Your Strength as a Student

Your Strength as a Student:


Say you’re a student and you care about making the world better, be it through fighting hunger, reducing carbon emissions, you name it– anything that pushes you to try and work towards a brighter future.  What do you do about it?


For many people, their choice may be to join with an existing student group, or to create one on their own.  This also has the added benefit of adding that coveted “leadership” skill onto your college app, which undoubtedly makes such an option even more appealing.

Many organizations like Interact praise “service above self”, and they have hundreds of thousands of students signed on.  But how much impact can working in one of these student groups, let alone a smaller one of your own devising can you really make?


As a student group, you’ll face some unique challenges:


Funding, the backbone of any organization, is much harder to manage as a student.  Most banks and credit unions won’t allow minors to open checking accounts for organizations (at least, not without an adult’s approval).  This can slow down operations, as the adult becomes the middleman for the funding, authorizing purchases and the like.


Otherwise, keeping your funds in a school account can also be limiting, as schools have their own limitations on what you can and cannot spend funds on.  Notably, funds cannot be donated to nonprofit organizations, which can limit the maximum good your organization can do to merely things you can physically accomplish (meaning you cannot donate to extend your help overseas to charities like the Against Malaria Foundation).


Finally, it is very difficult for student groups to wade through the 501c3 process (which is often a strong signal of a “real” charity) without both adults to complete the incorporation process, and legal help to understand what forms to fill out and what to fill in them.


But money is only half of the story.  Many other clubs looking to solve issues tout “service”– the dedication of one’s time towards helping others– as the centerpiece of their operations.  While this is indeed a noble effort, student service is also limited in a few ways:


  1. Participating in service requires time and effort.  This necessarily takes time away from other potential actions, which might be more beneficial (more on this later).
  2. A student’s time is far less valuable than any professional’s.  A student’s hour can be bought and paid for much easier than a lawyer’s.  (Especially in the case of service, where one is literally giving their time away).


In the case of a student club, not only is your time not worth much, but time isn’t probably the best way of helping the scenario, as money can often be more effective than direct service at making a difference.  (Both of which are limited if you are a student.)


Clubs can harness the collective power of students, but the problem is that the power of students simply isn’t very large.  A large portion of their time is taken up by school, and they have limited social and financial privileges in society.


The issue, I believe, isn’t that there’s anything wrong with the actual club setup.  Any student organization looking to impart positive change will likely face the same time/money problems.  Where I think things go wrong is where we go from “making the world better” to “starting a student club to do something about it”.  Students can make a large impact, but I don’t believe it is likely that it will be with a student group.


Now this is pretty disheartening for even me to type as I actually lead a student group myself.  I’ve also put in time/effort in the hopes of it providing a slew of positive benefits.  In my own experience, I do not believe that this was the best move to achieve my goals.


What alternative, then, would I recommend?  As a student, your best option may still be to continue studying.  


(Yes, this appears to play straight into the hands of the “kill all free thought” argument– that students mindlessly memorizing subjects will stifle their humanity and curb their ability of free expression. However, do try to hear me out.)


I’m not advocating for rote memorization, or learning skills that won’t be helpful.  There is growing evidence that developing transferable skills, such as valuable connections or learning to program, can pay off enormously later on.  This will greatly increase the chances you can make a difference in the long-term.


If you end up working at a better job, you now have a greater pool of income to donate to effective charities that work towards causes you care about.  Or, if you’ve developed strong professional skills (e.g. marketing), your value to the nonprofit sector increases greatly.  Your time spent helping out is dramatically more beneficial than if you had volunteered as a mere student.   


The question then is if the tradeoff– losing the potential benefit of service and minor donations is worth it in exchange for potentially increased ability to help out down the road.  


I favor the side that says we should focus on improving our skills now to help out more later on.


Now, it may seem that I’m making what appear to be a lot of ungrounded claims here… is there any evidence which support my side?


Actually, yes.  80,000 Hours and the Global Priorities Project teamed up to research this question, in the context of the adult world of investing your money vs donating it now to see how the impact stacks up, and they created the flowchart below:

Now Vs Later

To tailor this to our student example (whether a student ought to focus on personal development or donating time/money now), we can note the following differences:


  1. For reasons stated above, we can reasonably expect a student group to be less effective than a typical charity, as students have limited privileges.
  2. Focusing on personal development as a student can be more effective then personal development later on, as skills learned earlier can be applied earlier, allowing more room to actually use the skill you learn.


From this, it appears that the dilemma between donating time/money as a student vs focusing on learning helpful personal skills leans even more towards the side that favors continued studying, as it yields greater benefit, and the alternative yields less positive impacts.


Perhaps I’m not making a fair comparison here, as it’s very possible to study these areas on the side, while also participating in student clubs.  Also, there are undoubtedly social benefits to meeting in a group with like-minded people; the potential for new ideas increases when you add more brains to the group.  Clubs can be helpful for gathering like-minded people, making new friends, or providing a good learning environment.


Ultimately, I think this may be less a question of taking action with easily measurable (but minimal) effect vs increasing long-term potential for impact, and it may be more of a question about why you are in a club in the first place.  


But for now, I stand with the research.  Though coordinating in student groups to tackle large issues may be an appealing option, if you are entirely motivated by making the greatest difference you can, you may be better off hitting the books instead.


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