Obtaining Leadership Experience through Student Organization


In this website, there have been many articles that encourage Indonesians to apply to top schools and provide advice on application preparation for these schools. Thus, I would like to take this chance to elaborate more on one particular part of my application that I believe help distinguish me from the pool of equally bright and qualified applicants: leadership experience.

When I was in high school, I never care about joining the student government body. Thus, when my friends back home heard that I was the President of PERMIAS (Persatuan Mahasiswa Indonesia di Amerika Serikat) – Michigan, they could not wrap their minds around it. In high school, outside my studies I just want to enjoy my time with friends, which is why I was disinterested with leadership activities. Not until I joined PERMIAS board members did I realize that engaging in organizations is actually… fun and rewarding as well.

My first excitement of PERMIAS came from the Saman dance practices that we have in preparation for the Indonesian Cultural Night. It was a great way to get to know more Indonesian friends at the University of Michigan and I was also delighted to see how fascinated foreigners are with Indonesia; both were the main drivers of my interest to be involved in the leadership of PERMIAS. Not having any organization experience beforehand, I started my leadership journey in PERMIAS as the Secretary before making my way up to become the Vice President and then the President. Later on, when I attended the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), I was struck by the lack of student organization representing Southeast Asia (SEA), a region with its own characteristics and increasing relevance to the global economy, politics, and health issues. After reviewing all the administrative process of starting the organization, I thought to myself, “I have learned a lot from my PERMIAS experience, now would be the opportunity to bring it to a different level, founding a new organization that represents different nationalities and focuses more on external – larger than our own members – activities.” Thus, with the help and support from a group of SEA friends at the school, I founded the Southeast Asia Student Association (SEASA) at HSPH.

Looking back, I treasured all the time, thoughts, and resources I have invested in PERMIAS and they helped shaped a fulfilling undergraduate life for me. Looking forward, having these leadership experiences have definitely helped me stand out among other students and job applicants. There are many students who can achieve outstanding academic achievements, but not so many can achieve both great academic standings and astounding leadership accomplishments.

To convince you even more, here are some of the additional reasons (outside of the benefits of differentiating your applications from others) why you should be engaged in a student organization during your undergraduate program:

1. You will learn how the real world works and gain essential skills to maneuver through the real world

You will realize how important dynamic of communication is, how difficult it can be to motivate people and align your interests, how funding and budget are important, and how there is almost always politics at play. You will then discover ways to handle all of these aspects of professional life that are not taught in classes. I obtained almost all of the interpersonal skills that are valuable for working life, such as managing colleagues’ expectation and enthusiasm or separating professional from personal issues, from my PERMIAS experience. It also taught me one of the most important skills of life: time management, through balancing academic obligations, organization responsibilities, and, of course, fun times.

2. You will network with people both personally and professionally

As I mentioned, personally, joining student organization is fun, since it’s one way of finding new friends. You will spend so much time planning event, sharing the ownership of your successes, and learning from your failures with them. But, you will also spend lots of time hanging out in between meetings, celebrating completion of events, as well as supporting and comforting each other in the down times. Not surprisingly, most of the people in my board members in PERMIAS are some of my closest friends in my undergraduate experience.

Professionally, you will be able to network with not only influential people in your field through inviting them as guest speakers at your events but also with prospective peers who will work in the same fields as you. More importantly, you can have better connections with these people since you actually have a working relationship with them as opposed to the more common name-card-exchanged connections made in huge conferences or crowded career-fairs.

 3. You will find what you are passionate about and/or what you are not passionate about

For me personally, joining PERMIAS has made me feel prouder to be an Indonesian and it has made me fall in love with Indonesian culture. And this has helped me determine the career paths that I will pursue in the near future. Similarly for you, it is possible that when you casually join an entrepreneurship club you can realize that it is what you want to do for the rest of your life.  Conversely, you might devotedly join a consulting club and realize that the high-paced, demanding consultant lifestyle is not for you. Although you can also be exposed to these benefits without being in the board member, taking part in the laborious behind-the-scene planning of an event gives you more thorough insights into the real environment, personalities, and lifestyles of the field and the stakeholders that you are interested in.

The University of Michigan, where the author studied.

I would like to end this article by sharing some tips to maximize your leadership experience in student organizations. First, choose an organization that does the things you are passionate about because you are going to invest your time in it. I have chosen to be engaged in geographical-based organizations, but you could participated in professional clubs (e.g. consulting club, entrepreneurship club, pre-medical club, etc.) or specific topics-oriented clubs (e.g. University Students Acting Against Cancer, Mental Health Student Consortium, etc.). It would not be beneficial for you to be engaged in an organization solely because you know it is easy to get a position in that organization or the other board members are your closest friends. Choosing an organization that you are really passionate about will optimize the aforementioned second and third benefits of engaging in organizations.

Next, be familiar with the organization’s activities, structure, and culture before you apply for a leadership position in that organization. This will allow you to understand the challenges and opportunities that you will face and provide you with better chance to make a difference in the organization or scale-up some of its previous activities, which is the major selling point in application, cover letter, or interviews.

Lastly, do NOT participate solely for the sake of getting an additional experience line in your resume. This is because what really matters for your application reviewers is the story of what you actually did and how you did it. Interviewers are interested in the details about what specific problems you encountered, what specific actions you took, and what specific responds you got from your colleagues. Unless you are very good at coming up with detailed on-the-minute-made-up stories during interviews, these lines of positions would not be beneficial for you.

So, undergrads, wait no longer, choose your organization and seize the opportunity to enhance your undergraduate experience while improving your qualifications for graduate school and job applications!

Photo credit: AndrewHorne on Wikimedia Commons and Microsoft.

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Azalea Ayuningtyas graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor degree in Cell and Molecular Biology and is currently a second year Master student in Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. She was the President of PERMIAS Michigan in 2010-2011 and is the founder and co-president of the Southeast Asia Student Association at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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