Summary

  • This post catalogs ways in which being a university organizer can be uniquely hard and isolating. We do this not to complain, but so that:
    • 1) Organizers can more openly discuss the challenges they face and try to support one another/
    • 2) The EA community broadly can better understand and support organizers experiencing these challenges.
  • We discuss a few actions and attitudes that seem good in light of the challenges university group organizers face, like peer support, understanding on the part of funders and stakeholders, and dedicated campus specialists.

Introduction

Organizing a student group can at times be incredibly rewarding. It’s an enormous opportunity to have an outsized impact as a student, you learn a lot, and it generally opens up more opportunities to get involved in EA. 

But organizing an EA group as a student can also be challenging. It can isolate you from your peers, place a heavy burden on your time, and get in the way of other things people are telling you are important.

Here, we highlight some specific ways in which I think organizing a student group can be uniquely difficult. We close with actions and attitudes that seem likely to help. 

Challenges faced by student group organizers

We think student group organizers are especially likely to face the challenges we outline below, but it is worth noting that non-organizing university students may relate to similar experiences. 

  • Stark fluctuations in time commitment: Being a university organizer takes a lot of time, in two different ways: It takes dedicated time (organizing weekly meetings, planning out weekends to attend conferences) and sporadic time (it seems really high EV to drop everything you’re doing and help this promising person who needs help on a last-second application).
  • Difficulty balancing work and leisure: As a college student, weekends aren’t really off; Evenings aren’t really off. It’s not like you’re working all the time, there just isn’t a regular time when you’re working. University organizing blends this distinction even further as organizers host weekend socials, parties, retreats, and generally try to make the club feel like a friend group.
  • Isolation from peers: The deeper you dive into the EA world, the less you start to have in common with the typical college student: The typical college student doesn’t attend conferences in London and San Francisco; The typical college student does not prioritize their student group over their grades; The typical college student doesn’t get funding to make themselves more productive (which can feel even worse if your friends are struggling to pay for food or housing). These influences and others can make organizers feel alienated from their peers and create distance between organizers and their non-EA friends. Some organizers might have an EA friend group to lean into, but many organizers might not have many close EA friends around them or understandably not want to get absorbed into only an EA bubble.
  • There is no clear internal bar for success: There are feedback loops in university group organizing (like much of community building). It’s easy to notice all the ways things could be improved, but hard to point to what’s going well.
  • Dropping priorities you’ve ingrained as important: A lot of EA students grew up internalizing that trying really hard in classes was good. They think of themselves as the type of person who takes a lot of classes and does well. But now, people are telling you that school shouldn’t be your priority, that you should focus on impact. I think undergraduates often should deprioritize coursework, but overcoming this inertia can be hard. Anecdotally, many organizers also have parental or social pressure to not “drop classes” or take time off.
  • Deprioritizing personal development: When you’re organizing your student group, you’re not always investing in yourself. You can certainly learn lots of useful skills, but if you want to go into biosecurity research, for example, working on your student group and making yourself a more competitive applicant are quite zero-sum. I think many organizers would actually be good at many things other than just community building, and I’m worried that organizing without skill-building in other domains sub-optimally locks organizers into a community building track. But taking time for personal development when the rewards of organizing are so apparent can feel hard to justify.
  • Feeling like a fake: If you’re spending most of the time you can afford to allot to “EA work”/non-school work on building your student group, chances are you’re not spending a lot of time learning about the object level problems. You probably don’t have a robust understanding of AI alignment or wild animal welfare, and may not have done much cause prioritization yourself. But at the same time you’re telling lots of people that this is the most important century and transformative AI seems like a great thing to be working on. Putting aside the fine balance between deferring too much and trusting experts, this can feel shitty. It can make you feel like a fraud, even if you think it is still the best thing for you to be doing.

A personal anecdote

It might be hard to imagine how “stark fluctuations in time commitment” or other challenges actually play out. Let me (Aris) tell you my story.  

I became the President of EA Berkeley at 1 AM on a Thursday, with no prior warning. By the end of the day, I had left one leadership position in a research journal that I had worked with for 3 years and a second in a research lab I had worked in for 2 years (positions that would have made my applications to grad school more competitive). Since then, I’ve barely seen any of the 20ish people from these groups that were regularly in my life. 

Over the next few weeks of making sure I was putting a ton of effort into my group, I had stopped proactively reaching out to many of my friends (no time), stopped showing up to my usual social events (no time), and would miss events that felt notably strange not to go to (EAG just so happens to be during Easter, and my dorm’s dance). Eventually, people realized that this wasn’t a short-term fluke on my part: I actually couldn’t be there for people in the same capacity I used to. 

