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By David L. Fender, Ed.D., CSP
Promoting student involvement in ASSE is a key Society objective. One way to achieve this is through active student sections. ASSE’s 52 student sections are just like ASSE chapters—they vary in size, activity level and overall success. While there is no magic formula for a high-quality student section, there are ways to improve the chances for success.
Several components are critical to creating an active student section. These include support, organization, volunteers (including officers and advisors) and trust.
Student sections are part of the sponsoring chapter and the university’s academic department. At Murray State University (MSU), the sponsoring chapter is very supportive, as is the department. It is also important to find ways that the department and the section can complement each other. For example, at MSU, the section helps to organize and run the department’s “Welcome Back” picnic. When both groups recognize these potential synergies, everyone is ahead.
Proper organization is also important. This begins with the bylaws. ASSE provides model bylaws for student sections that can be modified to meet individual university requirements and good operating procedures. To ensure that the bylaws are followed as written, they should match what the section actually does. This will ensure that most questions asked about procedures are readily addressed in the bylaws. It also helps to minimize any hard feelings.
A motivated officer team propels the section; this team is the core group that determines what gets done and how well. Although all the members are important, the officers have more personal ownership of the section than do individual members and, consequently, feel a greater obligation to work for the section.
The MSU Student Section has more officer positions than what is recommended in ASSE’s model bylaws. This allows the group to engage more individuals and spread the work among more people. The MSU officer positions are president, executive vice president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and recorder. Although specific duties are established in the bylaws, the essence of these positions is as follows:
the president runs the overall organization;
the two vice presidents assist the president in various tasks;
the secretary distributes meeting notices, sends thank-you letters and documents meeting attendance;
the treasurer collects dues and membership applications, and pays the bills;
the recorder completes the application for ASSE’s Outstanding Student Section Award application.
In my experience, having a strong president and treasurer helps to ensure that the section runs smoothly; therefore, I spend more time with these two individuals than the other officers.
In the MSU Student Section, officers for the academic year that starts in the fall are elected the previous April. While they have no official duties until the new academic year begins, several activities can help keep the section active. For example, I always invite the newly elected president to my house before summer break starts. We spend a few hours discussing the requirements of the position and the coming year. This time together allows us to get to know each other better and helps the incoming officer think about goals for the coming year. In many cases, the incoming president also stays in touch with the other officers during the summer to discuss projects and make plans.
There are various ways to approach being an advisor and the selected approach often depends on the advisor’s personality. Regardless of the approach, the advisor is significant to the success of the section.
Role. The advisor’s role is to provide advice and guidance to help the student members run the section. The advisor should not dictate actions or run the section. That is for the students to do—they just need guidance.
In addition, the advisor monitors section activities and ensures that students do not violate university or ASSE policy. Also, since the students are only involved for a relatively short time, the advisor is the section’s historian. S/he knows what has been done in the past and what has/has not worked. The advisor should also keep important documents and files.
Leadership. Leadership development is another critical aspect of ASSE student sections. A section advisor should model good leadership in all interactions with the students. In addition, the advisor should set high expectations for section officers and make it clear that the success of the section is up to them.
Every meeting or activity is an opportunity for one or more students to lead and to learn. One effective technique is to hold a debriefing with key individuals after every event. Start by asking them how they think the event went—the good and bad. Then, offer your opinion and make appropriate suggestions. These meetings should be informal—perhaps even occurring while walking to the parking lot after the event.
Trust. Developing trust is a key trait of an effective leader. For a student section to operate successfully, the advisor and officers must trust each other. My experience as a section advisor suggests it is best to be as hands-off as possible. Ideally, the advisor would be someone who fields ideas and loosely monitors activities (e.g., observing, asking questions, reminding officers as necessary what needs to be done). In reality, however, the advisor will likely need to strike a balance between being hands-off and hands-on. This will largely depend on the level of trust between the advisor and the section officers. In my experience, it has worked best to monitor activities fairly closely early on, then become more relaxed as the officers learn their roles and trust develops.
Section officers must understand that others are depending on them to properly do their jobs. This means they must acknowledge what they have agreed to do and by when. To promote this, the advisor should model the desired behavior. For example, when it is agreed that the advisor needs to do something, s/he should complete it by the agreed-upon date and communicate to the appropriate officer what was done. This shows that the advisor has the same expectation for him/herself as for them.
One way that people learn is by making mistakes. The student section advisor helps this process by not allowing those mistakes to be so large that they embarrass the university, department or ASSE. This is best achieved by monitoring activities more closely when they take place in the general university community or in public. However, care must be taken to not get so involved that officers begin to depend on the advisor to tell them everything to do or to do everything for the officers.
Section officers must feel comfortable coming to the advisor when a problem arises. This means that the advisor must remain calm when learning of a problem. Otherwise, officers may fear admitting a mistake. So, when a student says, “We have a problem,” the advisor should calmly ask what it is and ask sufficient questions to understand the issue. Then, the advisor should work with the student to devise a solution that the student will be able to implement. Once the situation is resolved, follow up with the student(s) to ensure that they have learned the appropriate lesson.
Teamwork is crucial to section success. At MSU, during the first week of the fall semester, we take 5 to 6 hours to get to know each other and to get organized. We participate in team-building exercises led by a faculty member from another department, share lunch, and talk about the upcoming year and getting organized. The student officers enjoy this activity, it helps all involved become acquainted and it opens up lines of communication.
