I often tell people to consider joining university societies in order to take a break from academia and to do something in their spare time other than drink and party. Societies at university are a diverse collection of groups and organisations ranging from sports teams to hobby organisations to political and liberation groups. If societies are a thing you are considering, take my virtual hand and let me guide you through the minefield that the world of societies can be.
Consider commitment and expenditure
Sorry kids, but life ain’t free most of the time. Many societies will require a membership fee. As a member of a society executive committee, I can tell you that this goes towards funding events and equipment for the society. This fee can range from less than £5 to more than £100.
At this point, consider how willing you are to commit to the society. In terms of a sports society, are you looking to stay healthy, learn a new sport or just be active during the week, or are you looking to be the cream of the crop and represent your university? This decision will affect how much time and money you will need to put aside for that particular society.
Furthermore, while the wakeboarding society sounds awesome, will you actually have the time to justify the £50 membership fee? Even low-priced societies should factor into this equation; I am part of my university’s role-playing society where the games run across the whole of a term.
There is no point joining a society if you aren’t going to show up half the time. So how do you deal with this? Well, most societies will host an introductory session, and I would encourage you to attend these to see if the society is for you. It will also give you a chance to meet current members and ask about issues such as amount of commitment and potential future expenditures.
Societies may not do what they say on the tin
Let’s say that politics or social justice or a liberation movement is your kind of thing, I’m afraid to tell you that you’re chancing your arm by choosing an affiliation. It is likely that many of the groups that fall into these categories (specific political parties, feminist societies and the like) will hold a particular viewpoint.
For example, the Labour Society may follow a particularly far-left viewpoint or the feminist society may emphasise a particular branch of feminist thinking. Many of these organisations will have a discussion format for their meetings, and so you may feel that it is not worth your time to attend, especially if you hold an opposing viewpoint.
There is nothing worse than attending a society meeting where you feel alone and isolated because everyone else holds "the society’s opinion". If you do decide to stick it out, be warned that this may work against you if you choose to run for positions on the exec committee, as people may feel that you would be a detriment to the society’s image. Just remember that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, others may forget that when everyone else around them shares the same opinion.
Do what you are comfortable with doing
Again, this applies mainly to activist groups and political organisations. Just because you are a member does not mean that you are automatically obliged to participate in all the society’s events. Imagine that you are a member of the environmental society and the exec announces that they are organising a protest at a local refinery, where they will be chaining themselves to the gates of the complex. You do not have to go anywhere near that.
I know it sounds obvious but when the voices rise around you, saying “no” doesn’t seem like a valid option. The society may have done wonders for your confidence and social life, but you are still the priority.
Keep yourself safe and happy, both physically and mentally. If people think less of you because you don’t participate in some events, that is not a society you want to be part of. Important to include here, a society should never ask you to do anything explicitly illegal or legally dubious. That is a bad society and you would do well to get the heck out of there.
Try new things
Your university experience will depend heavily on what you make of it. There is no point joining a society in third year, finding out that it’s awesome and wishing you had joined in first year. Equally, it’s OK to try things you never go back to.
But the important thing to do is not be afraid to take a leap and try something new. Take me for example: I mentioned that I joined the role-play society when I joined university in October of 2014. I had never done role-play before and I thought it was that thing that defined the saddest of the nerds. However, I very quickly came to love it, and I have made some of my closest friends from the experience.
So try new things because at the end of the day, that’s what university is all about.