Extracurriculars for Future English Students
By Lisa Dickson
As a teacher in an English Department of a small university, I strongly recommend extracurricular activities to my students, especially those activities that bring students together to work collaboratively on projects of all kinds. There are a great many benefits to extracurricular activities: they help integrate students into a support network, either of their peers or with members of the broader community; they build confidence and people skills; they provide much-needed stress-relief; they give students the opportunity to test out and use their learning in a range of contexts beyond the classroom; and they help to build curriculum vitae that in turn will help students in their applications for scholarships, degree programs, and employment. Extracurricular activities are a key element in the development of the "whole learner," someone who is engaged with the world. Even activities that seem far removed from classroom learning are part of the big picture of engagement and participation that can make the undergraduate experience richer and more rewarding, and the students more open and able to contribute to the world around them when they graduate. A dance club or student governing body, a student literary anthology editorial board or a charity fund-raising initiative, intermural basketball or discipline-specific student association--all offer students the opportunity to learn how to set goals, to negotiate with their peers, to solve problems, to work collectively or individually to achieve an end (even if that end is "only" to have fun or to get away from the books to regenerate some brainpower).
An example: Recently, students at UNBC participated in the "Spread the Net" Campaign, raising thousands of dollars to buy mosquito nets to help prevent malaria in Africa. Our small school raised more funds than all other participating universities and won a visit from CBC's Rick Mercer and a feature presentation on "The Rick Mercer Report." The point of this anecdote is not to boost UNBC (although, I have to say: Go UNBC!), but to illustrate the capacity of student will and engagement to bring people together for a cause greater than themselves. The students planned and executed the fund-drive entirely on their own, and the success was entirely theirs. The students who participated in this initiative--and others like it--gained confidence and valuable skills, but more than that, they helped to define and mobilize for themselves and by themselves a supportive community that was there to cheer them on and to contribute where they were needed. The great celebration on the day of Rick Mercer's visit was a tribute to the power of student community.
Learning is an active pursuit. Extracurricular activities generate energy, and by their very nature demonstrate the value of participation over isolation.
Being a student is stressful, and students have to juggle many demands on their time and energy. Extracurricular activities can take up a good deal of this time, and can put extra stress on the academic aspect of a student's life. But carefully selected activities built into a student's schedule in a reasonable way can relieve stress and enhance academic performance. Regularly scheduled activities are easiest to build into a busy week and can help students to manage their time. Even solitary extracurricular activities--drawing, reading for fun, practicing a musical instrument, writing a blog--can be worked into and protected by a schedule. If students think of their extracurricular activities as not so much "extra" but rather as part of an overall program of wellness, they can integrate them more easily.
So, I would ask students to think about what they want to get out of an activity, what it will contribute to their overall well-being. We all have different needs and priorities. Do you want to get fit? To make social connections? To get experience in your chosen field? To connect with the business or creative communities beyond the classroom? To test out your leadership skills? To learn a new skill? To do something so radically different from your classroom experience that it's like a mini-vacation? If you can answer that question you will be on the way to picking an extracurricular activity that will complement your academic pursuits. That said, don't be afraid to experiment with a range of activities. You never know what surprises might be waiting for you in the math peer-support room or the Bollywood dance club.
Lisa Dickson, English Program, University of Northern British Columbia, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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