Energizing and supporting the next generation of SIGDOC, the second item on the call to action in last month’s newsletter, is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. For about twenty years, I have been advising student groups (both undergraduate and graduate) and helping them build sustainable organizations.  SIGDOC hopes to grow student chapters in 2013 (currently there are two student chapters—one started at Old Dominion University and one active chapter at NC State University) and empower students to become valuable contributors to SIGDOC.

Learn more about Student Chapters from Sarah Egan Warren

Starting a student organization can be overwhelming and keeping that organization going can be challenging. Below are six strategies for starting a successful SIGDOC student chapter.

S – Start by committing (or finding someone to commit) to be the Faculty Advisor
I – Identify resources and use them
G – Generate new membership and get official with SIGDOC
D – Decide on realistic and appropriate events and activities based on your audience
O – Offer opportunities to get involved
C – Communicate regularly and effectively

Start by committing (or finding someone to commit) to be the Faculty Advisor

Without a faculty advisor, a student chapter cannot exist. Not only do most schools require a faculty sponsor or advisor for a student group to become a recognized organization on campus, but a faculty advisor supplies that all-important institutional memory needed to sustain a student chapter.  Turn-over in academic settings can be even more problematic than in a volunteer organization composed of professionals because students are only available for a finite time—once graduation arrives, student volunteers are simply no longer available. While alumni can be extremely valuable resources (like they are in the NC State University chapter), their ability to fully participate is limited.  Faculty advisors provide consistency and continuity between academic years and ensure that the chapter survives those years when volunteers are lacking or when all officers graduate and move into their careers.

So what does a faculty advisor do? It can depend on the chapter and the school, but in general, faculty advisors should

  • Be an active and informed member of SIGDOC
  • Know the rules and policies of ACM and SIGDOC and ensure that they are followed
  • Ensure rules/regulations are followed at the university level (registering student group, following university rules about meetings, programs, advertising, t-shirts, fund-raisers, etc)
  • Act as the chapter’s cheer leader
  • Support officers in completing tasks
  • Oversee budget issues
  • Oversee election process
  • Encourage students to apply for awards
  • Assist with annual activity and membership reports
  • Recruit new members
  • Encourage support from other faculty members, alumni, and local professionals

A good faculty advisor must be excited about working with students and SIGDOC.  The chapter needs someone who will be committed for the long term.

Identify resources and use them

Campus and ACM resources are available to help faculty advisors and student leaders—and should be used from the very beginning to avoid frustrations or mistakes.  Each campus will have specific student organization rules and regulations. In addition to those rules, each campus will have benefits of being a registered student group.  For instance, some schools offer funding for starting student groups or for attending conferences. Contact your student organization office or representative early in the process for the most useful support.  In addition, ACM offers many resources:

Beyond the resources that explain the rules and regulations necessary to running a student chapter, identifying “human resources” is key for starting a chapter. Identify students who have special skills or qualities (organization, leadership, followership, enthusiasm, presentation skills, design skills…), and recruit them directly.  Contact relevant local professional chapters, alumni, professionals, and other faculty who can speak at events or offer other services to the chapter.

Generate new membership and get official with SIGDOC

Generating membership and becoming an official chapter with SIGDOC feels a little like a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” situation.  To become an official SIGDOC chapter, three students must agree to serve as Chair, Vice Chair, and Secretary/Treasurer.  In addition, a list of 10 members must agree to participate (seehttp://www.acm.org/chapters/sig/sigstart ).  So, there needs to be an established membership before applying to be a SIGDOC chapter. But, to generate enough interested members, they must know enough about SIGDOC to join.  See the challenge here?  Another challenge is that officers and the Faculty Advisor must also be ACM members.

NC State University’s SIGDOC chapter operated for a year as we transitioned from another organization to SIGDOC before completing the application process with ACM. So, after a year of recruiting, organizing, and offering programs each month, we had already established a healthy membership.

Finding the leaders needed to be an official SIGDOC chapter can be as easy as approaching an outgoing-student and sharing information about SIGDOC.  We have found that students are interested in meeting with other students, alumni, and professionals who share an interest in the design of communication.  Once a few people join the cause, recruiting more members becomes easier and easier.  Blanket calls for participation or mass emails rarely work. However, one-on-one conversations between the faculty advisor and a student are the most productive for recruiting. My own reputation for drawing people into our student chapter is well known. I sometimes warn students that if they talk to me too long that I will find a leadership position for them or some project to work on!

Decide on realistic and appropriate events and activities based on your audience

Student chapters don’t tend to work with a one-size-fits all model. Each year can be different because of the makeup of the leaders and the changing interests of the members.  During the summer, NC State University’s SIGDOC student chapter officers meet to brainstorm ideas, events, programs, and speakers for the year.  Some years, our focus has been on educational sessions. Other years, networking with professionals has been the emphasis.  Some groups of officers are comfortable with more free-flowing social events that have not worked during other years.  Being flexible and open to the organic changes of the group will allow the chapter to grow.

