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How to create a cross-cutting student organization

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The subject matter of this wiki was gathered and edited by Emmet Dettweiler of the University of Michigan, and Christopher Kuehn of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities after an extensive interview with the University of Maryland's UIF alumni Atin Mittra.


Overview of a cross-cutting student organization

When it comes to spreading the influence of the student I&E mentality, nothing has more power than the well refined mission of a large group of dedicated students. In any system, the actions that that organization follows through with are most often driven by those that it serves. In this case it comes down to the demand of the university's main customers, it's students. Before you can gain the respect of faculty members, professors, and eventually the key figures needed to get the change put in place, you need people behind you supporting your ideas and sugguestions. A 'cross-cutting' student group is the best way to do this. 'Cross-cutting' groups are those that focus on diversity of dicipline amongst their members, and seek to cut down barriers between different areas of study within the university and their respective faculty systems. This wiki provides tips and tricks to better a groups ability to gather the right kind of people and spread the group's I&E influence over the entirety of the university.

Establishing a quality leadership team

The most important element in any startup is it's leadership team, and a student group is no different. The leadership team is the flagship of the operation, and in the early stages, finding the right people may mean success or an early end to your journey. Here are some tips and tricks to make sure that your people are the best people for the job.

Focus on finding people with leadership experience (but be wary)

When choosing who will assist you in the leading of your student group, look for people who already know what it means to have the responsibility of being in charge. All too often student groups fall apart after the first few months because the initial excitement of the startup fade, and the actual work starts. Many people believe that they have leadership skills, but forget that leaders are also some of the biggest doers on the team. When the group jumps from 10 to 50 people, and email-lists need to be managed, meeting places need to be secured, events need to be ran, and faculty/community relationships need to be attended to, un-experienced leaders might break under the pressure or think that their job is done. During any interview with a prospective leadership team member, focus on their previous leadership experiences. Ask what difficulties they experienced and how they overcame them. Did they have a mission that they were trying to complete? Competition they were looking to sweep? How did they manage their team? How did they overcome adversity? Although there are some inherintly talented leaders out there, they are few and far between.

However, you need to be careful. Someone that can be commonly seen in the student body is the 'resume builder.' These are the students who see leadership positions as little more than an opportunity to utilize the name of the group to invest in their future. Their past is filled with leadership experiences, but none of them probably lasted more than a semester. They are always looking for something new and exciting, but when it comes down to getting work done in the long run, they will be off to something new. They may feign interest in your mission to begin with, but somewhere down the line that interest will fade and they will walk away. When interviewing a potential leader, go in-depth about their experiences. Look for leadership opportunities that proved difficult over a long period of time. An experience that lasted over a year but was a failure can be much more valuable than that that lasted only a month or two but was a great success.

Although running into resume builders can be a discouraging experience, Atin Mitra provided an important insight on the matter. In his experience, although some resume builders do wind up leaving after a short while and moving on to newer things, others wind up staying after finding a passion in the group at hand. Perhaps a resume building student is simply looking for the best fit for him/her, and when it comes to student innovation, that's about as new and exciting as things get.

Make sure they align with your mission

The most important thing to look for in a leadership core team, and most often the most difficult thing to find is other students who align with your student group's initial mission. It takes more than just being interested in university innovation to want to expand an I&E student group, it takes passion and drive steming from past experiences, and future ambitions. You shouldn't have to teach them about everything your institution has to offer, they should already know many of the things that you are looking to work on. If they teach you something that you didn't know about your school's student I&E system, they might just be a good match for your team. This is a struggle for all leadership teams starting out. Members need to be ready to stick around for the long run, and if they are not passionate about the subject matter at hand, the chances of them doing that might just be very small. Spend a considerable ammount of time making sure that your team is up to these standards. Provide lots of work opportunities for your team early to see who is ready for the responsibility and who might not be able to take the heat.

Finding the right members to move you forward

After a group's leadership team, its members will take it from just a startup to a thriving organization with the ability to influence I&E change all across your institution. Cross-cutting student groups need to focus on finding students with diverse backgrounds and many connections to other students, faculty, and community entities across different diciplines. Here are some techniques to get your student group noticed, and rope in the members to take it to the next level.

The cold-calling method

What many see as the best way to reach students is sometimes the most difficult (and depending on how you do it, embarassing and fun). Simply stepping outside on campus with your leadership team with materials that attract students (free food, shiny objects, or simply a smile and a wave) can get your group noticed better than anything else, but it takes courage and a creative mindset. Many groups fall into the pit of fliers, posters, and telling people what they're all about. I'm sure any student has experienced this, bustling from class to class, trying as hard as you can to cold-shoulder all the fliers and "excuse me's" coming from people on the sidewalk. Instead, focus on asking questions. People inherently love to chat about themselves, and when it comes to student I&E, talking about themselves is exactly what prospective group members need to do.

