Student Organizations Summit downsized

The leadership training portion of the Student Organization Summit (SOS), scheduled to take place this past Saturday, was canceled late last week due to insufficient student interest. Friday night’s mandatory treasurer training proceeded as planned.

Each fall, College Council (CC) and the Dean’s Office organize a financial training session to teach new student group treasurers how to manage college funds and to keep experienced treasurers abreast of policy changes.

A month and a half ago, however, Rich Kelley, the College’s activities coordinator, began expanding the training session into a Student Organization Summit, which would include leadership seminars in addition to the traditional financial training.

The Idea

Following the mid-summer departure of Wanda Lee, the assistant dean who had previously been responsible for leadership development, the Multicultural Center (MCC) approached Kelley in July about implementing some kind of leadership training during the upcoming school year.

“Since we had so many student groups on campus,” Kelley explained, “we thought it would be a good idea to offer leadership training to aid leaders in running their groups.”

Kelley and the MCC decided that they could realize this idea by developing the already-scheduled treasurer training into a two-day “leadership weekend.” The Friday night portion of the retreat would consist of the mandatory debriefing on college financial policy, to which groups would have to send their treasurers in order to receive college recognition. On Saturday, Williams and non-Williams facilitators would lead several optional leadership seminars.

Kelley developed this idea throughout the second half of the summer, finalizing content for the leadership modules and locating speakers to facilitate them. He and the MCC agreed on the following five topics: program development, communication, time management, meeting management, and creative publicity.

Speakers included several Williams faculty members – Kelley himself, Marcela Villada-Peacock, program assistant for the MCC, Elinor Goodwin, executive assistant to the dean of the faculty, and Stephen Collingsworth, assistant director of the MCC and coordinator of LGBT issues– as well as Michael Goodwin, a college counselor from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Anne Bakker-Gras, a student life director at Grand Valley State University and keynote speaker Curtis Zimmerman.

“In the past I’d heard that students don’t like off-campus speakers,” Kelley said of his choice of facilitators. “But at the same time it’s good to bring in different perspectives. You don’t need to know about Williams to talk about leadership. Good leadership is universal.”

Kelley decided that, while the financial training was to remain a requirement, the new sessions would be optional.

Kelley explained his decision: “The financial training had to be mandatory. Last year we didn’t get everyone there, and after school started, we found we were having trouble getting correctly filled-out vouchers.”

Ami Parekh ’01, co-president of CC, agreed. “We’ve had so many problems in the past with managing our money – groups overspend all the time,” she said. “I’m glad the financial training was mandatory. If it’s not mandatory, nobody goes.”

Kelley felt that the new leadership seminars would also be highly useful to students, but he realized that he could not require group leaders to attend the entire weekend.

“I would have liked to have made it mandatory, because I put a lot of work into it, but I also know that as far as student development goes, that’s not appropriate,” he said. “It would have just made people unhappy.”

The Cancellation

Having decided on the format and schedule, Kelley waited for students to return to school and then began publicizing the summit. He had fliers copied and put in SU boxes, put a message in the Daily Advisor, sent an e-mail to all student leaders and made brochures detailing the weekend’s events. Then Kelley waited for responses.

“We were sure that people had the info,” he said. “We were just waiting on RSVPs so we would know how many lunches to provide.”

By late last week, however, it became clear that numbers would not be high as high as Kelley had hoped. “Over 80 people RSVPed for Friday night, but for Saturday there were only 26, and only eight of those were for the entire day; the rest were for individual sessions.”

On Friday, Kelley made the decision to cancel Saturday’s sessions. “It was out of courtesy for the speakers whom we were flying in to host these sessions” Kelley explained. “Most contracts for presenters say they must have a minimum audience to go on.”

The on-campus speakers would have gone on anyway, but Kelley got the feeling that even those students who had signed up were not particularly interested. “Very few of them wanted to be there,” he said. “They thought they had to be there, or that they should be there. I wanted to take that burden off people.”

