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10 Benefits of Extracurricular Activities in College

Learning outside the classroom.

Key points

  • Extracurricular activities provide students opportunities to step out of their comfort zone.
  • Involvement provides the chance to hone emotional intelligence and a greater understanding of group dynamics.
  • The growth opportunities that come from campus and community involvement serve students well for the future.

A few nights ago, I was texting with a fabulous former student-turned-friend named Bella, and as conversations with her have always gotten me thinking, this one was no different. She let me know that earlier in the evening she had attended a very tense meeting for an organization she’s part of; Bella is now a college sophomore but before gaining admission to her current university, she participated in dual enrollment at age 16 and was in my Introduction to Sociology class at the university where I teach.

Jason Goodman/Unsplash
Jason Goodman/Unsplash

Even then, it was plainly obvious to me that this was a student who would get to college and hit the ground running and would know to get involved in as much as she could outside of the classroom to continue to stretch herself as a leader. Growing up near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina as a mixed-race girl who identifies as Black, Bella was no stranger to issues of inequality and social justice and even in the tender ages before entering my class, she joined forces with others in the community here agitating for change to the word, “plantation” that is attached to far too many residential neighborhoods near where we live. So it’s no surprise that as a college student, Bella is concerned with issues of gentrification. I watch her as these interests intersect with her passion about the well-being of youth, especially ones labeled and stigmatized in the juvenile justice system, environmental racism, access to educational opportunities, poverty, and crime.

When Bella shared with me how stressful it was to endure the recent meeting of this student organization, I remarked to her how experiences like this will serve her well in college and far beyond. As a professor for nearly three decades, I can say with great certainty that so much learning happens outside of the classroom, in moments with friends, at campus events, in intimate relationships, and in clubs and student organizations.

This got me thinking about the myriad opportunities that exist when students new to campus begin to get involved in clubs and organizations. The benefits are as follows:

1. Getting involved counters feelings of loneliness and boredom or the experience of feeling lost that students complain about, especially in their first semester.

2. Exposure to difficult meetings like what Bella experienced gives students the chance to navigate challenging conversations about sensitive topics. Bella and I talked about how she might follow up privately with the leader who may have felt ganged up on and defensive in that meeting. It was clear to me how much she was seeing things from so many different angles and wanted to approach it all with compassion and care. The complicated interpersonal dynamics that often arise in student organizations serve as foreshadowing and great practice for what that is like to deal with in future work settings.

3. One way to meet people who share your interests is to join something that provides this literal and figurative meeting ground. For example, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I joined an art organization and we selected and curated exhibits and sponsored A Day Without Art to create awareness on World AIDS Day. I met other students who cared deeply about art-making, and it was a formative experience.

4. Joining clubs and organizations simultaneously provides a chance to meet like-minded people who might share your worldview and your values, and at the same time are also likely to still be quite different from you, in turn opening you up to new ways of seeing things.

5. Participating in groups like these adds shape, meaning, and purpose to your day, week, and semester. The result is a richer, deeper, and more meaningful college experience.

6. Getting involved in something with which you know very little but have some curiosity can be a great way to stretch yourself and expose you to new ideas and vantage points. This strengthens your muscles for risk-taking that are important for real growth.

7. These groups are typically populated by students of all years in college, which then provides students with the chance to become peer mentors.

8. Clubs and organizations provide students with fertile ground to practice new skills. So often, I hear students say that they never saw themselves as leaders until such an experience. Other times, students tell me that they learned more about time management, collaboration, and stress management through participating in these activities.

9. Connecting with others in these contexts provides you with a chance to discover new things about yourself. This gives you the space to reflect on your strengths, limitations, needs, dreams, hopes, and fears.

10. Sharpening emotional intelligence and cultivating possibilities for connection and joy are inherent in extracurricular involvement. Having the experiences that come from being actively involved in clubs and organizations uniquely positions students for networking possibilities as they seek future internships and jobs.

More from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
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