I’m sure most people come to this university with a few basic goals: get a degree, get a job, get high, get laid or whatever it is the kids are into these days. And then I bet there are those of you who came here hoping to effect change or at the very least, leave a mark here.
I know I did. I thought I was going to start one million different student groups a la Jason Schwartzman in “Rushmore.” I was even close to starting a (gender inclusive) Gentlemen’s Pipe Smoking Club. I’m OK with not having done that. Obscure, poorly attended clubs wouldn’t have brought me the same fulfillment as my eventual choices: a short-lived rugby career and a job at the Daily.
If you bear with me for another paragraph, I swear this won’t turn into a sappy, I-love-the-Daily good-bye party. You have my word.
Thank goodness for the sprained ankle that kept me off the rugby field and prodded me into the Daily, where I spent two years looking at the underbelly of campus politics, especially the Michigan Student Assembly. There is so much institutional memory in these organizations and so much immobile tradition that sometimes I felt like I was watching the faces change while everything else stayed the same.
In these student groups, leadership lasts for one year, and almost no one works during the summer so realistically it’s more like eight months. Maybe some hot shot has a two-year stint, but that’s all you get: eight months and a pat on the back.
Because of this, the battles here aren’t just against a person who’s been in charge too long. A person is tangible. A revolving door of bodies and an unwritten history are not. Add those realities to the fact that we are students with a ton of other priorities, and effecting change is a monumental task.
Luckily, through the muck, I found the changes I wanted to make. When I became an associate news editor, I wanted to do two things: improve recruitment and retention at the Daily and improve the Daily’s relationships with campus multicultural groups and minority groups.
I failed at both. I also succeeded at both. I guess it depends on how you look at it. It wasn’t until I started talking to people inside and outside of the Daily, that I realized what I was up against. Ideas, opinions and concerns are passed down from year to year and from generation to generation. It’s the same reason I look at the Michigan Action Party and see its predecessors, Students 4 Michigan and Students First!. That’s why problems in the Daily’s past affect it today: People – as they probably should, to some extent – pass them down.
You can’t let this fatalism get you down. As a diehard pessimistic fatalist, I had to work hard to pretend I could leave my mark on the University. But that’s the only way you can get anything done. Breaking down a flawed culture doesn’t have the same instant gratification that high-speed Internet has taught us to expect.
To be truthful, maybe my legacy of change will be this column. Maybe you will read my recommendations and actually get something done. If that’s true, here’s the game plan as far as I can tell:
First, you need to accept that your name will die. Whatever you do won’t be attributed to you. This is good. Your change shouldn’t fade away with your memory.
Second, focus on a few things at a time. A simple mantra is: Be Mohammad Dar. The former MSA president did more than anyone on MSA – maybe ever – because he went after tangible goals with thought-out plans.
Third, accept that you need to take baby steps. A tiny step in the right direction should be a cause for celebration. Avoiding a step in the wrong direction should be a cause for a smaller celebration.
Last, and most importantly, find other people. The teensy steps of progress weren’t my own – far from it. People younger can keep your idea alive. Institutionalizing it by writing it down or forming a lasting body.
When I look at the Daily, it has improved in the areas I had hoped – not by leaps and bounds, but it’s getting there slowly. That’s all I could ever ask for. Even if my name isn’t attached to these changes, I’m just as happy as if I were. If you want to change something – even if you’re an egomaniac like myself – you have to care about the change more than your legacy.
I didn’t leave a mark on this university. But maybe, just maybe, I left a little bit of change.
– Dave Mekelburg was a Daily fall/winter associate news editor in 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.