I lost my identity as a person who always prioritizes her friends. I’ve had to spend a long time trying to internalize that this doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. I lost other identities too. I used to be a student who was early and present for every class. After becoming a group organizer, I started to strategically skip classes (it takes 15 minutes to walk there, 15 to walk back) and watch lectures at 4x speed. As much as you can realize that it’s good to learn and adapt like a homunculus, reshaping a lot of beliefs about yourself and your life – especially when you’re at a time in your life when you’re just figuring those out – is exhausting. 

Making such drastic changes has made me, and a lot of people I’ve been close to, wonder if I’m making the right choice with my time. Even with these difficulties, I believe that shifting my commitments to focus on EA was the right choice for me, but the “right thing” came at the cost of severing myself from communities that I had been part of for years. And I know I’m not alone in having experienced these challenges.

Ok, what should we do about that?

Well, we sure don’t want to give up! We do university organizing because it’s important to us and the world. It can be difficult in unexpected ways, but lots of impactful work is challenging – and lots of university organizers are capable of handling challenges. Still, as a community, we should build systems of support and invest in the well-being of university organizers when they’re feeling isolated or experiencing other issues. 
 

  • Peer support: In the right settings, student group community builders should talk amongst themselves about the challenges they’re facing, as well as resources and strategies they’ve found helpful to deal with them. These groups could also be a place to give others permission to take time off if they need it. Some strategies that Aris has found helpful include:
    • Creating a weekly message to send to family members so they feel included in her life, despite her otherwise time-crunched communication.
    • Sending out a google form to learn which ways my friends like to be appreciated so that she can maximize taking those actions.
  • Empathy: People who interact with student group organizers (e.g., CEA groups team, grantmakers) could benefit from understanding some of these challenges and doing their best to not exacerbate them or have unrealistic expectations for student organizers.
  • Campus specialists: Having dedicated, university-specific support for the most promising university groups seems really valuable. It could alleviate a lot of the stress that organizers feel and make the group less contingent on the schedule (and mental health) of stressed students.
  • Be supportive, not pushy or jokey when trying to recruit university organizers: It’s fine to discuss the impact and importance of doing university work. But people in positions of power, such as funders or people with high status, should be especially aware of not trivializing the challenges new organizers face. To people who have worked in community building for years, the decision to drop out of school to support the MIT student group sounds great, but to a person new to EA this could mean permanently damaging ties with their friends and family. Try to understand this perspective.
  • Student groups that look more like friend groups: A lot of these challenges, in Michel’s experience, mostly stem from the more outreach/mass-marketing parts of uni group organizing (e.g., large intro events, intro fellowships). Other parts of running a student group like socials with other people who are taking EA ideas seriously or smaller EA co-working groups can actually be quite energizing. Depending on organizer capacity, it could make sense to run a ‘student group’ that looks more like a cluster of friends who hang out and talk about EA than a mini organization.

A collection of related resources




 

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:57 PM

Thanks for writing this post, and I agree with a lot of it! Regarding the point about poor feedback loops, could the signals below be evidence that things are going well?

  • Members take ideas seriously and seem to care deeply about improving the world.
  • Members engage in thoughtful cause prioritization and try to resolve their philosophical uncertainties.
  • Members learn about problems they find most important.
  • Members skill-up so they're each better able to contribute to the problem they want to work on.
  • Members start new projects, work with EA orgs (e.g. summer internship), and/or get mentorship from people who've been working on the same problem for longer.

Thank you for writing this. A lot of this feels true for me.

A quick thought: some of what you wrote can also be generalized to "working really hard, all the time, on one thing." A lot of EA community builders do this. So do a lot of student entrepreneurs, researchers, performing artists, debators, and athletes, and I think they can run into many of the same challenges. I also think some of the solutions you outlined are common for some of these communities (e.g. athletic teams often feel like friend groups). Maybe there are lessons that can be learned from people who fall into this more general category?

Very strong +1 to student groups that look more like friend groups than organizations. I was extremely hesitant in reaching out to EA Berkeley because, to put it bluntly, I thought it would be like an in person EA Forum. I've been very pleasantly surprised by how much more social it is. I - and I suspect most college students - much prefer to spend time with friends in altruism, as opposed to colleagues in altruism.

I am so glad you reached out! Hopefully we can stay friendly :)