Across Canada, on every university campus, youth get together to learn, debate, fundraise, support one another, provide social services to the surrounding community, and much more. Whether you call them clubs, societies, groups, or something else, it amounts to the same thing. They are as diverse as Canadian civil society, but they are all examples of our youth taking leadership roles, building community, and developing skills that will be vital for Canada’s prosperity.

Campus clubs are an underappreciated resource that all levels of government could better support and learn from to advance youth and civil society policy goals, both on and off campus.

According to my research, in 2013-14, there were 7,488 clubs on English-speaking campuses across Canada, engaged in educational, cultural, political, spiritual, and philanthropic work. The few academic studies I could find, all from abroad, suggest that participation in campus clubs is correlated with increased “critical thinking” “personal development” and “academic and affective growth.” Campus clubs also have the effect of increasing cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions, thereby increasing participants’ knowledge and awareness of diversity and social justice issues.

Campus clubs also have a number of fascinating, unique organizational features. They are fundamentally learning organizations, because they arrange succession almost on an annual basis and because their members, being youth, are relatively inexperienced at running organizations. Additionally, I use the term campus clubs, because they are also unique in their relationship to a highly localized space (the campus) and institution (the university or college).

These benefits can be tapped into, but there does not seem to be any public discussion of the wider impact campus clubs are having or could have, not only on their campuses but also in the broader community. Instead, campus clubs have largely been dealt with through ad hoc relations between student unions and universities. As a result, we are failing to support or learn from the tens of thousands of people, primarily youth, on and off campus, who are involved in campus clubs. Fortunately, there are many things that can be done at every level of government to unlock the true potential of campus clubs.

The federal government has long recognized the importance of attracting and retaining international students for Canada’s future prosperity. Through its International Education Strategy, the government committed to doubling the number of international students admitted to universities in Canada by 2022. But to convert this recruitment into long-term results, international students must be able to integrate and succeed, and campus clubs offer an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction, giving international students a better chance of integrating into Canadian society.

Of the 7,488 campus clubs, 963 (12.9 percent) were cultural (for example, Chinese, Indian or Brazilian). Cultural clubs may be a significant support for international students who risk being isolated and depressed. For international students who are homesick, the clubs provide a community where they can speak their mother tongue or celebrate a cultural festival. These simple but powerful benefits are vital for helping potential future Canadians to succeed academically, establish themselves socially, and develop the kinds of interpersonal networks that are the lifeblood of our interconnected, globalized world.

There are several actions the federal government could take to better support cultural campus clubs. One simple step would be to actively promote our campus club culture in its communications materials. Another, more complicated action the government could take, would be to formally integrate the major cultural clubs into its recruitment and reception of students from priority countries (through advisory panels before and during recruitment trips and diplomatic missions, for example). Most importantly, the government should invest in research to evaluate the impact of club participation on the success of international students.

Campus clubs could also further the the provinces’ educational goals – for example, by ensuring at-risk students graduate. In particular, as I have suggested in “The Philanthropist and University Affairs,” campus clubs can help achieve member employment targets by building direct connections between students and nonprofit organizations. Of course, these relationships already exist: many organizations, such as Amnesty International and A Broader View, have on-campus chapters, and I can think of a handful of friends who used to be members of such clubs are now working full time for the organizations concerned.

As I argue in “The Philanthropist,” campus clubs are particularly good recruitment and training vehicles for youth, because they offer flexibility, leadership opportunities, and a sense of ownership that they would likely not be trusted with as volunteers or junior employees.

There is much experience already out there on how to build these relationships with the private and nonprofit sectors. Provincial governments can act as catalysts for the sharing of best practices on starting, maintaining, supporting, and taking advantage of campus clubs. This could be done through conferences, working groups, consultations or online forums. Some volunteer centres are already actively engaging with clubs (for example, Volunteer Lethbridge). This work should be built upon.

With a bit of funding and space, campus clubs can generate a flurry of civic activity. Small communities that don’t have a university or college campus might look to this model to engage not only youth, but also the adult population. Indeed, the federal government’s investment of $318.2 million over the next two years in the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund and regional development agencies offers municipalities a fantastic opportunity to build or expand common spaces like community centres or clubhouses, which could be the bedrock of a ground-breaking community club model.

All this being said, some campus clubs have frustrating features – little oversight, high turnover, and a learn-as-you go culture. Still, the unique phenomenon that is the campus club is worth a serious look by any educational or social policy-maker looking for innovative solutions to a range of problems. Youth have already done a great deal of work. What governments must do now is to take a step back and think about how to make the most of campus clubs.

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This article is part of the Public Policy and Young Canadians special feature.


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Benjamin Miller
Benjamin Miller is a law and public policy student at the University of Toronto. He did his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political theory at the University of Ottawa. His work focuses on nonprofit sector capacity. He has hosted a policy news radio show on CHUO 89.1FM, is a director at the Fulcrum Publishing Society, and he co-founded and helped to lead many campus clubs.

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