An open door policy is also important. All section officers—and the president in particular—should know that they can come see the advisor at any time, with any questions or concerns. This helps everyone stay on task and it ensures that issues are addressed as they arise. As MSU section advisor, I communicate with the section president nearly every day, either in-person or through e-mail. This free flow of information ensures that activities proceed smoothly.
The section president also must recognize that s/he—not the advisor—is the leader of the section. These roles must be clearly and repeatedly delineated. The president and advisor work together as a team behind the scenes. During events, the section president is always the lead person, while the advisor stays in the background.
Clear lines of communication help to solidify these roles. For example, if I do something regarding the section, I inform the section president so the president knows what is going on. If I wish to give an officer a specific instruction, it is often best to tell the president, who then passes the message on as his/her own. If I talk directly to another officer, the president should know about the conversation. All of these actions ensure that the section president remains the responsible, in-charge party and that his/her authority is not undercut. As section advisor, I have seen many students who were initially hesitant and unsure of themselves become much more confident and responsible as they grew into their positions.
All section members should be encouraged to share ideas for activities and meetings. In particular, it is important to be respectful and supportive of the president’s position and ideas. In situations where those ideas simply won’t work, the advisor should clearly explain why and suggest next steps.
The sponsoring chapter can be a great resource for the student section. MSU’s sponsoring chapter, the Purchase Area Chapter, has been very helpful over the years. For example, the chapter president usually speaks at a section meeting each year. In addition, the chapter sponsors scholarships for section members, and it sponsors an annual mentor day during which students are paired with chapter members and shadow the professionals for a day to observe them at work.
The chapter also provides financial support for some section activities. For example it covered travel expenses for two section members to attend and present to the Region VII Regional Operating Committee, and the chapter covers some expenses for section members to attend ASSE’s professional development conference. The chapter also considers the student section advisor to be a chapter officer, so it is easy to stay informed regarding chapter activities and plans.
I encourage students to attend chapter meetings when possible. Doing so helps students get a better feel for ASSE as an organization and for the SH&E profession, and chapter members feel more connected to the student section.
It takes a certain amount of money to make things work. The MSU Student Section charges $10 dues each semester ($20 for the year), which, with careful management, provides sufficient funds for the year. For new or struggling sections, conservative spending can help build cash reserves, which can ease financial management in subsequent years.
The section treasurer must understand the importance of good records and careful spending. The advisor should review the books periodically with the treasurer to make sure there are no problems and that records are being maintained correctly. This may include basic checkbook balancing instruction—a valuable life-lesson that the student will learn because of his/her ASSE involvement.
Finding guest speakers can be a challenge. Usually, student sections can’t afford to pay speakers or travel expenses, so speakers must volunteer their time at their own expense.
Most individuals understand this and many arrange to visit the section in conjunction with some other business activity. Society officers and members of the sponsoring chapter are great sources as well. Students can also help find speakers. They can collect business cards from interesting speakers at conferences, or they can ask individuals whom they have met or worked with during internships. The key is to be flexible and willing to adjust meeting dates to meet a speaker’s schedule.
Guest speakers give students the opportunity to learn how to plan for and treat visitors. The section advisor should ensure that the students have properly coordinated the event with the speaker and review what problems may arise and how they should be handled. It is best to let the students do the work and interface with the speaker—including greeting the speaker upon arrival, helping him/her get set up and showing appropriate hospitality. If the speaker is staying overnight, section officers may take the individual out for dinner (with the section paying for the speaker’s meal).
ASSE’s Outstanding Student Section of the Year Award is given to the section that makes the most significant contribution to safety education and research each year.
Winning this annual award lifts student morale and piques their interest. While the scholarship and research funds that come with the award are welcome, winning is about more than money. The MSU Student Section has won this award several times—it is something the section is proud of and wishes to continue pursuing. Being part of something they can be proud of motivates section members to do more each year. Qualifying for this award also means that the section is providing high-quality, useful activities for students and the profession.
A section member should be designated to write the submission. At MSU, the recorder (an officer position) tracks what the section does all year and prepares the submission documents. An active section will have many activities. Designating one responsible person makes it easier to keep track of everything.
The award covers August to May in a given academic year. However, because the petition must be submitted by April 1, most activities must be completed by early March to give them full coverage in the petition. This gives students about 5 months to hold events (less holidays and semester breaks). This is why it is so important to hit the ground running when the fall semester begins.
In my experience, the best way to prepare the award petition is to have the recorder write an initial draft while on winter break. When school resumes in January, the draft is reviewed to determine what information is missing and to identify areas of weakness. These issues are then addressed during the ensuing rounds of drafts created through early March.
Since attention to detail is a key element of successful petition, it is best to have several people proofread the document and suggest changes. In addition to catching errors, reviewers are likely to remember an overlooked activity that should be included. During the second week of March, the document is sent to people who have been asked to write letters of endorsement. Once these are received, the petition, letters and supplemental material are converted to PDF and submitted to ASSE by April 1.
A successful ASSE student section is not one that wins many awards. It is one in which officers learn how to be leaders, that holds good technical meetings, and conducts useful, educational activities. Everyone wants to be part of something good and worthwhile. An effective, active ASSE student section is not only valuable for the Society, but also for academic departments, sponsoring chapters and the individuals involved.