MADISON – The University of Wisconsin-Madison is well-known for developing strong leaders. UW-Madison has been the top-producing Peace Corps institution for 20 straight years, and it ranks with Harvard as the most common university attended by CEOs of companies in the S&P 500 Index.
With that track record, the university has established a new National Student Leadership Archive and Resource Center, a collaborative effort between the UW-Madison Libraries and the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“The center will have three primary purposes – to stimulate curriculum and course development, serve as a resource for historical and academic research, and provide information and tools for current students and student organizations to assist them in the exchange of ideas,” says Ken Frazier, director of UW-Madison Libraries.
As a resource for historical and academic research, the center will initially draw from the recently released anthology called “American Students Organize.” The book, which is a collection of works compiled by author Gene Schwartz, chronicles the United States National Student Association (NSA). The NSA was founded on the UW-Madison campus at a Constitutional Convention held at the Memorial Union on Sept. 7, 1947. The NSA was headquartered at Wisconsin for four years, and its successor organization, the U.S. Student Association, has held annual events on campus.
Located on a campus with more than 700 student organizations, the new center will not be limited to the history of the NSA. Habitat for Humanity, the Associated Students of Madison, the Wisconsin Student Public Interest Research Group, Action in Sudan, the Coalition for Global Health and the Children’s Justice Project are just a handful of the hundreds of organizations with histories and traditions of their own.
“It provides an opportunity for our student leaders to exchange ideas,” says Mary Rouse, former dean of students who is now a consultant with the Morgridge Center for Public Service. “Winston Churchill said, ‘The farther back you can look, the farther ahead you can see.’ I think that’s very appropriate. It’s important for student organizations to know their history and not have to reinvent the field. They can learn from and build upon the amazing history and achievements made by other students. Peers can also network with their peers.”
The center also is looking to UW-Madison’s faculty and staff to help the students discover their history by creating new curriculum and courses. For example, an academic, credit-based, service-learning course could be set up, during which students with faculty approval and supervision work with an organization to help compile an organization’s history.
“They would be doing hands-on learning and that learning would not only benefit the students and the faculty, but also the student organization,” Rouse says.
“Faculty might want to do small seminars that would get students involved in working with documentation in the Wisconsin Historical Society,” adds Steve Stern, chair of the history department. “Some of the smaller organizations run on a shoestring by students have generated important documentation about the past … and we’re at risk of losing some records unless we organize.”
Currently, some of those records – such as Bascom Hill’s pink flamingos and Lake Mendota’s Statue of Liberty – exist only as popular postcards. Rouse has spoken with students who would jump at the opportunity to study their own history.
“Who were the student leaders at the time, what were they thinking, and how did they get the budget?” Rouse asks. “That’s a rich history, which, to the best of my knowledge, is virtually lost.”
By engaging students in their own history and with organizations on campus and in the community, the center will build on a century of opportunities and create new ones for UW-Madison students.
“There is a tradition of student engagement in the peer culture,” says Rouse. “It’s been there at least since the late 1800s. Our whole goal is to increase student participation in civil life – and we’re not talking about only while you’re here on this campus, but for your whole life.”