What about the campus?

With the online community growing ever larger in education, what does this mean for campus life?

Tue, Feb 18, 2014, 02:00

The added dimension that campus life brings to a college education has long been acknowledged. It’s a rite of passage, a chance to try out all sorts of things in the safe environment of college before you have to do them for real in the outside world. How many actors found their true calling in dramsoc? How many politicians whet their wits in student unions? How many journalists began their careers in college newspapers rather than journalism degrees?

All sorts of people find their calling through college clubs, societies and connections. Campus life can be as important as what you study.

Of course, it’s not all about finding what you’re meant to do. There is a thrill in being a student and hurling yourself at as many experiences as possible, just for the hell of it. And no matter what your intentions, all the different things you try add value to the traditional degree. The debater has excellent presentation and speaking skills, the hockey player demonstrates tenacity and team work, the committee member of the student branch of Amnesty International has great organisational skills and a social conscience to boot. The idea that students get involved in campus life for the sake of their CVs isn’t particularly appealing, but whether it’s intentional or not, the CV benefits.

“You can’t go into it thinking like that though,” says Dónal McKeating, a second-year maths student and chair of TCD’s central societies committee. “You’d never last in any society if you’re doing it for your CV. You have to love it.”

Nonetheless, intentional or otherwise, what you do outside of your studies can add value to your degree. But what about students who are not on campus? So many students now, particularly adult learners, get their qualifications online or through blended degrees. Are they going to miss out? Sure, they’ll get the education, but what about all the other elements that more traditional students stand to gain?

Granted, a 35 year-old mother of three may not have the urge to join the juggling society just for kicks. Indeed she probably did all that if she already has a degree. She has no desire or need for the rite of passage that campus life provides to so many. But will she miss out on the added richness that campus life gives to traditional students?

The challenge, according to UCC’s head of student experience, Dr Ian Pickup, is to try and harness student experiences even when they take place outside of the university.

“With the increased diversity of the student population, there’s an increased breadth of student experiences,” he says. “There will be some students who have the traditional experience with societies and so-on but there is a significant number of students who still have meaningful experiences, it just may not be under the umbrella of UCC.”

In cases such as these, Pickup believes it’s important for universities to help students recognise and articulate the value of these activities for employers. An adult learner with family and work commitments will possibly neither want nor need the traditional experience of being a member of a college society. However, the level of organisation and commitment required to be a student, given their already full lives, is something they must not overlook when putting information together for prospective employers.

The key, according to Pickup, is for colleges to recognise the value of student experiences. That way students gain not only a degree, but they also recognise they have gained skills that enhance their employability.

Social media
Campus life for many is hugely formative and will continue to be so, especially for school leavers studying for undergraduate degrees. For this group in particular, the campus is where they make their first real forays into independent adulthood. But in this era of social media and increased blended learning, where students are spending more and more time in a virtual reality, is campus life suffering?

Not at all, according to Lorraine McIlrath, co-ordinator of the community knowledge initiative (CKI) at NUI Galway. The CKI, among other things, encourages students to engage with the local community. Thousands of students have been involved in voluntary and community work since its inception.

“Young people come in for a lot of bad press,” says McIlrath. “But in my experience the sense of social justice and civic duty is as strong as it ever was. We just facilitate something that is quite a natural instinct for these young people. It’s like pushing an open door.”

McIlrath believes some of the cultural changes that have taken place in the age of social media have led to unfair charges that young people are disengaged from the world around them.

“We forget that there are means of protest other than being out demonstrating on the streets. Students sign online petitions and get involved in online campaigns as well as the more traditional forms of protest and engagement. Social media is changing the face of engagement but it’s not changing the fact that students are as engaged as ever.”

McKeating agrees. “Social media is a communication platform,” he says. “I don’t think the fact that it’s online affects whether people engage with college life. Societies that have a strong online presence always have a great response when they have balls and events. If anything, I think social media enhances engagement with what’s going on on campus.”

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