The exclusivity of student groups seems like a fact of life at Columbia. By the first week of October, with summer heat starting to retreat and midterms on the horizon, most student groups have all but closed their doors to new members. And some clubs do have good reasons—the debate team certainly can’t send 300 members to their next debate tournament. But what about cultural clubs? Or interest groups? Is there a good reason that they have acceptance rates that rival college admissions?
Student councils, led by CCSC VP of Finance Adam Resheff, are doing their best to push these groups to become more welcoming to all students. Yet while student government and administration attempt to deal with this problem, the onus is not entirely on them. Students applying to clubs have to approach the process more thoughtfully. It’s easy to go to the activities fair and subscribe to twelve mailing lists. But without taking time to personally interact with an organization, it’s hard to know what it represents.
The fault, we think, lies more often with a miscommunication than it does a student’s resume. New students usually don’t realize that in applying for a club, they’re shaping their home at Columbia. That’s no small matter.
Students should consider a new club with the same attitude that a club considers them.
Imagine searching for somewhere to live. A potential renter will want to suss out the function, feel, and look of the house or apartment. She’ll want to know every detail. “Can this be home?” she wonders. After giving it a lot of thought, if the house feels right, then she will put her all into making the right offer. The way she presents herself will convince the current owners that she’ll take care of their home.
Now imagine you own a home and you’re looking for a new tenant. You want to share your space with someone who has done their research. Someone who has taken the time to get to know all the work you’ve put into the house. Someone who recognizes its strengths and flaws, and shares your vision for its future. And more importantly, you want someone that you trust. Student leaders and boards treat recruitment so seriously because in effect, it is their home on campus and they’re picking the next generation of tenants.
They spend hours discussing the culture and direction of the organization, and letting on a new member means spending the time to mentor and integrate that member into the community. It’s not that they want to avoid awkward applicants or only let in their friends. Student leaders are the architects of their communities—it is their responsibility to fill their homes with people they trust.
For students looking to be involved, this means interacting with the organization more before the actual interview. Of course it’s good to know people in the organization—there’s no need to harass members, but having a chance to chat is invaluable to personally connect. During the dreaded deliberations process, groups will spend hours sitting and shouting over each other in an attempt to fill the spots with candidates they liked. A name without a face is usually the first to go.
Still, just knowing someone means little in actually getting you in. The quality that most candidates lack is surprisingly simple: They miss the mark on the kind of candidate the organization wants. Of course, it’s not easy to know exactly what a board is looking for unless you’re on the board itself. But most clubs aren’t tight-lipped. They want talented, passionate students to contribute to their mission—something that Columbia is not in short supply of. But we’ve both sat through a number of painful interviews in which we as club leaders are just waiting to tell a misguided applicant, “you’re in the wrong place.” If they took a step back to think, they’d probably come to the same conclusion. Taking the time to learn about your new home can go a long way.
And if you find yourself being told you don’t fit, don’t take it personally. It is in no way a reflection of your talent or passion. Instead, take some time to evaluate why you wanted to join a specific organization in the first place. Do the reasons amount to more than “well, I was good at this in high school?” One of the great things about college is that everyone begins with a clean slate, and some have to clean their slates more than once. But to never start “fresh” in the first place is a mistake. So, find a commitment you won’t flake on. Find people that make you feel like yourself. Find something that gives you purpose—even if that means scrapping your original plan.
Aunoy Poddar is a Columbia College senior studying Biology and Computer Science. He is the president of the Columbia Science Review and senior advisor to Club Zamana. Austin Horn is a Columbia College senior majoring in American Studies and was on Spectator’s 141st Managing Board. Both authors are the cofounders of CU@Home, a project with Undergraduate Student Life to help students better prepare themselves for applying to clubs at Columbia. Their first meeting is on October 11th, 8pm in the John Jay Lounge.
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