The Many Forms of Campus Involvement and Leadership

What does it mean to be involved? To be a leader on campus?

“To be a leader, it’s kind of a position in the public eye,” says Alex Baker-Bender, a UW junior studying biology.

“It’s an additional pressure,” he adds, “but it comes with being, say, the chairman of a student organization.”

Many students would agree. Yet, while presiding over a student organization may seem like the pinnacle of involvement and leadership on campus, the UW’s Center for Leadership & Involvement, or CfLI, is working to spread a reassuring message to students and their parents: involvement and leadership take many other forms, too.

Defining Involvement

Students frequently hear the phrases “get involved” and “be a leader” around campus, though with those phrases comes ambiguity. Do students have to join a student organization to be considered involved? Do they need to be the president of that organization to be regarded as a leader?

CfLI, which oversees student organizations and assists students in connecting with opportunities throughout campus, emphasizes that getting involved is a far more encompassing concept.

“I think what (involvement) really means is to intentionally engage in something that you’re drawn to for the purposes of your continued development,” says Mark Kueppers, assistant director of leadership at CfLI. “That’s also a broad phrase, but it’s really about taking advantage of the opportunities that exist so that you can continue to grow into the person you’re hoping to be.”

Under that framework, involvement opportunities are abundant on campus. Students can choose from nearly 1,000 registered student organizations, which cover an impressive spectrum of interests — from religious, activist, professional, and academic groups, to those that teach ukulele or provide high-fives to fellow students to raise their spirits.

Opportunities abound in countless other venues: student government; varsity, club, and intramural sports; student newspapers and radio; study-abroad programs; performing arts in theater and music; Greek life; the LGBT Campus Center and Multicultural Student Center; community service and volunteering; on-campus jobs, internships, and research; and more.

Steven Levitan, who graduated from the UW in 1984 and today produces the Emmy-winning TV show Modern Family, has emphasized these opportunities when looking back at his time at the university. “If I were to give advice to a student going to Wisconsin today,” he says, “I’d say, ‘Never stop looking for opportunities, because in every one of those buildings [on campus], there are cool things going on that you should be taking part in.’”

Nevertheless, when students don’t regard commitments such as internships and research as involvement, they can feel pressure to do more. The key, Kueppers says, is for students to broaden their understanding of involvement.

“Sometimes, I think students may say, ‘I’m not really involved,’ as they walk into their research lab and invest hours as a research assistant,” he says. “Or they may be walking into their student employment opportunity and think, ‘I need to get more involved,’ not recognizing that they are involved.”

The Benefits of Involvement

The payoffs of involvement are as diverse as the opportunities. Gaining experience and skills that are relevant to one’s academic major tops the list, according to a 2012 survey conducted by UW–Madison. Nearly 70 percent of students involved with campus activities said they gained career-related skills while being involved.

Kueppers notes that involvement opportunities can serve as ongoing trials of students’ interests and prospective majors. “There aren’t many better places in life than a college campus to have such a wide breadth of opportunities to tap into to explore what your real interests and passions are,” he says.

Involvement also helps incoming students adapt to college life by making a large campus feel more intimate, forming a sense of community, and building new support systems. “One way you can gain peer support is (through) where you live — your residence halls, your roommates,” Kueppers says. “Another way is meeting up with those people who share a similar passion.”

A majority of students surveyed affirmed other major benefits of getting involved: meeting like-minded peers, as well as those with diverse opinions and life experiences; gaining practical skills, such as communication and teamwork; and boosting self-confidence.

In short, Kueppers says, getting involved “helps you develop into the person you want to be.”

However, successful involvement means balance. A common concern for students, as well as their parents, is becoming too involved and overextending their time. CfLI offers a simple solution: scale up — not back.

“Through the years, we refined our message to incoming students,” Kueppers says. “It’s really about scaling up your involvement as you get more comfortable. There’s no need to fully dive into the deep end. It’s important that students get comfortable with what their academic demands may look like.”

