Friday, January 20, 2012

Small programs with big impacts

Yesterday morning I attended a monthly meeting that, typically, is painfully boring and disengaging (part of that may be my fault and the attitude I bring with me to the meeting).  To avoid becoming completely cynical and disengaged, I have committed myself to approaching the first 15 minutes as a "probationary period" of sorts where I genuinely try to listen and give the meeting a fair shot.  Yesterday, after an uninspiring presentation from a representative from financial services and figuring that the next item on the agenda wasn't likely to peak my interest much, I was settling into the article I brought to read.  I knew that BYU has a Women's Services office on campus, but never really understood what they did or how they did it (which, I'm now quite embarrassed about).  The next 20 minutes of the meeting were eye opening for me.

BYU Women's Services and Resources is a small program within the Dean of Student's Office on campus.  They have one full-time employee, a small office in the Student Center, and (I'm guessing) not much of a budget.  In many ways, it is the kind of place that is easy to overlook and which would be an easy target when budgets are being tightened.  To be honest, if it weren't associated with a fairly politicized issue (the experience of women on campus), I'm not sure that it would survive on a campus as big as BYU.

Despite all of that, LaNae Valentine and her team of undergraduate students and graduate interns, are doing more good on our campus than many realize.  They offer a wide range of ongoing programming and special events for women on campus; however, to their credit their larger interest is in providing good educational resources and experiences than they are with putting on events (that isn't always true of student life areas on campuses).  Consequently, their programming is closely aligned with their mission.  The combination of their large target population and diverse, yet focused programming means they reach a fair amount of people.  What's more they are positioned to make a tremendous difference in the experience for a relatively small number of students (although not as small a number of students as their budget, square footage, and one line on the campus directory would lead many to believe) who are often in desperate need of the support provided through the center.

This is an interesting phenomenon on campuses where big, expensive programs get a lot of attention.  And, we like to believe that these programs, centers, and initiatives are what make the biggest difference for students (after all, if they didn't, why would we spend so much money on them?).  Although their size, resources, and very broad missions (broad sometimes means ambiguous and unarticulated) make them highly visible and allow them to "touch" a large number of students, these same characteristics may simultaneously keep them from engaging with students in deeper and more personal ways--the ways in which Women's Services and Resources and other units can.

I'm not calling for the dissolution of SGA's, large student service organizations, or other "big" programs.  But, just hoping that more people on college campuses will discover, appreciate, and advocate for the small programs that offer a very different, more personal, and often impactful experience for particular segments of the student population.  They don't cost much money, don't need much office space, and are usually quite self-sustaining (if they aren't, they don't survive); however, they touch student's lives and bring a much-needed diversity to our campuses.

A closing word of caution for these programs.  Often the success of places like Women's Services comes about largely through the efforts of a single charismatic and tireless leader (this is almost surely the case for Women's Services).  In fact, I don't know how else small and resource-starved programs ever survive.  The problem is that when there is only one leader, who almost single-handedly keeps the place afloat, long-term survival becomes questionable.  What happens when that dynamo leaves?  It's important that those who care about these small programs (especially the heroes I've described above) be strategic about looking for, mentoring, and grooming someone to take over, otherwise the impact of these programs will only last as long as the career of their champions.




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