We often take our student-run Rensselaer Union for granted. We see a streamlined system with over 180 clubs and endless activities, all dynamically changing and catering to the needs of our classmates, and know that the system will work without blinking an eye. For most of us, this Union is all we know, and sometimes that leads to a lack of appreciation for what we have. This past weekend’s Association of College Unions-International Region 2 conference in Rochester was a real eye-opener for me.
Over the course of the event, I had the opportunity to tour four college union facilities and interact with students and professional staff from many regional institutes of higher education who work to program student events for their campuses. Every time I explained RPI’s Union structure, people were surprised, impressed, and even envious of its power and flexibility.
At the vast majority of colleges, programming and organization is overseen by professional staff, sometimes assisted by graduate students studying to be administrative professionals in the future. Requests for money are all piped through Union and college administration, and the activity fees for those schools are handled and distributed by these staff people.
We do everything completely backwards. Here in Troy, the students determine and distribute the activity fee. If you have a problem and bring it to the staff, you will be quickly routed to student leadership, rather than a higher level of some professional administrative structure. The Rensselaer Union is an entity which stands on its own, largely detached from the Dean of Students Office, First-Year Experience, Residence Life, or any other part of the Department of Student Life. This autonomy and organizational structure is a great opportunity for activity and for leadership.
Three years ago, the Rochester Institute of Technology began a yearly festival called Imagine RIT, which has been hugely successful. The organizer held a workshop this weekend, and he shared with us that one of the keys to the success of the festival was participation, and thus investment from students, faculty, and staff. When programs are run by students, those individuals have an investment in the activity, and investment leads to self-marketing and participation. It’s a secret we have known and been using here at RPI for over a hundred years.
At this weekend’s Leadership Clambake, held in a newly renovated Dutch barn from the 1700s, President Shirley Ann Jackson spoke about the importance of history as a guide for the future. The Union grew out of student leadership; students coming together to serve their own needs and desires when there was no external support. We have carried on this system and it has proven to be both unique and successful. I would suggest that the best way to remember our predecessors is to be active, participatory leaders both in our Union and in the world we live in.