From the Executive Director: Telling your story when no one wants to hear it

From the Executive Director: Telling your story when no one wants to hear itMarsha Herman-Betzen2003-11-0157Boardroomfalse

This year I lost 70 pounds. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have struggled with weight issues my entire life. In fact this is the third time I have lost 70 pounds in my adult life, and although I have weighed less, this is the smallest size clothes I have ever worn.

The reaction of friends and colleagues to the whole phenomenon of losing a lot of weight is a fascinating psychological and sociological study. When people ask me how I accomplished this feat, I tell them I had to reduce my calories to a mere 1,200. I talk about how I increased my activity by intense two-hour crack-of-dawn work-out sessions for a total of 12 to 14 hours of exercise a week. I explain how I hired a personal trainer at $25 an hour. By the time I have finished my explanation the individual is long gone. There is no question in my mind that a crowd would form if I could only tell the masses it was easy. I would appear on every talk show and in dozens of magazines if I could explain my weight loss in the way people really want to hear my story. "It was quick and painless," I would say. "I just assumed the position on the couch propped up by various pillows of different sizes, covered myself with a chenille throw, and watched television while devouring homemade macaroni smothered with three kinds of cheese. It was amazing; the weight just disappeared."

The truth of the matter is that what I just accomplished was the hardest thing I have ever done. My progress was slow and my plan was deliberate, costing me both time and money. What made me work tirelessly to achieve my goal was an inherent belief that making this lifestyle change was essential to my physical, mental, and emotional health not only for me but for those who cared about me.

The fact no one really wants to hear my personal story is not dissimilar to our professional dilemma of becoming proficient in telling the college union story. There is no question that it has been and continues to be the most difficult thing we have ever done as a profession. And no one would argue that our progress continues to be slow and emotionally costly. In fact, I am afraid we have let others articulate as well as publish what we have long practiced.

In 1962 a Time magazine article referred to the union as a "huge fun house" (p. 38). That same year Newsweek described the college unions as a "campus pleasure dome, super plush" (p. 104). It is obvious and sad to report that in 2003, our perception problem has not improved. "How Big Is the Atrium in the New Student Center?" by Michael Lewis appeared in the July 11, 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Lewis states that "colleges are scrambling to renovate, expand, or replace aging student unions, with their battered billiard tables and subterranean TV lounges. The student center craze is upon us and even the stormy economy seems unable to slow its eager advance" (p. 137). And in the October 5, 2003 New York Times article "Jacuzzi U.? A Battle of Perks to Lure Students," Greg Winter states: "Whether evident in student unions, recreational centers, or residence halls the competition for students is yielding amenities once unimaginable on college campuses, spurring a national debate over the difference between educational necessity and excess" (p. 1).

How can we expect others to understand that the college union is not just a service center but an educational force that builds community for the university family? How can we expect others to know that students are affected profoundly through involvement in activities if we can't articulate the concept in a more succinct and meaningful way? In the last six months I have received calls from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and The Chronicle of Higher Education in addition to countless local newspapers doing articles on college unions being built in their areas. Each interviewer had a particular spin or angle for their article, mostly focusing on the downturned economy and how state institutions could justify spending millions of dollars to build these state-of-the-art facilities. Each time I tried to live up to my responsibility as the executive director of the Association of College Unions International and educate the interviewer. By invoking a small bit of college union philosophy into the conversation, I had great hope that not only was I providing perspective into the profession that I love and have chosen as my life's work, but that I would be serving a greater good by helping the masses finally see the real value of cocurricular education. Not only was I met with resistance but utter confusion.

Why do we have such difficulty telling our story? Is the profession incapable of speaking in succinct sound bites? Have we developed language to justify our existence in the academic world that doesn't make sense to the outside world? Are we incapable of telling our stories in our adversaries' language? It reminds me of the time my great-uncle and aunt from Argentina came to visit my family in Albuquerque. Uncle Tobias and Aunt Hannah spoke five languages none of which were English. Speaking only English, my family immediately resorted to repeating the same words over and over in a louder and slower voice with the hope of being understood. It proved to be disastrously ineffective.

Academics can explain the concept of student development easily. If you ask professors what they do for a living, they say: "I teach a class." Students go from knowing nothing to gaining knowledge, to becoming proficient in a skill, to obtaining a certain grade point average, to finally getting a degree. Student affairs cannot espouse student development theory with the same amount of succinct clarity or certainty. It is time we stated without hesitation or apology that we are contributing to student learning by teaching leadership skills, creating opportunities to facilitate good citizenship, providing safe environments for the expression of opinions, and teaching diversity in a laboratory setting. In addition, we are facilitating growth through student employment and serving as the community center of the university.

A long-time union director from a major university and large, comprehensive union cornered me at breakfast recently because he wanted to share a story with me that had been told to him by a fellow campus colleague many years ago. He bemoaned to this colleague that the reason he was not able to get his message out or his story told was because of some grand political agenda or his own political shortcomings. The colleague corrected him; "It is not the political environment you can't handle. You conquer the politics of this campus each day of your professional life. The reason you are seeing the deterioration of your position is because the powers that be just don't care. The not caring is far more difficult to deal with than hitting the political brick wall."

I hope I never become that skeptical because I am convinced my colleague's heart is in the same place that mine is; he is just a bit more tired of fighting the fight. I believe administrators and academicians do care because they know being truly educated cannot happen from coursework alone and hours holed up in a library. Even those outside the academic community would admit that the education they received hearing a debate, listening to a speaker, attending a concert, viewing an art exhibit, or witnessing a peaceful assembly protest teaches concepts through experiential learning not possible in the classroom.

We need to quit playing the victim role once and for all. We are being affirmed on our campuses, but just in a different way. Lots of money is being poured into the creation of new facilities because the institution understands there is great value in not only providing for the daily services and amenities needed but for creating a sense of community for the university. In addition there is substantive testimony of the college union and student activities role to recruit and to retain students as evidenced by its inclusion in freshman orientation as well as securing a place on most campus tours.

That said, we need to continue to tell our story by doing much more. We need to persist in finding new ways to become part of the educational mission of the institution. We need to tear down the old barriers and find ways to partner with other departments in student affairs and with the academic side of the house. We need to not just talk to each other but get better at talking with others and sharing our successes with our colleagues and supervisors. We need to constantly rekindle and reinforce our relationship with students who used to be our biggest ally in telling our story. We need to get out of our offices so we can know and be known. We need to do more than manage facilities. We need to volunteer to be on university committees and make ourselves players in the larger campus community. We need to be willing to reach out beyond academia, lose the jargon, and not worry about dumbing down the message. It is a highly noble and reputable profession that teaches leadership skills and good citizenship.

In support of the enormous personal, professional, and institutional commitment required to tell our story, it is time for this association to make as its No. 1 priority the funding of a major research project to quantify the value of education outside of the classroom through college union and student activities involvement and to assess its long-term significance in creating future leadership success. Our work is cut out for us. No one said it was going to be easy. But if we believe the college union idea is an inherent part of the mission of educating students, then we must work deliberately, tirelessly, and together to make sure we create that important and essential opportunity. We must continue to tell the story even if no one wants to hear it.

Where the boys and girls are. (1962, April 9). Newsweek, p. 104.

A more perfect union. (1962, September 21). Time, p. 38.

Lewis, M. J. (2003, October 5). "Forget Classrooms. How big is the atrium in the new student center?" The Chronicle of Higher Education 49(44), p. B7.

Winter, G. (2003, July 11). Jacuzzi U.? A battle of perks to lure students. The New York Times, p.1.

Updated Nov. 9, 2012