APU Online Learning Original

How Student Organizations Aid University Students (Part 2)

Note This article is part 2 of a two-part series about the value and impact of student organizations for students enrolled in online universities.

The COVID-19 era proved that it was possible for people to remain in regular contact with each other and maintain productivity. In student organizations, both students and faculty members have benefited from technological advances and thrived as a result.

Student Organizations Enrich the Student Learning Environment

Some online students have a strict view of higher education as a means to achieve their individual professional goals. They argue that they have little time for student organizations or interacting with their peers, viewing these activities as a waste of time. These students also say that involvement in student organizations takes time away from doing what is important, like completing assignments and studying.

While this perspective is widespread and understandable – given the limited time online students have as they juggle responsibilities including family, work, and coursework – this perspective overlooks a vital fact. Student success in higher education requires building relationships with peers and learning from other students. 

Other critics of student organizations have focused on in-class learning, arguing that extracurricular activities divert from the learning experience. But this perspective may deprive students at online universities – who are sometimes from underserved communities and non-traditional backgrounds – of the valuable experiences available to their peers at brick-and-mortar universities.

While I am an idealist, I believe that every opportunity available to brick-and-mortar students should be available to my students. They deserve the same opportunities as their peers at other universities. Moreover, my interactions with students in student organizations have provided me with insights that have made me a better professor.

Before embarking on a career as an educator, I obtained several degrees as a student at online universities, including one at our University. I intended to teach and develop programs marketed to law students, tapping into the then-existing market for distance education among international students.

As a result, I gained much insight into the student perspective in regard to online education. That new perspective has enriched my understanding of teaching and learning.

The most important lesson I learned as an online student is that attending a university built for online learning requires much self-motivation. It can also feel isolating if a student does not take advantage of the available opportunities to meet and network with other people.

Fortunately, students at our University have access to a lengthy list of student-led groups and organizations. These student organizations reflect our students’ varied interests.

By joining a group associated with their professional or personal interests, our students can network with other students, alumni, University staff, and faculty members who share the same interests and backgrounds. They can also gain professional insights from various people.

Related: How to Become More Productive as a College Student

Student Organization Options Available to Online Students

My involvement in student-led groups gave me deeper insight into how online universities can provide students with richer educational experiences. Many of our students have a non-traditional background and may not have participated in extracurricular activities in the past. Beside enriching students’ knowledge, student organizations also offer leadership opportunities.

Over 10 years ago, for example, I helped a group of ambitious students interested in attending law school to charter a chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, a pre-law fraternity. This project was only possible with the hard work and effort of a decade of student leaders.

Over the years, the chapter has provided students from different majors within the university with the opportunity to discuss issues related to law school in an informal setting. Several of those students from Phi Alpha Delta have gone on to attend law school. In fact, I am proud to report that some of my students are now practicing lawyers.

This chapter of Phi Alpha Delta empowered students from multiple backgrounds to assume leadership responsibilities and interact with their peers in a way that enriched their learning experience. Those students learned how to secure outside speakers and ask those speakers insightful questions. Also, students in Phi Alpha Delta received advice about the law school application process and the types of skills that law schools look for in their applicants.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of students in Phi Alpha Delta. The skills and knowledge those online students acquired helped them to achieve their life goals, including attending law school.

A few students even decided that the law was not for them after they learned more about the profession. As a result, they avoided a potentially wrong career choice.

Student Organizations and the Hybrid Future of Education

Similarly, student organizations like the Model United Nations Club demonstrate how technology can provide students with the tools to train for in-person events or participate in virtual conferences. Over the past few years, Model UN Club members from our school have used videoconferencing to train for in-person events like the National Model United Nations conference.

During COVID-19, Model United Nations Club members competed in virtual competitions. These club members have represented various countries and pitted themselves against their peers from schools around the world.

When given the opportunity, members of our online student organizations have proven they can compete against their brick-and-mortar peers. In fact, they have even earned awards and professional recognition over the years. 

While I have mostly worked with formal student organizations, students can use technology to form their own groups. For example, students can create small groups to facilitate study and research.

Other Uses for Student Organizations

Other student organizations may also use technology for informal debates or bring in external guest speakers to hear different perspectives. For example, students from both Model United Nations and Phi Alpha Delta have experimented with organizing discussions dealing with contemporary topics. Over the years, those experiments enabled them to research, prepare, and compete in a digital learning environment.

