Attendance at a University of San Francisco lecture or other academic event can vary greatly depending on the topic, speaker, venue and advertising efforts. With classes, exams, homework and all of the excitement that the city of San Francisco has to offer, it is difficult for event organizers to compete for student attention and time and get them to attend a discussion on campus. But overwhelming student presence at certain events suggests that student interest must be gauged to draw students away from academic responsibilities and the lure of San Francisco to participate in an academic discussion.
Professor Ronald Sundstrom, philosophy professor and chair of the African American studies minor, said that most event organizers are very concerned with student interest, but he also said that a university and its academic discussions “create a forum for intellectual exchange. The classroom shouldn’t be the only place for intellectual exchange.” Bringing together members of the public and students from USF generates interest in a topic and fosters the growth of ideas. Universities are traditionally spaces for public and community intellectual growth as well. Thus, not all events on campus are geared specifically toward students.
One organization on campus that supports intellectual exchange is the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. There are approximately three to four academic talks held every week at USF. Maureen Beckman, assistant director of the McCarthy Center, said that most of the programs at the McCarthy Center are academics-based. In addition to facilitating student exchanges in the state and national capitals and providing students with internships, the Center works closely with the Politics Society, a student club that focuses on political and civic issues. Beckman said, “We’ve always held election night and election watches. For every presidential debate, we do something. We also hosted a mayoral series where we had different mayors come and speak on campus.” The 2007 mayoral series, the subject of which was sustainable development, included current San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Beckman said of the talks,
“People loved them. Of course, whenever our mayor [Gavin Newsom] shows up, the whole place gets filled. But some of the other mayors, we were surprised they got such big turnouts.” She credited student interest in sustainable development with the popularity of the talks. She said, “They were interested in sustainable development, basically. I think that kind of topic is very prevalent in USF’s culture, you know, helping others and how do you help people sustain a lifestyle and sustain their level of economic status.” Laura Plantholt, a junior media studies major, attended Mayor Gavin Newsom’s talk for a journalism class. Plantholt is the managing editor of the Foghorn, the student newspaper on campus, works part-time at Gillson Hall and has an internship with XLR8R magazine. Even if attendance wasn’t mandatory, Plantholt said she would have gone anyway. She said, “When things are a big enough deal, it will make me drop my other obligations or responsibilities.”
The Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought is another entity on campus that holds several discussions a semester and hosts guest speakers. Its purpose is to “promote the Catholic social thought of the Catholic intellectual tradition,” said associate director Julia Dowd. They were influential in getting “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson selected as the required reading for first semester freshmen and they were also responsible for inviting the author and humanitarian to come to campus to speak. Dowd said, “We were involved in the very beginning, saying he was a high profile person that we really wanted to get here, all the way to the day of, making sure everything went smoothly and coordinating all aspects of his visit.” Mortenson received an honorary doctorate degree from the School of Nursing and spoke to a large audience comprised of members of the public and USF students. The McLaren Complex was full to capacity as were Crossroads Café, Parina Lounge and Cowell Room 113, other areas on campus that broadcasted Mortenson’s speech. The popularity of “Three Cups of Tea”, which was a New York Times bestseller, and the external advertising effort contributed to an exodus of off-campus attendees. Dowd said, “We were surprised at how many members of the public came to that event and they really ended up taking most of the space before most of the students were able to get there.”
The Lane Center sponsored three other events this semester. Dowd said that they invited a Jesuit priest from Boston to speak about patriotism and religious identity, a speaker from Mexico who spoke about feminist appraisal of the solidarity movement in Chiapas, Mexico, and a panel with two USF professors on the war in Iraq.. Lane Center events typically draw a crowd of about one hundred people, Dowd said however, “We get a lot of members of the public. I would say the majority are members of the public. We get students when they are required to come to class.”
Most events are advertised through professors and students learn about campus events in their classes, but aside from the incentive of extra credit or mandatory attendance required by a professor, many students attend events based on their existing interests, not on what they are currently learning about in class. Ivana Rosas, a junior international studies major, French minor and president of AIESEC (Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales) prefers attending academic lectures in the humanities. She said, “Knowledge is power and the more I’m informed, the more I know a little bit about everything, the more I am going to be able to write a better paper or make better connections with things that are going on in class and things that are going on in the real world.” With the exception of students who love to learn like Rosas, Beckman said “If it’s not something they’re [students] interested in, it’s hard to get them to come.”
Student clubs and organizations that put on annual or semi-annual events generally enjoy large attendances. Courtney Ball, president of the Black Student Union (BSU), said that she organized Gospel Extravaganza, the Breast Cancer Tea, Expressions and a pre-Kwanzaa event each year during her two-year presidency. Of these events, Ball said “The most successful event is Expressions. There are always a lot of people that come out.
We had about 75 there [this semester], but that’s because people know Expressions is happening. I would say that is the most successful because people always look forward to it and people always leave happy.”
Some student organizations, like College Players, conduct their own survey of how their events went. Platt, who was also the producer for “The Vagina Monologues” last year, said that, “After every show, they do a reflection on how the show went, what the turnout was, what they could have improved on, what each person thought about the process, which is fantastic.” Non-student organizations like the McCarthy Center and the Lane Center do not currently have any system or process of evaluating the success of their events. Beckman said, “We really haven’t done a great job of getting the feedback after the event, that’s something we really could possibly work on to better our center.” Of the Lane Center, Dowd said, “We do table at our events, where people can come and talk to us or sign up for events. We don’t do evaluation forms at the end of all of our events, we do at some. But that’s probably the extent of it.”
Another annual event that generally draws many students is the Election Watch sponsored by the McCarthy Center and the Politics Society. The widespread interest in the 2008 presidential election may have helped pack Parina Lounge with eager students on election night this past Nov. 4.
While part of the college experience is attending on campus events, a big part of a student’s experience at USF is exploring the city of San Francisco. Platt said that she is constantly struggling to motivate students about Senate and “get spirit up and apparent throughout the USF community.” She said, “It’s like the college experience to go to student stuff on campus. Because we’re in the middle of San Francisco, it makes it harder for us. It’s USF competing with the city of San Francisco.” Some student cultural clubs have a built-in advantage. While an interest or passion in a field or topic can drive a student to join a club, the desire to meet and socialize with members that share your same ethnic background can cement one’s allegiance to his or her respective cultural club. Ball said, “When I came to campus, I knew I had to join BSU because when you are a minority on campus, people need that support and you want to see other people that look like you. Just so you can have someone to talk to and relate to and share resources with.”
Beckman said , “We have been very fortunate that students do attend our events, because we try to pick things that students want and that students are interested in, because why do it? It’s an embarrassment if you don’t get anyone there, just because you want to get someone to talk. Our main focus when we choose a speaker is will it be beneficial to our students.”
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