By Amos Davidson
This is the thought that ran through my mind at the end of one of the most stressful events that I had this semester. As I watched the students in elegant formal wear dance to the last song of the first off-campus event our Campus Activity Board (CAB) has hosted, the anxiety caused by a series of setup mishaps, volunteer issues, and a student fainting during the event washed away. All I could see in that moment were students smiling, laughing, and singing songs with the friends that they met at this university. Part of me wondered how many of these friendships developed through an event that one of my programming boards hosted. Another part of me wondered if those friends that they met kept them at the university. The night ended with my Campus Activity Board (CAB) Executive Board students’ elation from their successful event and laughter over some Steak and Shake burgers and milkshakes. I was very proud of them, of how far they had come since our training in the summer, and how much they took ownership of their event. I could see in this moment, as in many others, that their experience on the CAB E-Board would be a highlight of their college career, and I was an active agent in facilitating it.
I started as the Student Activities Coordinator at the University of West Florida in 2019. The position was my first job as a professional, and furthermore, a job that was completely different from my previous two graduate assistantships in the Graduate School Office and Housing, respectively. I moved to a completely new place to start a new job in a new functional area, and I had no idea what to expect. I quickly learned that Student Activities is that job with the crazy hours they tell you about in your Student Affairs classes. With most of our weekly events being late-night programming, I sometimes start my day at 8am and end it at around 10:30pm. Additionally, I am responsible for approximately twenty-five events per year and two programming boards which consist of eleven students each.
Initially, I questioned the difference I could make as a Student Activities Coordinator versus being a Housing Coordinator or working in First Year Experience. My perception of the role was that I would ensure we have some fun events on campus. Students would come to my events and have a great time, but I had trouble connecting that outcome with the reason I started a career in Student Affairs: making a difference. Fortunately, I started to see how I was making a difference in the experiences of the students that attended my events and the students that comprised my programming boards during my time at the University of West Florida.
Because I work at a mid-sized, regional institution, I have the benefit of seeing new students as well as some of our regulars at CAB and Homecoming events. After their first event, many of the new students come to another event and eventually become one of those regular students that I see at most of the events. The regulars’ interests are soon piqued by how they can become more involved and join one of the programs as a volunteer. I have personally seen how these events increase students’ sense of belonging and institutional commitment. Student attendees have remarked multiple times how glad they are they came to UWF in part because of how much there is to do on campus. If my programming boards did not output the number of events at the level that they currently do, then there would be a noticeable gap missing in campus life. My boards are the reason students this year can say they saw Fetty Wap, Trevor Wallace, and Rich the Kid for free. My students hope, as they make sure to constantly tell me, that they can be the reason why attendees can say they rode a Ferris wheel and zipline on campus this April. Through these events, I have seen students connect with the campus, connect with other students, and connect with leadership opportunities. Making sure students keep connecting is my programming boards’ and my responsibility.
Another experience that rests on my shoulders, even more so than the attendees, is the experience of my programming board members. When I started in student activities, I had a difficult time transitioning from supervising students to advising students. I was quick to reject ideas that I knew would have many potential issues or could not happen. One of my previous students called me a “dream-killer” because I rejected an event idea of his that was not possible. I realized that my mistake was not creating a space where the student could advocate for his idea (specifically to the other board members) and where the student felt heard. Without either of these things, the students do not feel ownership of the programming board. Another aspect of advising that I learned is critical for the programming boards to have a good experience is building a rapport with the students. I have learned how paramount a positive relationship between the advisor and the advisee is to the students’ experience, especially this year. The rapport has helped me encourage my students to do their best work and hold them accountable while still retaining goodwill. Rapport-building is also how I have retained quality student-leaders even amidst the pandemic. The last aspect of building the experience for my programming boards that has meant a great deal to me is the development of my students. I have seen them grow this semester in critical thinking, communication, and creativity. They address potential issues in brainstorming sessions and finding their own solutions to complex problems on their own. I have seen a few of them gain confidence that they did not have before growing on the programming board. I had the opportunity and pleasure to read two of my student letters of nominations for me recently, and that is when it clicked that I am more important part of this development than I previously thought. Both of the students that nominated me stated that they were grateful for the time they spent on their programming boards and that it became a part of their identity. They also mentioned how helped them connect what they are doing know to their future goals. One student specifically stated that I helped her think about possibilities that she did not know were open to her, which only happened because I took to the time to get to know her outside of the role she had on the programming board. I did not realize how much impact I had on my students until after we came back in-person. They look to me as an advisor to challenge them, to point them in the right direction, and to trust that they can find their own solution.
If you are a Student Activities Coordinator or involved in student activities, you are creating your students’ college experience. When they graduate and talk about all of the unique experience they had, they will be talking about the events you hosted, the trending artist they saw at their school, and the relationship they had with their advisor. Do not take for granted that the events will just happen, but as cliché as it sounds, treat every event like it is the one that will make the difference in a student’s life because it is. The students’ college experience does not rest solely on your shoulders, but the work that you do makes a difference.
Amos Davidson is a Student Activities Coordinator at the University of West Florida.