Craig Berger is Coordinator of Student Life for Campus and Civic Engagement.
From the day I became the staff advisor to UMBC’s Student Government Association (SGA) last October, I often have experienced moments that clarify for me how fortunate I am to be working at this institution and with these students. One of these moments occurred a few weeks ago in the mountains of Frederick, at SGA’s annual retreat.
During the retreat, facilitated by students, the 50 participants learned about themselves and the organization, and considered strategies for applying our passions, talents, and skills to engage others in co-creating campus life. On the first day, we explored our own lives for “crucible moments”—instances of great significance and deep learning in our pasts that inform who we are and what we do today. The group spent the majority of the following day becoming familiar with SGA history, structure and people, its philosophy, and its approach to taking action. As the retreat came to a close, members tapped their collective histories and new knowledge as they identified community problems and conceived focused, ambitious and collaborative initiatives to solve them.
My “clarifying moment” occurred near the end of this process, on the last evening. Sitting in a large circle, on a hard gym floor underneath a colorful parachute, I heard one student’s voice after another fill the empty space inside the circle, offering their takeaways from the past 30 hours. One student offered a particularly powerful observation: In SGA, “we learn to make a difference by making a difference,” the student explained, noting that as a new member she enjoyed the hands-on nature of the organization.
While the brevity and directness of the statement initially caught my attention, I eventually recognized how effectively it crystallized the message of the retreat, the philosophy of the SGA, and the spirit of BreakingGround. The students participating in the retreat did not attend a pre-fabricated, scripted training program; instead, a committee of ten SGA members co-constructed the experience, grounding it in the needs and culture of the organization and leaving plenty of room for spontaneous contributions from the participants. In accepting the role of campus change agent, SGA members transcend traditional student/authority divides and, instead, serve as partners with faculty members and staff members to strengthen the university.
As SGA continues to engage in cutting-edge work at UMBC, I am grateful to serve as its advisor and coach, working with students to highlight the multitude of opportunities to learn while making a difference.
Contact the author, Craig Berger, at email@example.com.