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Monday, May 20, 2024

The club fair: It’s not just for first-years

The fall 2023 Student Involvement Fair was a success. The quad in front of McCullough Student Center buzzed last Wednesday afternoon with club leaders eager to recruit new members and first-years itching to find their extracurricular niches at Middlebury. Some clubs, including Middlebury Ski Patrol, Middlebury Pranksters Ultimate and Riddim World Dance Troupe came prepared with active demonstrations of their clubs’ activities. For some of our Board members who are seniors, this sight was bittersweet. Their first club fair in fall 2020 — when the club fair was split over multiple days and held on Zoom — felt like a far cry from this year.

In the past few semesters, we have borne witness to a revitalization of the typical social life at Middlebury. In last spring’s Zeitgeist survey, 67.6% of respondents said that student organizations were an important part of their social life at Middlebury. But as a place where students try to “do it all,” it can be difficult to strike the right balance between clubs, academics and social life. In these first couple months on campus, we encourage first-years to try anything that sparks their interest and figure out which clubs to commit to down the line. And to upperclassmen: It is never too late to get more involved in extracurriculars that sound interesting, even if it feels weird joining a new club in your final years here. While clubs will naturally look different from year to year as institutional memories change, we are pleased to see the club scene at Middlebury looking vibrant this school year. We hope that this invigorating trend continues with new generations of students at Middlebury. 

The fall 2020 Zoom club fair looked substantially different than last week’s spectacle of free candy, energetic dancing and blasting music. Board members who attended that year recalled joining breakout rooms on Zoom to learn about extracurriculars that, at the time, had no in-person component. Clubs at Middlebury undoubtedly suffered from lower membership and the need to modify activities to be Covid-19-safe during the 2020-2021 academic year. Then, because some of the students who matriculated during the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters did not immediately go out of their way to join clubs, when campus life looked more “back to normal” in fall 2021, student organizations continued to suffer from low membership and less experienced leadership. Some clubs fizzled out altogether during the pandemic, sadly, not yet to be revived — although you’ll find testimonials in these pages this week to the work being done to save these organizations. Younger students, too, whose high school extracurricular experiences were modified by pandemic restrictions may have come to Middlebury feeling detached from their hobbies and less inclined to join clubs relating to their interests at Middlebury.

The plethora of clubs available at Middlebury — from log-rolling and fly-fishing to debate and mock trial — is a point of pride (and advertising) for the college. Because the vast majority of students at Middlebury are not paid for their leadership in clubs, they are involved with these groups simply because they want to be. True, some clubs may look good on a resume or give students experience that translates well to a job after graduation, but many are just for fun. This social atmosphere is a nice change from the way many high school students are involved in clubs just for the sake of getting into college. 

Middlebury’s extracurricular atmosphere is also relatively uncompetitive and accessible — most clubs at Middlebury do not require auditions or applications to become a member. Some other elite colleges and universities, in contrast, have clubs as competitive to get into as the school itself. There are still a number of competitive clubs at Middlebury, such as the Middlebury Consulting Group, which rejects about 80% of its applicants any given year, and the mens’ club soccer team, which had to cut about 50% of students who applied due to high interest and limited spots on the field. While some club sports, theater and musical groups have a natural limit to their membership, we are happy to see how many organizations will welcome as many members as there are students who wish to join.

While there are many students who are involved in seemingly a million clubs at once, there are also students who are not involved in any. In explaining why students choose to be a part of numerous clubs at once, Board members noted that there may be an unhealthy social pressure to “work hard, play hard” at Middlebury, meaning being involved in multiple clubs, doing well in your major(s) while also maintaining a robust social life. The existence of this implicit pressure to be eternally busy is clear in light of how tour guides present college life. Many can truthfully tell prospective students and their families on tours that they’re a double major, dabble in Club Tennis and Club Cycling, are a committed member of the Debate Team, write for the school newspaper and work as a tour guide — all at once. This is certainly the image that Middlebury presents to prospective students, given that their admissions page claims “possibilities for engagement are virtually limitless” at the college. We would argue, however, that the pressure for every student to be committed to so many extracurricular activities regardless of their available time or interests is not only unrealistic, but also unnecessary and likely damaging in the long run. 

Spreading oneself too thin is never a good idea, but being part of a club oftentimes does not need to be a huge time commitment at all. Wherever possible we encourage student organization leaders at Middlebury to remain flexible and welcome whatever level of commitment their members are able to dedicate at that moment. The good news is that many clubs on campus welcome members of varied commitment levels — The Campus always appreciates new writers,  even if they only write once or twice a semester. The Climbing Club also encourages students to come to the wall whenever they want to. 

Middlebury students are unapologetically passionate about the things in which they are interested, and the community is supportive of all sorts of student groups. Student plays, sports games, comedy shows and dance performances generally attract large student turn-outs. Clubs are also an opportunity to do things that you may not have the time, money or supplies to be able to do outside of Middlebury, such as ceramics, fly-fishing or the mountain club. Nothing should hold a student back from joining a club except their personal interest. We strongly encourage the college to continue funding financial aid opportunities that ensure all students have equal access to every opportunity on campus and any equipment needed for such activities. We also believe the college must continue to fund clubs to reach their full potential — if clubs are so vital to our campus community, then they must be supported as such.

Extracurricular involvement should be as integral to the Middlebury experience as you wish to make it — a build-your-own-adventure college experience, if you will. At a small college in a small town, clubs are a way for students to meet people with similar interests, exercise, get off campus, form a connection with the town of Middlebury, and/or continue their passions from high school. And upperclassmen, it is never too late to join new clubs, even if you don’t know anyone. Enrollment in specific clubs and traditions that clubs pass down from year to year will undoubtedly change as institutional memory shifts, but we are excited to witness a vibrant, revitalized extracurricular culture at Middlebury post-pandemic.