What went wrong?

Kelly speculated that students must have seen Saturday’s seminars as too much of a time commitment. “I wonder if it was just that people were so busy,” he mused. “We see such a high level of activity with our students that have if they don’t have to go to something, or if it’s not going to specifically help them with, say, getting a job or graduation, they’re not going to go.”

Many student leaders echoed Kelley’s suspicion. “I think there were [sessions] that would have been useful for a lot of groups,” said Ryan Mayhew ’01, treasurer of CC. “But it’s just a lot of time.”

Stephanie Pirishis ’02, treasurer of the Photo Club and coordinator of the Gulilmensian, the International Club and the Bridge Club, agreed. “They sounded interesting,” Pirishis said of Saturday’s seminars. “But I think people felt overwhelmed: ‘Am I really going to spend my whole weekend on my group?’”

A related possibility is that many students had scheduling conflicts on Saturday. Some, such as Diane Bennett ’03, treasurer of the Sailing Club, had athletic practice. Others attended an alumni lunch being hosted at the Faculty Club.

“College Council had picked the date [for the treasurer’s training] last spring, so there would be no conflicts,” Kelley protested. “But there are always conflicts… You couldn’t pay a student here to take any time out.”

Other students contended that even if they had been less busy, they would not have attended the seminars, which they felt would not be of use to them.

“Saturday’s workshops simply did not sound interesting or relevant,” said Maya Garcia ’02, president of Grassroots Music. “Campus groups are so diverse that it is of course difficult to set up a section of workshops that benefit everyone, and topics like ‘time management’ are never going to be crowd thrillers.”

Matt Haldeman ’02, president of Lehman Council, agreed. “The sessions seemed too generic,” he explained. “I’ve been on the Lehman Council since my freshman year, and I’ve learned a lot of things through trial and error that didn’t apply to other groups, to other schools. You can’t learn those kind of things in a seminar.”

Some students also suggested that the sign-up procedure could be the cause of the low RSVP numbers. “For students, you want a quick, easy solution of how to sign up,” Pirishis observed. “If you have to go to any trouble, you’ll think, ‘I’ll just show up if I wake up in time.’”

She added, “Especially during first days, you’re so busy: the last thing you’re thinking about is, ‘Oh I have to go sign up for this thing next weekend.’”

Bennett agreed. “It’s possible that people just didn’t bother to RSVP,” she said. “People are lazy.”

Parekh noted that some of the above problems could have been avoided if more students had been consulted during the event’s planning. “At this school, things have to be student-initiated and student-run. That’s the only way students are going to go.” Parekh suggested that next time, Kelley could wait until the spring semester and plan it then, with the help of student input.

Friday’s meeting and the future

Kelley does intend to reschedule the cancelled seminars, although potentially in a different format. “At this point I wouldn’t want to do it as another day thing,” he said. “I’ve realized it’s difficult to get people to commit to more than an hour and a half or two hours, so maybe we’ll do it on a Sunday night sometime, and offer dinner.”

In the meantime, he encourages students to approach him with ideas about how to make the program a success: “If people still want to see this and have suggestions, why not reschedule?”

Meanwhile, Friday night’s financial training, which was held as planned despite Saturday’s cancellation, “went off without a hitch,” Mayhew said. Approximately 80 to 100 student leaders attended.

Mayhew and Kelley spent the first hour explaining financial policy: how to fill out expense vouchers, get reimbursed, pay bills by check, make deposits, and transfer money between accounts. They also gave treasurers a preview of CC’s budgetary process. In the second hour, Mayhew explained the resources available to student groups.

Although the two-hour session struck some as slightly chaotic due to the high attendance, most were pleased with what they had learned. “I was impressed with how succinct it was,” Haldeman said. “They got us in and out.”

He added, “Rich [Kelley] and Ryan [Mayhew] were both great. They provided a broad overview in a short amount of time.”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *