporated diverse and representative perspectives, consensus building, reflection, and creating change. 

The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.
— Gloria Anzaldúa

The research and data collection was broken into three key stages. First, students conducted exploratory research by using social networks to connect with alumni and familiarize themselves with the ways that student agency helped students from different generations. Students first interacted with a wide array of alumni during a SOMeCA sponsored dinner. At this event, alumni panelists shared experiences and one hundred alumni met with over two hundred student leaders to provide examples and histories from their work in organizations and the workplace. 

The second stage harnessed the information and commitment generated from the dinner. SOMeCA convened an Action Research Group (ARG) to analyze the learning and development that results from participation in student agency organizations. The first all-day retreat included a group of students from a representative cross-section of student organizations and a smaller cross-section of alumni and staff. Together they assessed the state of student agency at UC Santa Cruz and the benefits and challenges of student-initiated programs and organizations. Each stakeholder group subsequently met with SOMeCA staff to reflect on student agency and the role each group could play in helping facilitate a culture of student agency. 

The final stage was the development of an Action Research Group class rooted in a curriculum that combined popular education, readings on pedagogy and learning theory, with discussions on how these theories could help students understand their experiences at UCSC. In addition, students designed and conducted action research needs assessments to help analyze how they could help address the needs of their fellow students. 

This collaborative research project resulted in the identification of key principles, practices, and tools that support the development of dynamic learning environments in student organizations. While these findings are specific to student organizations at UCSC, they are offered as best practices for colleges and universities to consider and adapt in developing the area of student activities to support students’ active engagement in learning.