MSA grapples with student turnover

Acquiring new members each year affects how student government operates.

by Kyle Stowe

When a national nonprofit offered University of Minnesota sophomore Olive Martin a job, she knew she had to make a decision.

“I go to school, work at the [Recreation and Wellness Center] and am involved with the Minnesota Student Association,” she said. “Something had to give.”

Martin currently serves as MSA’s student outreach and engagement director, but she elected to step down from her position at the end of the semester and take the new job.

Like Martin, many MSA members leave student government because of graduation, study abroad trips, new jobs or time constraints. This turnover affects MSA’s ability to tackle long-term goals, especially legislative advocacy.

MSA President Mike Schmit said high turnover rates hinder MSA members’ ability to maintain relationships with leaders on campus and at the Capitol, slowing MSA’s ability to achieve its goals.

 “You have to establish a relationship with an administrator or state legislator before you can start working to make a change,” he said. “That process can really impede our ability to get the ball rolling on issues early in the school year and maintain a consistent effort in regards to some long-term initiatives.”

Martin took her post as student outreach engagement director this fall. She said it took a lot of time this semester to build necessary relationships with other student group leaders, and her successor will go through the same process next semester, which will slow his or her work.

“The sooner you begin to build relationships, the better,” she said.

MSA adviser Megan Sweet said transition periods can have a significant impact on groups’ success, but Sweet also said groups can combat adverse effects by preparing for transitions and keeping an organizational history.

“How an organization handles transition is the No. 1 indicator of how successful they will be when turnover happens,” she said.

Schmit said turnover impacts MSA’s efforts to address issues like the achievement gap and college affordability because it’s difficult to maintain a consistent message and keep members passionate about an issue when faces and roles change.

“For an organization that operates on a one-year cycle and experiences significant membership turnover like MSA, it’s natural to question how we can respond to something that’s going to take years to change,” he said. “It’s a challenge we’ve always been faced with.”

Schmit said turnover can also affect MSA projects that spill over from one year to the next, like the group’s Renter’s Survey.

Reorganizing the survey was once a top priority for MSA, Schmit said, but it’s taken a backseat because some students leading the project have left.

Though turnover presents its share of challenges for MSA, Schmit said, it also brings in new voices every year. He said MSA must balance new perspectives with existing ones.

“With new people coming into the organization every year, we have a tremendous opportunity to hear new ideas,” he said. “But it’s also important we’re doing our best to continue to work on things already going on.”

MSA recently added a general membership option and created the freshman internship program. Sweet said these initiatives show the association’s efforts to engage younger students so they gain experience and get ready to fill MSA leadership roles in the future.

Sweet said earlier engagement makes for smoother transitions and more consistency in long-term initiatives.

“Turnover does have the potential to present some challenges when it comes to continuity and projects that take more than one academic year,” she said. “But [MSA is] taking some great steps to … help ease [younger students’] transition into new positions in the future and support longer-term goals.”

Despite the potential obstacles, MSA freshman intern Chris Ceglia said he’ll make an effort to stay in the group for all four years that he is at the University of Minnesota.

Ceglia said that because he’s interested in long-term projects like advocacy for open-source textbooks at the Capitol, it’s important for him to stay in MSA as long as possible and help it maintain a consistent message and strategy.

“In my time with MSA so far, I’ve really been educated on the big picture,” he said. “It’s shown me the benefits of being involved for the long haul.”

Because there will always be membership turnover in MSA, Schmit said, members need to accept its effects and make the most of the situation.

“Turnover will never go away for a college organization like MSA,” he said. “But we’re always looking to continue to negate the impact it has on how we operate now and over the course of several years.”