Atin provided some fantastic insight into this subject. Through his work with University of Maryland's student innovation core 'The Academy,' he learned a lot about what it means to cold-call on campus. He and his colleagues found the most success by putting their efforts into something very out of the ordinary, and allowing people to come to their own conclusions about the group and if they would be a good fit. They did this by dressing up as what they cleverly named 'White-board Walkers' (after the ruthless species the 'White Walkers' from the popular HBO series Game of Thrones)They would travel from corner to corner on campus, donning white-board material from head to toe, and asked people what they were passionate about. People would respond with anything from 'human trafficking' to 'the implications of Rennaisance art in modern society,' and write it on the white-board clothing. Atin and his team would then begin to talk to them about how they hope to make changes in that field, and see what sort of burning ideas they might have. Eventually the passerby may come to realize that their passion fits right in with any other when it comes to need for innovation, and they would ask for more information on The Academy and how it worked. 

Events and group fairs: creativity is king

Student group fairs are one of the best ways to start getting the word out for your group, and start getting members in for your general meetings. The problem is, everyone is doing them. Twice a year at the University of Minnesota, the student union building is thronging with student groups and hundreds of students looking to learn a thing or two. Everyone has their poster and materials out, dressed in their best group t-shirt, and spewing information to dozens of students. It's a bit overwhelming, and standing out from the crowd is nearly impossible unless you have your tech group's hovercar on site. You and your leadership team need to figure out how to be unique in a sea of colors and noise. Again, focus on getting your prospective students to chat about what THEY hope to do, not what your group hopes to accomplish first off. Wear something semi-rediculus, have any tangable success stories at the ready, and look cohesive and excited to be there as a team.

When it comes to hosting networking or social events to try and attract members, there has to be something to draw the crowd. Have the meeting in a central location at a time when most people would be able to attend. Have at the least some food, but get creative. Your event doesn't even have to have anything to do with your group's mission, because sometimes the best informational meetings aren't even informational at all. For example, have a game of pickup soccer or ultimate frisbee in the park, and encourage people who pass to join in. Eventually introduce your group and your group's purpose. By showing how inclusive and cohesive your group is, students will be much more interested in joining.

For instance, Atin's group The Academy hosted what they fondly called 'Innovation Fridays,' a creative think tank session that brought the likes of all kinds of inter-diciplinary majors and personalities. They would use their central creative laboratory to house the event, and always provided food or goodies to fuel the minds of the masses.

Creating and solidifying faculty relationships

If the students in your group are the fuel for your mission, the faculty is the engine. They are the people you need to pull together to actual become a change catalyst in your institution. They have the funding, connections, and experience to create change in your members, other faculty within the university, and beyond in the community. To start, focus your attention on a single faculty member that can provide the know-how for your first few months of becoming a student group. Look for a professor that you already have a relationship with, or a faculty member that has assisted with the establishment of student groups before. Also, make sure that they align with the mission of your I&E student group. Perhaps they are a part of an office within the school that has a similar mission, or are a professor that specializes in student entrepreneurship or engourages innovation.

From there you can use the relationships that that faculty member has, and the involvement of your group members to further the cause of your group. Because you have focused your efforts on creating a cross-cutting, diversified student group, connecting and influencing faculty across different institutions or fields of study should be relatively simple. Start with professors and work your way up to deans and department heads.

Focusing on funding

Atin provided some great advice when it comes to funding. He speculated that the money will always come if the students are ready for it. If you are unable to obtain adequite funding from the current resources and relationships that you have, maybe you aren't ready for that ammount of funding. Focus on spreading your network of faculty and students. Break down barriers, and bring people together. If you just do that, the money will come.

Use 'Innovation,' not 'Entrepreneurship'

When approaching anyone with the concept of I&E right out of the gate, use the concept of innovation rather than entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship lends itself mainly to students in business or engineering curricula, where as the idea of innovation can be more easily explored by students in all fields of study. In order to attract students from a variety of disciplines, it is vital to stress the idea of innovation rather than entrepreneurship. When someone thinks of an “entrepreneur”, they think of technological advances or big business ventures. Innovation can take place with any idea, large or small, in any discipline. For example, a student in the arts and humanities college may not think of themselves of having an “entrepreneurial” spirit, but when asked to simply come up with some innovation, will be able to find something of interest to them to focus on. Above all, make sure that all efforts to innovate are met with positive reinforcement. We need more people like you out there