My students returned jubilant from the Southeastern Psychological Association conference this past April after having attended a session entitled "Revitalizing Your Psi Chi Chapter." They had shared what our chapter at Charleston Southern University is doing and were amazed to learn that our chapter was one of the most active and vital of those represented.
Surprising? Yes, because we are a relatively small, liberal arts university with only 2,000 students, 180 of them psychology majors or minors. Amazing? Absolutely, because our chapter has only been in existence since November of 1994. Impossible? No, not when led by motivated and dedicated student leaders and nurtured by a history of psychology's presence on campus since the early days of the institution.
In this article I will share with you what I have observed concerning "successful" chapters from my eight years of advising the psychology club and, more recently, Psi Chi. The Psi Chi chapter and the psychology club meet jointly on our campus each week during the fall and spring semesters. Psi Chi members serve as officers, but any psychology student can serve as a committee chairperson. My comments will focus on the four broad areas that I see as important to our chapter's success: leadership, publicity, activity, and community building.
During my first few years as advisor to the psychology club, I sat through many a meeting listening to students discuss what they wanted to work on as a group. Would it be a fundraiser? A service project? Would they sell doughnuts or have a car wash? Which of the multitude of local human service agencies would they choose to serve? By the time the group made a decision, the semester was more than half over and the students were preoccupied with tests and term papers. The group ended up accomplishing nothing, which only served to demoralize the leaders and weaken interest in the club.
Our chapter's answer to the problems described above has been to establish strong, consistent leadership and to develop a process to transfer leadership responsibilities from one person to the next smoothly. Good leaders are those students who take their responsibility to Psi Chi seriously. These students follow through on what they say they will do and provide vision for the chapter as a whole. Strong leaders realize that the continued success of the chapter depends on what they contribute and achieve. Most importantly, excellent leaders take a personal interest in the well-being of their fellow students, their chapter, and their university.
In addition to their own success, leaders are interested in the success of others and help others to achieve. For example, officers at CSU contribute to the Psi Chi chapter activities section of Eye on Psi Chi, "Sightings," because they know it will benefit the university to be recognized. They leave the chapter with sufficient funds at the end of each academic year to benefit the chapter. Finally, they are starting a tutoring program for students in Experimental Psychology, our most rigorous and difficult course, to help fellow psychology students succeed.
In order to achieve smooth transition in leadership, officers are elected the semester prior to taking office. The nomination of officers occurs after a group discussion between outgoing officers and the faculty advisor. Students whose names are brought up as potential new officers are approached by outgoing officers and asked if they would be willing to serve. When nominations are made, there are generally no surprises and no objections. Although these discussions occur, anyone may make a nomination. No discussions are held concerning voting, and voting is conducted by secret ballot. Incoming officers then "shadow" outgoing officers for several weeks to learn their roles and jobs.
During the summer months and prior to the spring semester, officers meet with the faculty advisor to discuss difficulties that arose during the previous semester, generate possible solutions to those problems, and plan the agenda for the upcoming semester. Planning the agenda literally means mapping out all meetings before the semester begins and deciding what will occur at each meeting. This is a process very similar to what many instructors follow in planning their courses for the semester. As this process has been repeated several times, the group does not have to reinvent the wheel each semester. We generally know the flow of events and activities during the semester.
We have worked hard to distribute the workload so that no one person is doing all of the work. The officers organize meeting plans and invite speakers prior to the beginning of the semester. Once the semester begins, other members work on subcommittees to complete projects.
Our chapter averages an 8-10% participation rate of majors and minors. Because this rate has remained relatively stable despite meager or heroic efforts, I have concluded that this rate of participation is about what can be expected. I make a point of educating the Psi Chi officers about expected participation rates because continuous, ongoing publicity is essential to making Psi Chi known on campus and recruiting that interested and qualified 8-10%. Secondly, I do not want the officers to become discouraged when they send out 180 invitations to a special event and three or four new people show up. We take those new people and attempt to integrate them into the chapter as quickly as possible by giving them something important to work on.
We advertise constantly in a variety of ways: (1) Personal invitations to the first meeting of the semester are sent out to all psychology majors and minors. This first meeting generally offers food (always a good draw) and a "mystery" drawing for those who attend. Usually a faculty member donates a psychology book or text for the cause. (2) Our institution holds a biweekly convocation during which a campus newsletter is distributed. The Psi Chi chapter secretary ensures that an announcement concerning upcoming meetings and events is included in each edition of the newsletter. (3) Meeting dates, speakers, and news of special events is submitted for publication in the student newspaper. We also alert the public relations office in advance of all of our activities so that a photographer will be present. (4) A semester agenda is printed and distributed to all students who attend meetings. Additionally, all regular and adjunct faculty are asked to distribute the meeting agenda in their courses. (5) Last, but most important, the officers and I constantly announce meetings and events and personally invite students to attend. A handshake and a hello go a long way in creating an inviting and welcoming atmosphere for interested students.
As mentioned previously, the chapter follows a fairly standard agenda from year to year. We have a welcoming meeting at the beginning of each semester; invite several off-campus guest speakers from human service agencies in which the students have expressed interest; invite faculty members to discuss graduate school, the GRE, and/or career options; participate in the Psi Chi National Service Project; sponsor a joint fundraiser/social activity; and end the semester with a pizza party during which certificates of appreciation are awarded.
Establishing a basic structure has helped enormously in planning. However, students are encouraged to be creative and try out new ideas as well. Each semester we keep some aspects of the chapter constant and try out a few new ideas. In this way, the chapter continues to evolve and expand its repertoire of activities and traditions. For example, this year we held two induction ceremonies as had been done previously, but we also began to give Psi Chi pins to all new inductees, bought a Psi Chi banner to adorn the podium, and held our first candlelight ceremony. These were all ideas of the current officers. The graduating members of Psi Chi also wanted Psi Chi medallions. Unfortunately, we learned of the availability of these medallions too late for our graduation ceremony. But, the medallions are on the agenda for next year--another new tradition?
It is our vision that Psi Chi on our campus aid in creating a sense of community among the students within the department. A sense of community is difficult to achieve in any case, but particularly at a young institution with a short history, a mere 33 years. Lacking on campus are the signs of history and tradition with which people identify themselves. We have few historical plaques, photographs, statues, and the like. In addition, there are few places on campus where students can meet to socialize. Finally, we have a multiethnic student body, many of whom are commuter students and of nontraditional age. Rather than viewing these difficulties as obstacles, we view them as opportunities to build a new kind of community--one diverse and rich in backgrounds and interests.
We build this community by forming personal and professional relationships with each other, by providing opportunities for leadership and service, and by offering experiences that increase students' knowledge base in psychology and their understanding of career options. In creating this community of scholars and future professionals, we hope to strengthen ties between students, as well as students and faculty, to infuse students with an enthusiasm for psychology and for service to the community, and to nurture the next generation of human service providers and psychologists.