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Join the club: Colleges see surge in new student groups

Members' motives draw some concerns

Ivan Kotchetkov, president of the Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum, collected for UNICEF Thursday. Harvard recognizes nearly 400 clubs, up from 240 a decade ago. Ivan Kotchetkov, president of the Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum, collected for UNICEF Thursday. Harvard recognizes nearly 400 clubs, up from 240 a decade ago. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

CAMBRIDGE - Like street vendors hawking wares, a cluster of Harvard University students shout in a dissonant chorus to their peers pouring out of the Science Center between classes.

"Trick or Treat for UNICEF. Save the children," shouts a member of the Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum wearing an orange cardboard box over his chest with the charity's logo. Just a few feet away, members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra urge students to buy tickets for their upcoming show as a past performance of Strauss blares from a compact disc player.

During the next hour on Thursday, students from three more clubs hand out fliers, adding to the dizzying array of pitches: attend a protest with Harvard's Anti-War Coalition; hear a speech sponsored by the Korean Association at Harvard; or check out Happy Love Your Body Day and counseling run by the Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach group.

The scene outside the Science Center, a popular place for student clubs to promote themselves, has grown increasingly crowded. At Harvard and campuses across the nation, the number of clubs clamoring for space, funds, and student attention has ballooned during the past 10 years.

Harvard now recognizes nearly 400 clubs, up from 240 a decade ago, while the number at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has doubled to 508 over that period. Dartmouth College has more than 200 groups, a 25 percent jump.

Many students say the more clubs, the better, because joining gives them a chance to cultivate interests, beef up résumés, or connect socially to a smaller group on a large campus.

But the surge concerns some college officials, who worry that many students start clubs so they can run a group rather than be a member of an existing group.

"The high-achieving students come here and want to run something," said Judith Kidd, Harvard College's associate dean of student life. "What I try to tell students is: 'Most of you will not be Bill Gates. You need to learn how to work within an organization.' "

Kidd and other college officials say they have seen too many splinter groups form, and too many new groups set up along racial and ethnic lines.

Among the eight clubs approved at Harvard this year: an a capella group, joining more than a dozen other such groups on campus; a second global health group; a South African dance troupe that splintered from a larger African students association; an Asian-American voter group; and a Gay/Lesbian political activist group that sprouted out of the campus-wide gay/lesbian group.

At Harvard, like many universities, a committee of staff and students approves the groups, which must be open to all students and frequently require a faculty adviser. Clubs operate on money they raise and with funds from student activity fees, which the school oversees.

Recognized clubs typically have to apply for specific amounts for events and other needs. Their requests may range from a few hundred dollars for refreshments for a one-time event to thousands for annual operating costs for such large groups as student government. The groups compete for space in university buildings.

Students sometimes strike out on their own despite resistance from an existing group with a similar name.

When the Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum formed this year, the six-year-old Harvard College Global Health and AIDS Coalition urged members of the fledgling group to consider joining the established group instead. But the new group went ahead, defending its existence to the school by saying it will focus on broader global health issues than AIDS, the older group's primary focus.

Matt Basilico, 22, a senior and member of the older global health group, said he agreed with Kidd that some students form clubs to pad their résumés. But, he said, adults often join professional organizations for the same reason.

"I hesitate to blame the students for it," said Basilico, whose group recently eliminated specific positions to discourage students from joining simply for résumé enhancement. "That push comes from an employer or grad school that is going to look at your résumé for a minute and a half and will look at the title under your organization. 'Were you a president or founder?' "

Other Harvard students said they started or joined several clubs to make a difference in the world, but admittedly for themselves, too.

Vicky Wu, a 20-year-old junior, plays cello in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, one of at least a dozen instrumental groups, produces a fashion show for a program that grew out of the Asian American Students Association, participates in the Community Health Initiative, and cofounded the new global health group.

"We're at Harvard. It's full of ambitious people who want to be future leaders," Wu said.

Gabriela Acevedo, an 18-year-old freshman, belongs to Harvard Story-Time Players, a five-year-old organization that performs plays for children who are hospitalized, and writes for "Ivory Tower," a Harvard television soap opera. She also belongs to the Puerto Rican Students Association.

The Puerto Rican group fills a personal need, she said. "It's just nice to have people who have been through what I've been," said Acevedo, of San Juan. The club will go to social events and meetings sponsored by the larger Latino association at Harvard, she said.

Kidd said she is concerned about the influx of specific ethnic and racial groups at a time when students should be learning how to operate in the world at large. "I'm sad that we don't feel good enough as a society to do it together," she said.

Deans at Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have watched the number of their schools' clubs climb, too, but said the growth and diversity, including clubs geared toward a specific country or race, are mostly pluses.

"Students are more engaged on our campuses now, and that's a great thing," said Kenneth Elmore, dean of students at BU, where there are 400 clubs. "People want to leave their mark."

But, like many college officials, he said, he discourages duplication. At BU, students have to prove their purpose is unique in a presentation to a committee of student organizations in the same area, whether it's art, global health, or politics. BU and Dartmouth officials say they will reject groups that seem identical.

UNC has begun requiring students to submit a five-year business plan to justify the need for a new group before it is approved.

Harvard has no plans to cap the number of groups, but Kidd said she is pushing the student life committee to avoid approving groups that duplicate others' efforts.

"Everybody is loath, including myself, to draconically change the climate that is so good on this campus for activities," she said.

But even Harvard students who started groups acknowledge that the cacophony of clubs vying for attention near the Science Center can cause students to tune out at times.

"You kind of just block it all out," said Clayton Brooks, 19, a Harvard sophomore who cofounded the new gay-lesbian political coalition. "You grab a flier and you throw it out."

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.

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