A Case of Genuine Engagement: Showing Up
Listening to your collaborators and seeking input from them can help foster genuine engagement
Sometimes, the most important component of a successful collaboration is the ability to listen hard and well. Participants need to ask each other for feedback and input about the collaborative experience, listen to what individuals think and believe, and as much as possible incorporate this thinking into the collaboration. Even when there are facilitators, the assumption that these individuals “know best” can be crippling. To foster genuine engagement from all participants and keep the collaboration intact and energized, each participant needs to feel that her opinions matter.
A collaboration was formed among six institutions of higher education in order to expose students from each school to multiple perspectives on current critical issues. Each college—small, isolated, and structured around a particular focus (e.g. journalism, business, performing arts, engineering)—was motivated to provide students with a unique opportunity—both inside and outside of the classroom—to learn from others who have different interests and mindsets. On paper and in the press, the collaboration sounded like it was “made to order:” it occurred at a time when interdisciplinary efforts to solve societal problems were at a premium. However, cross-registration statistics and attendance numbers at cross-campus events began and remained low. Administrators became tense. If the collaboration did not yield more impressive results, funding would not be forthcoming and the collaboration was likely to collapse.
At the beginning of the last “funded” year of the collaboration, the presidents at each college came together to discuss ideas for engaging students in the collaboration. It was evident that students would not see the benefit of the collaboration unless they themselves began to actually participate in some of these cross-campus opportunities. The presidents quickly came up with an idea: they asked faculty volunteers to join a special collaboration committee, which would be responsible for designing an innovative program. The goal of the program: to foster relationships among students across campuses and encourage students to participate in the events and programs where they could share ideas about critical issues. Importantly, the presidents allocated a generous budget for this program. They knew that the viability of the overall collaboration hinged on the success of this program.
Once this decision had been made, the presidents sent out an open call for faculty volunteers. The presidents were hopeful that several faculty members from each campus might sign up and come to “own” the problem. After several weeks and additional email requests, only four faculty members had volunteered. Disappointed but realizing that time was of the essence, the presidents authorized this quartet to set a program in motion.
The members of the committee recognized that because they were a small group (and not even representative of all of the colleges in the collaboration), they could not assume they knew what kinds of activities, events, and other opportunities students might enjoy. The first task became clear: to seek opinions from as many students as possible. They designed a very short Internet survey, asking which activities students would enjoy, what factors would lead them to attend events, and which obstacles might get in the way of joining something that would otherwise be of interest. The whole survey could be completed in less than 5 minutes and, to the committee’s delight, responses came in quickly.
Looking over the data, the group discerned distinct similarities in the responses from students across campuses. What were they interested in? Most people were curious about what went on in the other schools and would like to learn more about the respective special (or flagship) programs. What would encourage them to attend? Food! For students, free food and an excuse not to eat in the dining hall was a big draw. What would get in the way? Responses varied on this point, but a common thread was inconvenience. If it was inconvenient to enroll, attend, or access the events, most people could easily find better ways to spend their time. Reliable transportation throughout the day was necessary.
Bearing this information in mind, the group designed a speaker series that, based on the survey, seemed to appeal to the greatest number of people. They designed monthly lectures, rotating among campuses, with several TED Talk-style presentations, and catered meals. Each month had a unifying theme. The group “blitz advertised” across the six campuses, using multimedia channels, including flyers, emails, Facebook, and announcements in the school newspaper.
The turnout for the first event was, not unexpectedly, small. Fifteen students attended. The organizers had everyone sign in and determined that, while most attendees came from the campus where the event was held, at least one person from each campus was present. The lively conversation and delicious menu seemed to invigorate the participants. The conversation lasted beyond the scheduled hour, with several students lingering after dessert to talk to the presenters. One of the professors on the committee had personally invited reporters from all 6 of the campus newspapers to cover the event, and the next day articles about the event appeared in each newspaper.
But one logistical detail may well have been the most important part of the evening. The group had asked everyone to list one or two topics of interest for future events; by the end of the evening, they had a list of 30 promising topics. Email addresses of the participants helped the group start a mailing list that could be used to advertise for future events. These data helped the group to think critically about building the program over time, yoked to the expressed wishes of the students.
Over the duration of the school year, the committee organized 7 more events. The second event attracted 60 attendees, roughly 10 students from each school. Again, the sign-in for the event (a faculty panel), asked students to list a few topics they wanted to hear about. The group realized that “just in time” input from the attendees was key to ensuring that the attendees remained engaged, excited about future events and, importantly, eager to tell their peers.
The events rotated campuses for each session to make attendance easiest for one group of students; a new menu of food options was featured at each one. In a natural way, friendships and relationships flowered among student participants. One particularly snowy February evening, the group had thought about canceling the event. As successful as the evening events had been, they worried that no one would come out on such a cold night – especially those who had to commute from the neighboring campuses. Resisting the instinct to cancel, the organizers were pleasantly surprised when the session filled up. According to the attendance sheet, it was the second highest turnout of the year.
Leaving campus that evening, one of the professors noticed three carloads of students piling in to ZipCars they had rented to ease the chilly commute between the schools. He later learned that students had been making arrangements via Facebook all day to coordinate transportation to the event. Furthermore, at the last event for the school year, nearly 200 students attended. In just one school year, the group had surpassed their charge from the presidents and developed a program that genuinely engaged members of the six communities.
The group recognizes that data collection—soliciting individuals and planning events around the most popular topics—was the key to success. By asking for input, they ensured that the sessions would be of interest to the greatest number of people. This collaborative spirit (and lack of ego) helped to attract more students to the events. The happy results led to the formation of relationships, a substantial gradual increase in cross-registration, and an overall consensus that exposure to the ethos of other campuses was a key factor in their college experience.