Student Orgs: Proceed With Caution
It’s one of the most important tools that public speakers use. Mock Trial, a competitive debate club that simulates civil and criminal trials, relies on the pause in moments of confusion as an opportunity to think, in moments of heightened passion to create drama.
I joined UC Irvine Mock Trial two weeks into my freshman year. At that time the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) ranked UCI as number eight out of 660 teams in the country. After four years in the program, eight competitive awards (two with perfect ranks including one at the first round of Nationals), tournament wins at two of the most prestigious invitational tournaments in the nation, a stint as a closer at the National Championship Tournament, a historic vice-presidency where recruitment numbers grew two-fold, two back to back number one rankings, three months before the end of my presidency and my last year in the program, I quit.
A number of personal reasons played a huge role: I decided against a career in law, I needed to focus on raising my grades and I faced an important crossroads in my life. But a big reason I left the program instead of sticking out three more months is what I call “the problem of student organizations.”
One of my high school friends wrote an article in the Huffington Post where she compared falling in love to running downhill. She said the brakes stop working and you lose control. You don’t stop to think or ask yourself the questions you normally would. You sometimes ignore the red flags and claim “you accept the flaws.” When I joined Mock Trial, I found my family away from home. I derived a large part of my identity from the club. Acquiring public speaking and leadership skills, building my resume, furthering career prospects, making friends and creating memories motivated my decision to join. I took part in a microcosmic community, a simulation of the real world, a training ground in order to prepare for life after college. But constant validation from the community and activity (sometimes tangibly presented in the form of hardware) led to a narrowed perspective. I confused “mock” life with real life. It was like being a prisoner. When I looked at the world through the jail cell, the universe morphed into the cell itself. That’s all I knew.
Out of all of the student organizations I joined, I experienced this the most in Mock Trial. Likely, I noticed it in Mock Trial more because of a longer involvement and greater personal investment.
That said, I am not writing this Op-Ed piece to discourage people from joining Mock Trial or student organizations that don’t go out and make an immediate impact in the world. Instead, I am asking students participating in student organizations to pause; question their own motivations for joining and to constantly re-evaluate the value of these organizations in their own life.
I encourage clubs to pause; remind students that these organizations are not real, that the skills participants learn are useless if they never test them outside these organizations. When politics and ego threaten empathy driven, sincere relationships, students undermine the only real aspect of these organizations.
Mock Trial serves as the perfect example of an organization that possesses the ability to educate and mobilize large groups of intelligent people for worthwhile wcauses, but often finds itself stuck in petty politics and ego battles. In my time in the program, I witnessed ethically questionable and harmful situations ranging from dishonest competitive tactics to sabotage of the club’s democratic process to downright blackmailing and harassment.
Former coaches sent emails maligning particular election candidates without logical reason or hard evidence. Executive board candidates threatened leaving the program unless elected. Team members harassed each other for poor performance at tournaments and for associating with teams from other schools. I saw friendships destroyed over competitive roles. Students were traumatized or bullied because of mistakes in the courtroom, and people ostracized for voicing divergent opinions about how the organization ought to run.
I also saw people stand up for their friends. Leaders sacrificed their own competitive roles for the growth of their team members. Students defended the democratic process, and beautiful friendships and relationships emerged. Mock Trial, just like other student organizations, has a complex ecosystem and neither the problem nor the solution is black and white. The solution to this problem in student organizations is not to shut them all down, to stop joining them or to prosecute them for unethical behavior. The solution is pause.
Why are you part of this organization? What does this community provide you? Do you need this club to define your identity and to validate you? What skills do you learn? How are you applying them? If not now, when do you plan to apply them? Does the negative outweigh the positive? Do you have sincere relationships? Can you trust this community? Does this organization bring out parts of your personality that you like? What does this organization do for real people?
Hold yourself accountable. Talk about your problems. Voice your concerns. Do something: encourage transparency. Start the conversation. Conversations creates an opportunity for honest communication, for members to express their view, make their voices heard. Most importantly, conversation forces us to confront the reality that at some point, we must leave the training ground behind and fight real battles for real people.
Misha Euceph is a soon-to-be graduate, philosophy and literary journalism double major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.