How to Create a Popular Student Organization

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Students turn out in big numbers to hear classmates lecture

When describing what makes the academic experience so engaging, students here talk about what happens in the classroom. They’re also quick to add descriptions of what they talk about with friends in their free time.

Bard College at Simon’s Rock students spend much more time preparing for class and working with professors one-on-one outside of class than is typical. But to truly understand how immersive the academic culture is, just take a look at the most popular new student organization on campus.

The Unnamed Student Organization (USO) is a lecture series created by students, for students. Students present topics according to their own interests and expertise. USO was formed over the summer by a group of six students who wanted to create a public forum for the sort of discussions they were having over lunch in the dining hall.

Co-founder and sophomore Charlie Powell explains the impetus for the group: “Everyone on campus has some unique field that they’re extremely knowledgeable about. The student body has so much expertise on a really wide range of subjects. We wanted to capitalize on the passion students have for their various interests.”

Powell describes what emerged from that idea as a “community education project.” What does that look like? A student submits an abstract or outline of a lecture about a favorite subject, and the six students that manage USO add it to the docket, reserve space for the student’s lecture, and publicize it around campus.

Students attend in droves

Since the beginning of the academic year, USO has held a lecture almost every Wednesday night that school has been in session. Talks regularly draw 40 or more students. On a campus of around 400, that’s not just a huge success, it’s an extraordinary demonstration of students' support for each other’s work--and a testament of just how stimulating they find their peers.

Lecture topics are as diverse as the student body itself. A few titles include:

  • “What We Talk About When We Talk About Talk,” by senior Philip Breslow, who studies linguistics and helps manage USO
  • “Living Post-Sudan,” by sophomore Sarah Kamsin, about her experience since fleeing that country as a child
  • “Wind-Up Birds and Dream Tigers: Labyrinths in Literature,” by senior Shanna Gregory

Powell emphasizes that the organization is completely volunteer and that all anyone needs to do to participate is to show up when a topic seems interesting. “It’s given a lot of people an opportunity to learn about really interesting ideas they wouldn’t necessarily encounter in class, and that’s been enlightening for them. It’s also given students who are experts on some obscure and specialized fields an opportunity to express themselves,” he says.

The tone of the lectures is extremely casual (sometimes even raucous), and there’s often a lot of laughter. These students are very good at finding ways to infuse learning into time that’s relaxing and fun. Simon’s Rock has a long history of supporting unique student-founded, student-run organizations. Like USO, many of these groups speak to the sense of purpose with which students at the College approach their time here.

Just as impressive as the phenomenal attendance is the overwhelming initial response to USO. Within a few days of announcing the organization, so many students signed on to lecture that the organizers booked the entire semester’s calendar at once.

Newsroom caught up with Powell after his lecture in October, “A Brief History of Space: Modern Space Policy, Problems, and Predictions.” Click here to view a video of our interview.