Two destructive responses that can surface when planning events are the “we’ve always done it that way” and the “we tried that last year and it didn’t work” attitudes.  Both stem from a good place—we want to learn from what we have done in the past. If we have “always done it” then it may seem to make sense that we should continue to do it.  If we “tried that and it didn’t work” then it may make sense to avoid repeating the mistake.  However, both can cause stagnation and frustration.  So, student chapters should work to establish traditions that can adapt and change with the officers and members. For example, we host Orientation for the new students to the MS in Technical Communication program.  Each year we adapt our presentation and social meet-and-greet time to the interests of our officers and the needs of our new students.

Surveying members to find out what kind of programs they would attend is one way to increase participation. The more you tailor your activities to their needs, the more likely it is that students will find time in their schedules to be involved with SIGDOC.  My students are master’s degree students, most with full time jobs and families.  Adding one more component to their already busy lives can cause stress. To limit the stress, we try to fit our programs and events into the students’ existing schedule (before or after class, or partner with a faculty member to use part or all of a class period).

Our focus is on educational, networking, and social events. Below is a list of some of our most successful programs:

  • Orientation for new students (excellent opportunity for recruiting)
  • Happy Hours/Networking
  • Internship/mentoring events
  • Roundtable discussions of current events/topics in communication
  • UN-Conference with a local professional chapter
  • University-specific information
  • Community service: Toys for Tots, book drives, collect money for disaster victims, collect cell phones for military, 5K for cancer research, Stop Hunger Now
  • Game nights
  • Speakers
  • Panel Discussions

Offer opportunities to get involved

Any time a student attends an event, I am always assessing for leadership or volunteer potential.  Identifying their talents or willingness to help is the first step in grooming students for future leadership positions.  As I confessed before, I am a bit ruthless in my approach to getting volunteers.  I tend to talk to a member and tell them I noticed that they have a particular skill and then I explain how we could use it in the student chapter. In addition to this approach, I can usually get a “yes” when I ask members to get involved by completing a (usually small) specific task.  For example, I have asked students to

  • make announcements in their other classes about upcoming programs
  • bring a friend or invite a newly admitted student to a program
  • look up costs for printing T-shirts
  • brainstorm design ideas for logos
  • pick up refreshments for meetings.

These tasks require minimal time commitments and they are one-time events. Once students feel comfortable doing smaller tasks, it is time to swoop in for the kill… oh, I mean the recruiting to leadership roles. Providing “job descriptions” for each of the officer positions helps make the recruiting more transparent.  Details about many typical chapter positions can be found at http://www.acm.org/chapters/professionals/toolkit/officers-resp . For a new chapter, only three officers are needed and the job description can be customized for the specific school.

Not everyone will have the time, drive, talent, or commitment to be a leader in the student group—we need members too!  Active members are valued and we must try to show them the benefits of joining SIGDOC and participating in events. Being part of an international organization has a number of benefits (seehttp://sigdoc.acm.org/join/ and   http://sigdoc.acm.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/sigdocBrochure-press.pdf ).  We also must emphasize additional benefits that SIGDOC student chapters can offer such as:

  • Developing skills that can be listed on a resume (leadership, collaboration, interpersonal communication, time management, presentation experience…)
  • Networking with alumni, faculty, and professionals
  • Being exposed to new/different ideas
  • Complementing classroom learning
  • Meeting and interacting with people who care about communication

Communicate regularly and effectively

In an effort to be true to our name—ACM’s Special Interest Group on the DESIGN OF COMMUNICATION—we must practice what we preach.  This means communicating with our members in a way that reflects positively on ACM SIGDOC and our chapter.  Committing to keeping members informed of events and programs in a timely manner helps increase participation.  Establishing a typical channel for communication allows members to rely on a specific way to get information about the chapter. That is not to say that we must put all our eggs in one basket—an appropriate mix of emails, advertisements, internet presence and social media is needed.

All messages that are shared with the membership must be clear. If our officers are putting out poorly written announcements, organizing irrelevant programs, creating unusable websites, posting poorly designed advertisements, or writing conflicting or error-filled messages, we risk alienating our current members and losing potential members (by michelle at www.dresshead.com).  If we can’t communicate clearly, how can we be a SIG about the design of communication?

Focusing on increasing student participation will grow overall membership numbers in the short term and hopefully encourage those students to remain a part of SIGDOC after graduation.  I hope this resource can be helpful for other universities and colleges interested in starting a SIGDOC chapter. Please contact me if you have any questions.

Sarah Egan Warren
Student Relations Officer
Faculty Advisor ACM SIGDOC
Assistant Director Professional Writing Program
NC State University