Wuest: Student groups should welcome diversity in new members

Matthias Wuest, Op-Ed Contributor

Coming to Northwestern can be overwhelming. By the end of two weeks in Evanston, it’s common for new students to have attended information sessions for multiple clubs, interviewed with a number of pre-professional groups and auditioned for (and been rejected from) a performance group. Why do students feel the need to be involved in so many activities?

Part of the reason may be the novelty of it all. NU students have the freedom to pursue a variety of activities and interests, and it’s natural for some students to attempt to experience everything. Most students truly long for a group where they feel like they belong. By casting a wide net, new students think they can increase their odds of finding that group.

In observing student groups at NU, I notice two key issues. The first has been widely discussed: the highly competitive nature and overly rigorous application process characteristic of student groups here.

The second issue receives less recognition: how group dynamics affect the student experience. Student group retention of freshmen over four years seems uncommon. Most students quit or are otherwise driven out of extracurricular groups at some point during their time at NU. In many ways, this is a good thing. Students naturally start out with more extracurriculars than they can maintain and pare their selection down as they discover where they belong. Ultimately, students do better if they are committed fully to one or two causes — a job, a sport, a music group — as opposed to having a toe in a half-dozen.

Clubs at NU can be extremely insular and exclusionary, which is one of the reasons they have a hard time retaining students. If a student does not fit into the dominant group culture, they may be ignored and marginalized until they drop out. If members of student groups at NU were more open to people unlike themselves, new students would find a welcoming group more quickly and would not feel the need to overcommit to numerous groups as underclassmen. Perhaps even more importantly, the existing members of these groups would be better exposed to people in different disciplines and with different worldviews.

We should dismantle the notion that it’s solely the new member’s responsibility to assimilate to a prevalent group dynamic. Student groups have a responsibility and an incentive to welcome those who they otherwise might dismiss. My experience on the rowing team has shown me the benefits of this openness. We draw members from a range of backgrounds, areas of study and social groups, yet when we are together we are free to be ourselves without fear of ostracization. To fully embrace difference creates an environment in which new students are free to be themselves without the pressure to change who they are, resulting in a better experience for everyone and less attrition from clubs.

And yet the rowing team too has much to work on in terms of fostering a welcoming environment: We have lost members who could have contributed much to our organization. But when I look around at our team dinners and see the engineer joking with the music major, and the frat star making a fool of himself with the sophomore who would drop out of school before going Greek, I have hope that maybe we’re doing something right.

There will always be students joining and quitting student groups around campus — such is the nature of students pushing themselves to try new things only to realize that their passions lie elsewhere. The little we can control about this cycle is the extent to which students leave groups they might otherwise have benefitted from because they do not click with the dominant culture within the group. We must welcome those who are different because by fostering a culture of openness and diversity we can better engage with the full spectrum of what NU’s student body has to offer.

Matthias Wuest is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.