It appears students are getting the message. According to the survey, nine in ten students reported that they were actually more likely to complete their degree because of involvement, and that involvement either improved or didn’t negatively affect their grades.

“Being in multiple events per week has helped with time management and stress management,” one student wrote, “and (has) given me motivation to finish my work on time in order to participate in the multiple activities.”

Student Leadership

Like involvement, leadership takes many forms on campus, and CfLI is spreading awareness that leadership can — and does — occur in any setting.

Leadership is not just about the position you hold,” Kueppers says. “A lot of times people refer to student leaders and that’s basically based on someone’s position or title. We really look at leadership more as the process of engaging in change.”

CfLI views that process of change — the evolution of beliefs, values, and behaviors at personal, group, and societal levels — as a continuous phenomenon, regardless of whether students notice it.

“Students can (be leaders) from any place in any position, and they are doing that,” Kueppers says.

Campus involvement opportunities serve as natural hosts to leadership experiences. The Morgridge Center for Public Service — which fosters partnerships between the university and off-campus communities and hosts Badger Volunteers, the largest volunteer program on campus — sees leadership as a fundamental byproduct of its programs.

“Our programs ask students not only to complete a task, but to reflect on the situations they experience,” says Mark Bennett, communications specialist for the center. “We see personal growth in many students once they step off campus and into new communities with new faces, challenges, and opportunities.”

To raise awareness of this everyday leadership, as well as create a consistent definition on campus, a UW coalition recently established the Coordinated Leadership Initiative and developed UW–Madison’s Leadership Framework. The framework combines leadership values (integrity, inclusive engagement, and connection and communities) with related competencies (e.g., self-awareness, honoring context and culture, and moving ideas into action) to create ideal outcomes to which the campus community can aspire.

The core message? All students, staff, and faculty have the capacity to be leaders. Indeed, Baker-Bender, after reflecting on CfLI’s broader definition of leadership, adds, “Yeah, a leader can be anyone who interacts with people.”

—Preston Schmitt

Talking to Your Student About Involvement

It’s important to talk to your student about involvement, which is a crucial part of campus life. Here are some tips about how to get the conversation started from Tracey Pearson, involvement specialist at the UW’s Center for Leadership and Involvement.

Prompt your student to share his or her experience by integrating involvement into your conversation by asking: “How are classes?” “How is work?” “What else are you getting involved with there?”WSUM_radio14_0210

If your student says that he or she isn’t involved:

  • Use previous experiences. For example, if your student was involved in soccer in high school or at a previous institution, ask, “Have you thought about continuing soccer?”
  • Ask about friends: “How is your residence hall floor?” “Is your roommate involved in anything?” “What about other people in your hall or in your classes?”
  • Let your student know about resources. Say, “I know that there are University Housing staff who know about different types of involvement. Check with your house fellows.” Or say, “CfLI (the Center for Leadership & Involvement) is located in the Red Gym. They could help you find something you’re interested in.”
  • Ask your student if he or she knows about the Wisconsin Involvement Network. Say, “There’s a website with all the student organizations that you can search at”

If your student gives you an example of involvement (student organization, internship, research opportunity, recreational sports, etc.), respond by saying:

“That sounds great! Tell me more about that.”

“What made you decide on getting involved with that?”

“Are you enjoying your time?”

You can also ask what steps your student is taking to get involved. Sometimes the hardest part of involvement is taking that first step. Ask, “Did you attend the Student Organization Fair?” “Have you reached out to any student organizations through the WIN website?” “Have you attended any cool kick-off events during the first few weeks? Have you found any on-campus jobs or internships you may be interested in pursuing?”

If your student is feeling overwhelmed with campus life and getting involved, be reassuring. Remind him or her about the great resources across campus and emphasize that it’s never too late to get involved. Lastly, CfLI is available to help at

— Tracey Pearson