Club Rush is now under way at Polk State College, an annual tradition that this year will involve a mountain of ice, laser tag, and belly-dancing.
Amid all the showiness, each student organization will set up a table, share its mission and do its best to recruit new members.
College staff members, administrators and students alike have some advice for anyone near the events, which take place on both the Lakeland and Winter Haven campuses: Don’t just walk past those tables. Stop, learn, join — because doing so will change your whole college experience, in ways emotional, social, academic and professional.
“Joining a club makes a night and day difference,” said Cate Igo, adviser of SLAM!, Students Living a Message, and a college success counselor on the Winter Haven campus.
In her work as a counselor, Igo has daily interaction with students who are involved on campus and those she describes as “PCPs” — parking lot-classroom-parking lot students. The difference between the two types of students is striking.
“The students who are involved have an educational home. They really own the campus as a place where they belong and they instantly have a college family, a peer group, something that helps them belong. Students who don’t take part in clubs are really missing out on about 90 percent of what the College has to offer.”
Between the Lakeland and Winter Haven campuses, the College has about 30 student organizations, developed to satisfy a wide array of student interests. A few examples: Eagleteers, a club dedicated to volunteerism; Student Government Association; Philosophy Club; SWER (Students Working for Equal Rights); Interface Club, for students interested in learning about world religions; and Flight Zone, a dance club.
Each of these clubs, regardless of their mission, presents opportunities for students to grow as people — in ways that are not always possible in a classroom setting, said Reggie Webb, dean of student services on the Lakeland campus.
“In clubs, you experience the real you. You can be yourself, ask questions, be funny, be serious and without being judged,” he said.
A prime example of a student finding himself through club activity is Alfredo Sandoval, a Haines City resident and treasurer of Eagleteers.
Through Eagleteers, Sandoval said, he’s fed the homeless and assisted with on-campus events. Each of those experiences, he said, has given him a new perspective on life.
“I’m more humble and I don’t take things for granted. Where I can help, I do,” he said.
Eagleteers, and the social connections it forced him to make on campus, also helped him cope with a difficult personal situation.
“My parents went through a divorce and because of my involvement on campus, I had people to talk to. If it weren’t for the friends I’d made and people I’d gotten to know, I would have kept it all inside,” he said.
The social connections formed through clubs aren’t only useful for trying personal situations or for having fun on a Friday night, explained Carlos Parra, director of Winter Haven SALO.
As students become more engaged on campus, joining clubs and forming friendships, they’re more likely to stay on campus, go to class and graduate, he said.
“It’s the students who get involved who really excel,” he said.
Saul Reyes, dean of student services on the Winter Haven campus, agreed, explaining that as students are more involved on campus, they become familiarized with how the College works and services it offers — be it scholarships through the Polk State Foundation or tutoring through the TLCC. Awareness of such services means students are more likely to use them to their advantage, contributing to their academic success.
“Plus, they form connections with faculty and staff and they have an advocate on campus, someone they can go to for help or someone to help point them in the right direction,” he said.
Igo added that, through clubs, students are afforded many more scholarship opportunities than those who are uninvolved. So a few club projects this semester could help finance a student’s future goals.
Parra said at traditionally two-year institutions such as Polk State, students have unique leadership opportunities.
“Here, it is possible to be fresh out of high school and be a president or vice president of a club,” he said. “At a large university, it’s the juniors and seniors who run everything.”
Students who take on leadership roles sharpen skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives — be it at a university, in the working world, or along whatever path they might choose, Parra said.
Student Josh Austin, currently studying in the College’s Bachelor of Applied Science program, said joining a club changed his direction in life. Or rather, it gave him one.
“When I first started at Polk State, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was taking one or two classes at a time and coming to school because I knew I had to,” he said.
It was when he joined the Student Government Association on the Winter Haven campus and began working with Winter Haven SALO that he found his passion.
“I realized I wanted to work in student life and student affairs,” he said.
Austin recently took the GRE and is applying to graduate school at the University of Central Florida, where he plans to study Higher Education Administration.
Melvin Thompson, director of Lakeland SALO, said students who don’t find exactly what they’re looking for during Club Rush shouldn’t be disappointed — there’s always the option to start a new organization.
In the last several years, student life on both the Lakeland and Winter Haven campuses has grown remarkably, and that is largely because students have taken the initiative to start new clubs. In Lakeland, new clubs need nine members and a faculty or staff adviser; in Winter Haven, six members and an adviser are required.
Students who are interested in starting a new club should visit the SALO office to begin required paperwork. The Student Government Association, SALO and College administrators must approve new organizations.
Student Mishala Buchanon is looking forward to the first meeting of a club she recently helped to form on the Lakeland campus, the Creative Writing Club.
“I was in a creative writing club during my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and I really enjoyed it, so when I started at Polk, I felt like something was missing. I took a creative writing class, but it just wasn’t the same. I have a feeling that there are plenty of skilled authors, poets, screenwriters, and the like at Polk State, yet there was no community for them here,” she said.
“I said to myself, ‘Nay, this will not do!’ and now here I am, just a few days away from the first official meeting of the club. It’s so exciting to be a part of something like this, and I know the club will be a hit.”
Club Rush events take place on the Lakeland campus from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Student Mall, and on the Winter Haven campus from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on the WST lawn.