While college may primarily be a vehicle to attain to a degree or qualification, most people when they reflect years later will remember much more about the friendships forged and the hours wiled away together than they will about their classes.
It’s a time when young adults are finally permitted to stop dancing to other people’s tunes and find their own way in the world. College life outside the lecture halls – and having fun there – is central to this.
Eimear Rouine, transition to Trinity officer at Trinity College Dublin, says clubs and societies are the best place to start. “As well as activities or club training, they have a lot of other social nights out and meet-ups so they’re a great place to just have fun,” she says.
“Although you’ll make friends in your course, many students really find their tribe in their co-curriculars and form lifelong friendships.
“You’ll meet loads of different people from all walks of life with similar interests to you, have great experiences together and you won’t even notice that you’re also getting all of the other great benefits because you’ll be too busy having a laugh with your mates.”
With upwards of 100 clubs and societies available in many universities, she says it can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning.
“My advice is usually to pick three,” she says. “Something you’re already interested in, something totally new, and if there is a society for your chosen studies you should always join that.
“If you’ve ever fancied trying archery, debating or dancing, college is the time for it. Clubs and societies usually have a small joining fee – less than €10 – so you’ll get the chance to try activities that often come with a high price tag on a student-friendly budget.
“If you have ambitions to change the world, or the world around you, then you should look into getting involved in the Students’ Union, where you’ll learn how to run political campaigns and campaign to better your fellow students’ college experience.”
Rouine says co-curricular activities are really beneficial in lots of different ways, including for mental health, as well as for alleviating stress.
“No matter how good a student you are, there will be times in college when you are stressed as you learn to juggle your responsibilities and your independence and particularly when deadlines and exams are looming,” she continues.
“An hour kicking a ball around with your friends or making music together or volunteering will do more to clear your head and leave you ready to tackle it than spending it slumped over your laptop worrying.”
She adds that it is equally important to look after your physical health and joining a sports club has obvious benefits for that.
“Most sports clubs have a variety of levels from the just-for-fun to the super-elite competitors so pick something that you think you’ll enjoy and spend a couple of hours a week keeping active and having fun with your friends,” she says.
While timetables will vary according to courses and application, Rouine insists that you must make the time for activities like these.
“You might be looking at your schedule thinking you’ll be too busy, but it is important that you try to carve out that time for your hobbies in the same way you carve out the time for you to attend your lectures or study for your exams,” she says.
“Don’t consider it a ‘nice thing to have’, consider it a necessity for a well-rounded life. You are in college to get your degree but you’re also here to develop and grow as adults.
“Getting involved in clubs and societies, particularly if you eventually run for committee positions, will help you learn to manage your time as well as developing skills that will stand to you throughout your life, such as leadership, communication and working with other people.”
University of Galway societies’ officer Riona Hughes says getting involved in extracurricular activities is even more important following the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Societies are the lifeblood of any institution creating communities and help to forge friendships,” she says. “There is such a need for human connection particularly after the pandemic.
“Societies do contribute to their members’ wellbeing but there is still work to be done to recover from the years of isolation, getting used to organising large events, and for a new generation of committee members to build up their knowledge base and to feel confident again.”
She points out that societies are student-led, and based around the members’ interests. This is where you find like-minded people, she adds. The university has 116 societies, of which 17 were formed just this year.
“The winner of our best new society was Granny Soc, for people who love knitting and crafting. It was so popular with 870 members and they held 78 events,” says Hughes.
“The Second Language Acquisition Society’s aim is to support and advocate on behalf of students learning through a second language and to help with the promotion of equality, diversity, and inclusivity within the university.
“Slug Society celebrates the joy of fidget toys. We also have lots of fandoms with Harry Styles and XCX joining our Taylor Swift Society. There is a society for fans of Star Wars and those interested in witchcraft.”
University of Galway surveyed students at the end of last year on what they got out of college clubs and societies.
The top five benefits were communication (90 per cent); teamwork (83 per cent); organisational skills (65 per cent); leadership skills (60 per cent); and time management skills (56 per cent).
“Societies give committee members a sense of belonging, help them to get through difficulties, and in some cases even help them to stay in university,” says Hughes. “Societies also help them find a job and give them great memories.”
Two in three people surveyed said they learned a new skill, while 45 per cent said they made great memories of their time in college. A strong sense of belonging was cited by 49 per cent.
Just under one in five people who identified themselves as a member of a minority group said they found a sense of belonging through societies, while 46 per cent said they believed their time in societies would help their search for a career.
Dr Patrick Ryan, associate vice-president student engagement at University of Limerick (UL), believes college – and time outside the classroom – is a formative place for people in developing their personalities and characters.
“Education is of course one key platform of self-development but it is surrounded by a myriad of possibilities that offer the opportunity for students to be curious about other aspects of what it is that defines who they are,” he explains.
“The best learning – theoretical, practical, social or psychological – happens in the context of curiosity, fun and the chance to engage with like-minded people.
“There is simply nothing like ‘finding your thing’, ‘with your tribe’ and just having fun for the sake of fun or having fun acquiring new skills, and learning about new things.”
Hobbies, interests, the likes of which form the bedrock of clubs and societies in educational institutions, are an absolute essential for the overall development of so many of the more practical skills that are learned in the classroom, according to Ryan.
“Problem-solving, team building, performance management, developing trust in others, generating self-belief, and occasionally winning – all of these enhance learning experiences, broaden what it means to be a student and lay the basis for future success,” he adds.
“Deliberately setting aside time to explore interests and hobbies is as important as attending classes – there is mutual and reciprocal interaction between these activities and both should be supported and encouraged.”
In the capital. Dublin City University Students’ Union president Thomas O’Dowd says the college has clubs and societies that range from Go Karting, to DJ-ing, frisbee, skiing, and Harry Potter.
“Clubs and societies are a way to get involved in activities while in college at a much lower price, as in DCU clubs and societies get subsidies on activities that they run,” he points out.
“Some of the best memories I have made and friends that I have made through my time in university were from clubs and societies and extracurricular activities.
“By engaging with clubs and societies students are able to improve their student experience by partaking in activities other than studying and going to classes.”
Katie Martin, communities’ officer at UL Student Life, believes getting involved in extracurricular activities is “pivotal to enhancing the student experience”.
“UL Wolves is the home of all the student-run clubs and societies at University of Limerick,” she says. “It’s a thriving network of over 80 different clubs and societies with over 6,000 members.
“I am incredibly proud to represent the community that supported my transition through university and provided me with lifelong skills and friendships. I encourage every student to take the leap and give it a go. Find your pack and make your time truly unforgettable.”