Your program is only as strong as your student leaders. Below, please find some advice about how to recruit and train a diverse team of students for your programs on purpose and values.
Be conscious of your image, branding and on-line presence
Let’s face it… trying to recruit students to lead a program that focuses on purpose and values is a pretty tough task. Compared to the variety of activities that also compete for their limited time, a program on purpose and values may sound bland, old-fashioned or unengaging. For this reason it is important to think about your program brand. A creative name, contemporary logo or engaging website can make all the difference. Video testimonials from former leaders, witty advertising, and photos of students having fun can disarm the skeptics. Be mindful of the words you use to name and explain your program. The word “retreat” might be a loaded word for some students…. using words like “weekend”, “summit” or “experience” might come off as more welcoming to certain populations.
Solicit recommendations/nominations from faculty and staff
Students are often flattered when they realize that a faculty or staff member thinks enough of them to recommend them to lead a program. It is often the encouragement they need to take a risk and apply. We recommend sending a personalized email that includes the name of the person who nominated the student.
Many programs ask students to fill out an evaluation at the end of their experience. This is also a great time to solicit names of other students who might be a good fit to lead the program. Since the number one influence on a college student is another college student, asking students to recommend their friends is a great way to reach an audience that you might otherwise miss.
Create a Program Council
Many students are searching for ways to stay involved with your program after the initial experience. Creating a small advisory council is a great way to build a core of support from students. These 10-12 students can assist in program logistics, recruiting, advertising, and provide important perspective of how to keep your program contemporary.
Info-sessions can help spread the word
Hold and advertise information sessions that explain the program and the role as leader. Visit residence hall floors, ask faculty to make an announcement at the end of their class, or camp out in a public space to hand out quarter sheets and sell your program.
Regardless how desperate you might be to get students to lead your program, you should always maintain a recruitment process that projects selectivity. Having a mandatory application and interview for all applicants will ensure that students take the responsibility of leading seriously. Knowing that the process is somewhat selective will be an indicator that the program is quality and worth their investment of time. Programs that accept all applicants with little selectivity appear weak.
The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule of student leader training is to always remind the student leaders that they are putting on a program…. not going on a program. Many student leaders started out as participants in the program which they are now leading. As a result, they may naturally associate the program to be an opportunity for them to re-live their participant experience. Leading is not participating part two.
It’s Not About You!
Part of the training process for student leaders should include conversations that define the role of student leader. In this conversation, it is important to underscore the importance of servant-leadership. Sometimes student leaders may be unaware that they have transformed their role as leader into a mechanism for them to feed their ego. Leaders should not view themselves as special or superior to participants, indeed, they should approach the role with humility and recognize the special opportunity they have to serve others.
Leader team bonding is important, but keep it balanced during the program.
The more comfortable student leaders feel with one another, the more invested and effective they will be as leaders. Spend the time and resources to ensure the team gets to know one another in a personable and meaningful way. Be sure to remind the leader team that while it is great that they might have grown close through the training phase of the program, it is important for them to avoid sharing in-side jokes or coming off as “cliquey” during the program. While they might be friends and feel close, the participants will likely feel awkward at first. If the leaders appear to be too chummy, it sets up a dynamic that could be problematic for the group. This can be avoided by asking the team to not congregate together at meals, avoid exclusive conversations, and make sure they keep the participants at the center of their attention. They will have time to celebrate their experience together at another time.
Small Group Facilitation
Any good leader training will include a session on how to facilitate a small group. Even the most skilled student leader can find the natural silence that occurs in small group discussion intimidating. A training that builds on facilitation skills, managing different types of personalities and the importance of asking good questions can make all the difference.
Train them in the Why as well as the How
It is important for student leaders to know the history and theoretical underpinnings of the program. How did the program begin? What offices support and fund the initiative? Why is a program on purpose and values a priority to the University? Training them in why you offer this experience is just as important as training them in how to execute the program.
The Value and Importance of Student Talks
Many programs that focus on purpose and values ask student leaders to share stories and experiences from their own life to complement the themes of the program. Often, these talks are evaluated as the most valuable part of the program. Talk construction and coaching are phases of the leadership process that require significant investments of time. The leader and the talk coach should schedule at least three sessions in which they can discuss, edit, and rehearse the student talk in order to ensure that it is concise, engaging, and well-constructed. Sometimes student leaders overshare or focus on themes that might not be appropriate for the program setting. An underprepared talk may possess helpful themes, but the experience of “winging it” often results in a student feeling embarrassed or disappointed.