“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
- Albert Einstein
Many public schools and universities still reinforce values of individualism and competition. Growing economic and social disparities put added pressure on students to compete to ensure their individual survival and success.
The Student Agency Model can offer students experiences that affirm the values upheld by most colleges and universities a “sense of generosity, of fairness, of community, of patriotism, of social responsibility, and of respect for the rights of others” (Astin, 1992). It is a transformative experience that requires time and a commitment to change organizational practices.
Here are some key transformational tools:
How often are your members focused on expressing their own opinions and not really listening to what others are saying? It’s a common situation. But if members aren’t listening to each other, how can a group form any real agreements?
A dialogue is an exchange in which the participants listen to each other in order to look at the world through the perspective of others. In a dialogue, each person grows in understanding and the groups’ agreements are stronger. To increase dialogues in your group:
Practice active listening.
Distractions, stress, prejudices, and assumptions get in the way of listening and understanding others. Groups can increase members’ active listening skills by giving each person attention and sufficient time to speak.
Model openness to change.
Senior members can increase members’ ability to dialogue by role modeling listening to others and showing they can change their minds as a result of hearing a new or different opinion.
High functioning organizations address disagreements with respect and take time to work on the situation until it is resolved. This shows members that the group cares about their ideas and opinions and that conflicts can be resolved.
“A dialogue is not made up of two monologues.”
Coordination is two or more people doing different things and adding the results together. For example: You order food and I buy paper goods and decorations for a dinner event. Collaboration is two or more people integrating their efforts together. For example: You and I discuss the goals of a dinner event and develop the menu, decorations, and logistics together. Collaboration produces better results as well as growth for those involved.
Develop mutual respect.
Similar to dialogues, collaboration requires that members have a real interest and respect for each other. Senior members can serve as role models by taking time to ask questions and include others in discussions and decisions.
Balance people and tasks.
Each member has unique experiences and knowledge. Encourage each member to contribute ideas or skills to projects and the organization. Collaborative work focuses on the members, not just the tasks that have to be done.
Most groups finish a project and move on; they don’t take time to discuss and learn from what happened. In fact, many groups actively avoid facing their mistakes because they think it will be too stressful. Over time, the group loses out because it misses valuable lessons that can help it and its members improve.
Hold "Sum Up" meetings.
Set aside time for this discussion and agree to not pin blame on anyone, Reassure members that the goal is to identify what happened so the group can improve its work in the future.
Create a culture of accountability.
It’s important for members to be honest about what they did (or didn’t do), to account for their actions, and reflect on what they can change. To do this successfully, the group has to avoid harsh accusations or blame. If the process is supportive, members gain self-understanding and the group gains a spirit of mutual respect and trust.
For more on a Summation process see Activity Sheet 8.
Take Care of Each Other
Many students get stressed, distracted, tired, and lack sleep and nutrition. Organizations can help members develop strategies to stay in balance. Members benefit individually and the group benefits because members that are rested and calm are more likely to participate creatively and with an open-mind.
Offer workshops for members.
No matter how busy the group is, take time to find out how everyone is doing. Share life strategies. Reserve one meeting each quarter to focus on member self-care. Have a speaker offer tips on time management, etc.
There are many studies that show how nutrition, exercise, sleep, and meditation benefit student success. Distribute information and check in with members if they seem overly stressed.
For information on Self-Care, see Activity Sheet 9.
Build a Community that Lasts
Organizations can grow into healthy communities supported by multiple generations, diverse types and talents, and a sense of lasting commitment to each other. If members have felt safe to be who they are and free to make mistakes and learn from them, the seeds of community are there. Here are three tools which help make communities last:
Set a Transition Plan.
Student organizations lose leaders and members each year at graduation. Without a transition plan, groups have to start over again and again.
Elect new leaders a few months before the end of the year and make sure they are oriented and trained.
Begin each year with review of the past year to understanding the lessons and achievements.
Document and pass history on.
If members know their organization’s history they can value it more. They can also understand their role, find a place in that history, and be motivated to add to the organization’s legacy.
Honor each other.
A healthy community is intentional about honoring each member.
Establish traditions of recognition so members are valued for who they are as well as what they do.
Record the names of members so that after they graduate the group can invite them back to share their experiences and serve as mentors.
Case Study: TRANSFORM
Creating a Culture of Accountability
One of UCSC’s lead student organizations is Engaging Education (e2), a student-initiated and student-run center that works to increase the diversity of the student population. It is a creative space where students develop new and effective programs.
e2 hires students to do critical tasks, such as producing campuswide programs. For a few years, e2 faced the challenge of student staff showing up late, not completing tasks, or spending work time socializing instead of working. It was hard for peers to confront peers about their actions. Students were afraid of upsetting their friends or making unfair judgments about others. But everyone agreed that the effectiveness of the center was being impacted and something needed to be done.
e2 developed a process and structure that would support students speaking up and holding each other accountable.
They formed a Personnel Committee to review student staff’s work and to hear comments or complaints. They elected students who showed fairness in their interactions with others and who represented different areas of the organization. Committee members were oriented to their roles and the importance of careful and fair reviews. They met regularly and members developed good working relations.
If there was a problem with a student staff’s work, the committee members looked at the situation from the point of view of the student staff. They considered what the staff was going through and reviewed how the staff had been communicated with. They identified with how hard it would be to hear criticism so they prepared what to say and role-played with each other to avoid sounding aggressive or defensive.
The committee was able to approach student staff in the spirit of inquiry. They listened to the student staff’s perspective and the student staff listened to the group’s feedback. From the discussion agreements were made to change the situation. If the problem continued, there was another meeting and another until there was resolution. So far there has been only one instance of the committee deciding to recommend that a student leave a position.
Since the e2 Personnel Committee was formed 3 years ago, the process has built a culture of accountability in the organization and increased respect between members. It has also built students’ skills in speaking directly and with skill and confidence when they see something that is not right.