A Targeted and Deliberate Approach
Today more than ever we find ourselves in a time of financial instability that is hitting our
schools and causing budget cuts around the board. College administrations are now more than ever looking to increase enrollment and retention. They know that there is no one
solution to the problem of retention and are looking for all the help they can get. Research shows that many factors may affect a student’s decision to leave and one of the most commonly overlooked by academic institutions is that of social integration (Wilcox, Winn & Fyvie-Gauld, 2005). Another study shows that three themes emerged when students discussed success in the terms of their college experience: grades, social integration and the
ability to navigate college (Yazedjian, Toews, Sevin, & Purswell, 2008). Colleges are renewing their focus on school spirit, because the research shows that a student body that has pride in their school will be retained at a higher rate and we know how that can affect our bottom line.
With budgets shrinking and enrollment increasing, the need to increase school spirit on our campuses is coming front and center, cheer coaches are now asked to take on more and more responsibility. Rare is the case where a cheer coach is hired to be just a cheer coach. Coaches are now not only coaches they are being asked to be student affairs professionals as well. Job descriptions are including the running of school programs like homecoming, traditions councils, and advising programming groups. Colleges want more for less and
cheerleading and cheer coaches are being placed in the middle of this. Yesterday’s cheer coach is today’s spirit coordinator. As a coach your focus was on a select few cheerleaders and their impact at games as a spirit coordinator you have a much larger focus. Your job is to increase school spirit and impact students’ pride in their institution. This article will discuss three ways you can begin to impact school spirit.
The “Law of the Few”
Malcolm Gladwell in a book titled Outliers: The Story of Success refers to a concept he coins as “The Law of the Few.” He states that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts” (Gladwell, 2009). To be successful in launching a successful spirit campaign you will need to understand this law. Pride in your school and school spirit are inherently social issues driven by an individual’s personal identification and connection to the institution. To impact this on any large scale you will need to seek the help of a very select group of students on your campus. Campus trends can go viral if the right groups of students get a hold of it. The difficulty comes in identifying these students and then per suading them to create a social shift.
Start with a group of students you have contact with and try to identify the one or two students who seems to know everyone. These are the students who are involved in every group on campus and have an extraordinary knack for making new friends and acquaintances. From here you can build an organization like a traditions council whose sole mission is to promote school spirit and place what Gladwell called a “connector” as your first president. The formation of this group and solidification of its mission is your first step
to achieving your goal.
Let the Students Own It
The second step to increasing school spirit is the most difficult in that you must let the students own it. If you take credit for all of these ideas, push your thoughts on school spirit forward and never let the student truly buy in and take charge your program will fail. Whether you graduated from college 2 or 20 years ago you cannot know everything that students today need to motivate them. The concept of school spirit and school pride is very conformist in nature and therefore is a bad idea to many students looking to become individuals, but the idea of school spirit can be a radical change if you have the right group of students to lead the charge and you are willing to let go. To be successful you must plant several ideas and guide them as they make the decisions.
One way to promote ownership in a program on the college campus is to create a sense of exclusivity. I have found that groups who are open to everyone are often smaller and less productive than groups who have capped their membership. Students perceive a higher value when they feel as though they are a chosen and select few. So if you are going to start a traditions council start it small. I would select my officers and allow then to take applications and only choose a committee of about ten to fifteen to get started.
Focus on Pride
You have your leaders and a committee with a mission to increase school spirit now what? The group needs to begin to brainstorm ways to change the culture on campus to get more students involved and the focus should always be on pride. I worked in student activities at Stephen F. Austin for over 8 years and one of my first charges was to help increase school spirit.
I remember attending May commencements and watching one person sing the alma mater for the college, none of the graduates were singing along. I thought to myself you just paid $50,000 for this degree and spent possibly the best four or five years of your life here and you do not know the alma mater? So I brought this radical idea to my student organization
that before you could join you had to know the school song we started singing it at the end of each of our meetings and before long SGA picked up on it and started singing it at the end of their meetings. It caught fire, freshmen at orientation were now taught the song, students at Jack Camp had to sing it and yes we required the cheerleaders to know every single word of it. Now if you attend graduation at SFA you will find that most of the students attending can sing along. It has become part of the culture. We were proud of our
school and this was one way to show it. I remember another conversation I had with a group of students where they sat and issued complaints about how our student body continually supported other colleges by wearing shirts and hat from those schools. We wanted students to be proud of our school. So we brainstormed solutions and came up with the burn shirt program. The idea was simple. Each year we have a homecoming bonfire that one of our student organizations spends the week of homecoming to construct. We would design a college shirt that expressed a tremendous amount of school spirit and the week of homecoming the only way to get one was to trade in another school’s shirt or hat. We would take half of the shirts and send them through a local church to the homeless in Africa and burn the other half on the bottom of our bonfire. The program was a huge success as we ran out of shirts the first day and had to rush to get more printed. It is now a
tradition and students will go to Wal-Mart or goodwill and buy a shirt for the trade if they cannot get one.
Not all programs are as successful as these. Nor should you give up on programs before they have had a chance to work. Some take years to catch on and some will simply fail. In my years in student activities I have had more fail than succeed, but as long as you start with a great group, let them take charge and keep the focus on pride you slowly and surely increase the school spirit on your campus.
Gladwell, M.(2009). Outliers : the story of success Penguin Book, Camberwell, Vic.
Wilcox, P., Winn, S., & Fyvie-Gauld, M. (2005). It Was Nothing to Do With the University, It Was Just the People: The role of social support in the first-year experience of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(6), 707.
Yazedjian, A., Toews, M. L., Sevin, T., & Purswell, K. E. (2008). It’s a Whole New World: A qualitative exploration of college students’ definitions of and strategies for college success. Journal of College Student Development, 49(2), 141-154.
About Charlie Huber: Charlie Hueber is currently fulltime faculty member at Trinity Valley Community College where he also serves at the Head Cheer Coach. He has previously worked at Georgia Southern University where he over saw the Student Center, Student Activities and Spirit and Traditions and at Stephen F. Austin State where he over saw Student Activities, Freshmen Leadership and Spirit Camps. He has published various articles on Leadership and Campus Activities. Charlie received his Bachelors in Speech Communication, Masters in Counseling and Psychology from Stephen F. Austin State University and is currently finishing his Doctorate in Higher Education from Texas A&M Commerce. He is married to Sarah Hueber and has one son, Jude Austin Hueber.