Pomp: Student organizations should refocus on missions, not exclusivity

Amos Pomp, Op-Ed Contributor

I have heard time and time again how annoying it is that seemingly everything at Northwestern requires an application, a petition or some sort of rigorous selection process. Even opportunities you wouldn’t expect, like some majors, cap their membership or enrollment numbers and turn applicants away. At least in selective departments, faculty likely admit students based on their qualifications for the major’s requirements. But upon observing many student organizations, it becomes a little less clear how student leaders and selection committees make their decisions.

I was scrolling through Facebook the other day, noting the usual stream of posts for student organization events and applications. But what caught my eye most wasn’t the custom frames or organization-specific information — it was how much of the content had absolutely nothing to do with the organization it professed to promote. Some of the profile pictures show people drinking or hanging out in off-campus and non-organizational settings. The captions suggest that applying will help you meet the coolest people so that you, too, can be cool. Why do these things take priority over the actual purpose of these organizations when marketing to potential new members?

Before I continue, I want to recognize that many student organization Facebook promos mention activities relevant to their mission, and some of the pictures are related to specific, organizational positions or tasks. But many are not. This column is not just about Facebook posts either; it is about the ways student organizations often portray themselves to potential applicants on this campus.

I would also like to recognize that NU students are often incredibly driven and committed to their work, planning impactful events, producing fantastic entertainment and generally doing great work. And an organization’s members hanging out or partying together does not necessarily prevent that; in fact, a sense of unity and social bonding can often enhance the quality of a group’s efforts. I just wonder why that social cohesion is often made a significant part of the draw for new applicants, and why that bonding is often predicated on the presence of alcohol.

Say someone wants to be in an organization to fulfill its mission to the best of their ability, and they see the same Facebook posts that I did. Might they feel encouraged to drink and attend extraneous events in order to be a contributing member of that organization, in order to be “cool?” Applicants should be encouraged to think more about the actual purpose of the role they want in the organization and how that role can contribute to the work the group will do. Qualified individuals may be dissuaded from applying because they don’t want to participate in an organization that appears to prioritize social gatherings and drinking. Whether organizations actually do this is beside the point; in this case, perception is reality.

I wonder how many talented individuals at NU haven’t applied for certain opportunities because they weren’t interested in the various social activities the organization’s members touted as part of the experience, or because the organization seemed exclusive and off-limits to those without numerous social connections.

Recruitment aside, many organizations also seem to take on pseudo-Greek life social structures, pairing new members with “bigs” and “littles” and working hard to foster the fraternal camaraderie that Greek life offers. Who can know if they are working as hard on their actual organizational mission as they are on replicating Greek-like experiences?

In non-Greek student organizations, is this pseudo-Greek social unity meant to cater to members of Greek life looking to duplicate their experience elsewhere? Or, does it cater to the student who was unhappy with their rush experience, didn’t join a Panhellenic Association or Interfraternity Council chapter and wants a similar setting as a social outlet and support system? Perhaps both.

But what about everyone else?

What about a student who chose not to rush Greek life because they don’t want to be part of any similar organization? What about students who chose not to apply for an organization because of its Facebook posts? What about those who simply don’t want to party or be around people who talk about partying all the time? Or who care about a club’s mission but can’t get in because they’re not part of an unspoken applicant pool of well-connected students that the club selects from?

Having fun is not a crime, and students should not stop being friends with their classmates and fellow club members. But there are more inclusive ways to foster teamwork and bonding than creating an early expectation — as early as application advertising — that alcohol, social pressure and off-campus hangouts are central to the student organization experience.

One of the most frustrating things I’ve heard here was said at a meeting for an organization I’m in. This mission-oriented club doesn’t have applications, welcomes anyone to every meeting and fosters friendships primarily through working together to reach goals rather than through parties. When one student came to our meeting for the first time, they said it was nice to finally be able to contribute to a cause without having to apply or feel like they fit in with a crowd. What does that say about the climate of extracurricular involvement on this campus?

I think it would behoove Northwestern students to take a good, long look at the organizations they are involved in and figure out what their true goals and missions are. Student groups should recruit based on those missions, seeking out the best people to help fulfill them. We need to think about why we get involved on this campus, and whether the organizations we’re in truly prioritize their core purposes over how other students perceive them.

It is totally valid to join a student organization primarily to meet new people and make new friends; that’s part of college. I simply want to question the motives of students who appear to make social exclusivity their organizations’ primary objectives. It’s important to find a group of people you connect with on this campus, and there is a host of benefits to building that network. But, we need to examine our motivations for being in extracurricular activities and think about how to base student organizations on the passions of like-minded individuals, not the glorification of social capital.

Amos Pomp is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.