Some may argue that I view the world via rose-colored glasses as I tend to emphasize the advantages of student organizations while downplaying their disadvantages. But even obstacles are opportunities for growth. These student organizations have provided students with a forum to express their aspirations as well as their frustrations.

For example, the Model United Nations Club grew as a spin-off of the Phi Alpha Delta chapter, and other initiatives such as opportunities to study abroad or participate in a host of in-person activities grew out of these student groups. The COVID-19 era stalled some of these initiatives, but the digital nature of our online University allowed our students to continue many other projects, such as participating in several virtual events. 

Likewise, student groups provide students with much-needed room to vent. Attending school can be stressful, and students require a safe place to commiserate with their peers about their academic experiences.

Students Gain Conflict Resolution Skills in Student Organizations

Student organizations mirror society, and the members of those student organizations can learn from each other. Social division and controversy have grown over the past decade or two, and student groups are not immune to broader societal trends.

However, participation in student organizations gives students the skills to deal with inevitable conflicts, such as a clash of personalities and differing perspectives that are reflective of a healthy learning environment. If those conflicts are managed professionally and constructively, they are valuable learning opportunities for growth and personal development. 

In our increasingly divided society, some students may need more experience interacting with and working alongside peers from other backgrounds. Student organizations provide a safe forum for these exchanges. Student interactions provide valuable insights into diversity, inclusiveness, and belonging and this knowledge will help students to thrive in a multicultural society.

In other words, student-led organizations allow students to learn how to work with their peers. These interactions provide an opportunity to navigate and deal with conflict respectfully when it does arise and to empathize with people from different backgrounds.

In addition, student organizations provide students with a platform to discuss ideas in an ungraded environment, necessary for intellectual growth and experimentation. Likewise, students can share tips and advice on classes and professors and learn from their professors in a more informal manner.

Student Organizations and Their Impact on Student Retention and Persistence

While I have focused on Phi Alpha Delta and the Model United Nations Club, these student organizations are only two of the many student-led organizations available at the University.

Scholars have debated whether or not student organizations contribute to student retention. While educational scholars need to conduct additional research into whether student-to-student relationships improve student retention and persistence, there are scholarly articles that show that relationships between faculty and students can improve student retention.

For example, a recent article, “Connecting with Students for Success: A Case Study for Retention” describes how relationships between professors and students can improve retention rates. Similarly, research indicates that student engagement, broadly defined, can improve student retention. For example, a recent article discussed how student engagement plays a part in student persistence.

Completing a degree takes time and enrolling in multiple courses simultaneously while balancing work, family, and school requires a high degree of self-motivation. However, student organizations provide students at online universities with the tools to connect with their peers.

These peer-to-peer connections help students build the necessary social network to sustain themselves during a multi-year degree program. Some students at online universities may believe they can complete their academic journey alone.

However, student organizations provide students with access to peers in study groups or with others who can be study buddies. These connections are the key to survival as an online student. 

Related: Student Retention and Persistence Strategies in Higher Ed

Crafting Their Own Learning Experiences and Future

Much technological progress has occurred since I was a college student in the early 1990s. Today’s students can engage in activities I could only imagine nearly 30 years ago.

Current students at online universities can network with their peers worldwide and participate in student organizations that provide them with access to valuable, personalized learning opportunities. These student organizations allow students to supplement their formalized education experience with authentic and varied interactions with their peers, forming the heart of a rich and valuable learning environment.

Students benefit from joining student groups and organizations, and they enjoy opportunities to experiment, limited only by their imaginations.

Future generations of students will bring different interests and needs. These future students and the student organizations they join will use technological tools to pursue their passions and interests in unimaginable ways. By embracing and supporting student organizations, today’s online universities will play an essential part in creating a student-centric, interconnected, and global future of education.

Today’s technology provides students with the tools to build a bright future. So, if you are interested in playing a more active part in creating your own educational experience or in helping students craft their futures, please consider joining one of the student organizations available at our school to create the future.

James Barney 3

Dr. James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies at the School of Security and Global Studies. Dr. Barney has been the recipient of several awards. He teaches undergraduate and graduate law and history courses. In addition to having earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Memphis, Dr. Barney has several master's degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy and a J.D. from New York Law School. Dr. Barney serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and the Model United Nations Club, and he is the pre-law advisor at the University. He is currently writing a book on the politics of New York City during the administration of David Dinkins, New York City's first African American mayor, 1989-1993.

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