This case study highlights the challenges of engaging post-high-school and postsecondary-aged youth (18-30) in social change. It showcases the following challenges in doing on-campus engagement: operating from the dominant worldview of leadership; the fact that intergenerational dialogue and collaboration are not common practice; and the lack of continuous succession planning for maintaining and considering the institutional knowledge.

Doing social change work in a university setting can be incredibly rewarding. Surrounded by critical thinkers, young idealists, and a plethora of student groups keen to attract members, universities are a hotbed of social change activity. As a student who got involved in several campus social justice groups, volunteering was part obligation, part social pressure, and part personal improvement. There were several challenges faced by campus groups, but none so distressing as leadership turnover and poor institutional memory.

Students generally volunteer with a group for two to four years. Even staffed organizations like PIRGs experience turnover. People leave at the height of their competence, having achieved a degree and moved beyond the institution. Without succession planning and/or alumni retention, this can doom campus groups and organizations — mistakes can be repeated, good ideas forgotten, or it can even mean the end of a group’s existence on campus.

There are ways to combat institutional memory loss:

  1. Spend time and effort on transition planning. Do recruitment before the end of a semester.
  2. Have alumni or outgoing leaders act as mentors to newer members.
  3. Have systems and processes with training materials well documented so that they can be passed from one cohort to the next.
  4. Engage people on campus who do not leave every four years. Have a faculty member or staff person involved in your group. Or set up a whole faculty advisory committee to serve as an institutional memory.