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College Activities: Not-So-Incidental Learning

So, you’re in college or off to college soon.

Big question: Are you having fun yet?

If the answer is “no,” what I say is this — get yourself out of the classroom, your nose out of that book, flee the lab, and vacate the library. If you don’t, you’re going to miss out on a large part of your college education. That’s right! The college experience offers a great deal more than scholarship — it also offers countless opportunities to gain confidence and know-how in making things happen.

A long-lost college friend contacted me the other day. She reports that she is now highly successful in college development work: designing and producing an award-winning newsletter and promotional videos, writing and supervising large-scale grants, and planning and executing fundraising events. She loves her work and does it well. “A lot of this stuff,” she confides, “is just my work with the Distinguished Visitors Program and the university concert association ‘grown up.’” My friend was referring to her undergraduate extracurricular activities.

As I thought about it, I realized that, like her, a great many of my college friends are engaged in careers related to what they did in their “free time” while at school. Oddly enough, almost none of them is making a living at jobs related to their undergraduate majors.

Knowing this, I find it ironic that I don’t remember my professors, my parents, or my advisor talking with me about what I did outside of the classroom (except when they thought it was interfering with my grade-point average). The admissions people did stress the sports, cultural activities, clubs, and opportunities for “student life” as part of their marketing strategy. But once I was in school, no one talked with me about how to take advantage of the many enjoyable and rewarding opportunities available. No one helped me to understand that, far from “goofing off,” participating in these activities would ultimately have tremendous value for me personally and professionally.

The activities of campus life are not incidental to the “real” work of college. They are the forum for mastering the organizational and people skills that are requisite to being successful in almost any profession. Campus activities provide practice in working with others to solve problems, meet deadlines, prepare and spend within a budget, make money, make something happen, and make sure that others know about it. And, unlike high school, college-level clubs and activities often have little adult involvement; students have the freedom to test their abilities, to make and learn from mistakes, and to celebrate successes that are indeed all their own.

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Knowing First-Hand

My husband and I freely admit that we spent as much time on campus activities as we did in our respective majors. And both of us feel strongly that we use the skills we learned in those activities almost every day.

I met the friend quoted at the beginning of this article when we both served in the school concert association. Our little group had full responsibility for bringing famous musicians and performing artists to campus. We negotiated the contracts, managed the budget, arranged the schedule, worked with the tech people to set the stage, did the publicity, designed and published the programs, and hosted the performer for six to eight events each year.

I’ve been managing human services agencies for years. My three advanced degrees in education and psychology taught me what I needed to know to be a teacher and psychologist, but they offered nothing in the way of management skills. The basis for my self-confidence and skill as a manager (the other half of what I do) lies squarely in my experiences with those undergraduate concerts.

My husband was active in student government. When he was in school, the student senate not only argued for issues of student policy but also organized, distributed, and monitored a multimillion-dollar budget generated by student fees to support the various campus student organizations. Student senators learned about the politics of negotiation, became fluent in Robert’s Rules of Order, served on subcommittees, developed a working knowledge of constitutional law, and gained an intuitive understanding of legislative process.

My husband’s degree in forestry does not contribute to his daily work as an expert in electrical code or to his involvement in town government. But his days as a student senator laid important groundwork for his current expertise and political knowhow.

Join the Fun!

Involvement in campus activities is the other piece (maybe even the more important piece) of your college education. If you can find something to do that is an extension of your academic work, so much the better! But putting on a show, participating in student government, publishing the student newspaper, staging a protest, or managing a team all require you to stretch your skills in organizing people, ideas, time, money, and material.

It almost doesn’t matter what activity you choose. It matters a great deal that you choose something that takes you out of the books, out of your head, and into the world of doing. It matters a great deal that you jump in and find the competence and confidence that comes from being really involved in something. It matters a great deal that you discover the excitement and joy that comes from making something happen.

Go ahead — join the fun!

College Activities: Not-So-Incidental Learning

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). College Activities: Not-So-Incidental Learning. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.