Student clubs create peer-based communities, boost mental health and academic success

Campus clubs and organizations help students blossom into their full potential through building leadership skills, strong social ties, and peer-based communities.

Group of students with winning team and avengers signs, everyone having so much fun.
Students gather to celebrate their winnings at Marvelous Mayhem, an Avenger-themed get-together hosted by campus group Baptist Collegiate Ministries, Jan. 9, 2023. (Photo: Anita Bice)

By Riana Jicha.

At the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, student clubs and organizations are a way for budding scholars to explore their interests, build campus communities, and make lifelong friends. With the stress of classes, exams, and deadlines gnawing at mental health, these student-led groups help create balance between stressful academic pursuits and an actively fun social life. And that balance is key to avoiding burn out.

Frank Kuo pictured
Frank Kuo

“Extracurricular activities are an integral facet of academia and educational institutions,” says Frank Kuo, director of Counseling Services at UH Hilo. “They create the significance of belonging, acceptance, and connectedness among students, and these are all cultivated beyond an academic classroom’s four walls via extracurriculars.”

UH Hilo’s student clubs and organizations include Chartered Student Organizations (CSOs, organizations that receive student fees), such as the Board of Media BroadcastingBoard of Student PublicationsUH Hilo Student Association, and the Student Activities Council, as well as Registered Independent Organizations (RISOs) or campus clubs. These organizations allow students to blossom into their full potential through building leadership skills, strong social ties, and peer-based communities.

Kuo says academic stress can prevail when the expectation of performance is higher, whether during exams or challenging assignments. However, students with a solid social connection and a chance to detach from academic pressure through extracurricular activities have a 2 percent increase in positive test results.

He adds that overstressed students can find difficulty reaching their educational goals and, most seriously, experience declining mental health. Essentially, he says, extracurricular activities can help students declutter the mind from stress, think clearly, and be in the academic frame needed in the classroom.

Student on the library lanai sort through clothing at charity event.
UH Hilo student-led Pride Hilo, an LGBTIQA support group, sponsored “Destiny’s Closet” clothes donation event, Oct. 11, 2022, on the Mookini Library’s lanai. (Pride Hilo/Instagram, used with permission)

Along with countless social awareness events, from the Philosophy Club to the Linguistic Association of Hawai‘i, students at UH Hilo have abundant choices to get involved within the campus community.  With a multitude of student organizations at UH Hilo, and every student is sure to find their niche from lively events, such as Marvelous Mayhem, an Avenger-themed get-together hosted by Baptist Collegiate Ministries, to charitable projects, like Destiny’s Closet, a student-led clothes donation by Pride Hilo, an LGBTIQA support group.

“Through organized games, students learn to follow instructions, they learn to listen to instructions and apply them to achieve a desired outcome,” says Kuo. “Through organized activities, students learn the importance of persistence and motivation. They understand that accomplishing goals often requires focus and hard work.”

A sense of community

Four students at an informational table on the plaza. Sign in front of table: PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT.
Members of the Philosophy Club at an informational event, “Mix & Match: Meet the Student Organizations Night,” Oct. 7, 2022, Campus Center Plaza. (Courtesy photo)

Austin Phillps, vice president of the Philosophy Club, says, “These clubs give you the ability to freely think, without a grade. It helps to enjoy learning and engage with knowledge.”

This enjoyment comes primarily from club members building a close-knit community made up of people sharing common interests and offering care and support. That kind of environment considerably impacts students’ mental health and academic success, mainly through creating feelings of connection and of being less isolated.

“Being surrounded by people who are caring and supportive helps students to see themselves as better capable of dealing with the stresses that life brings,” explains Kuo. “Having strong social outlets and support in times of crisis can help reduce the consequences of trauma-induced disorders.”

Advisors play a key role in building club communities, reaching out and developing those necessary connections wherever and however they can for students in need.

“We believe even the most introverted students are hard-wired to belong to a community,” says Anita Bice, advisor for Baptist Collegiate Ministries’ on-campus organization. She says that providing a safe space and robust support system frees students to ask for help in any way it may appear, whether through academic support from peers to provided transportation for essential shopping.

That belief in support through the development of social circles is shared by almost all actively involved club members seeking an equilibrium between academia and social support.

“When I feel overwhelmed or stressed with life, I know that this club is there for me,” says Elena Espinoza, president of Pride Hilo. “Whether it be one on one with my advisor or getting a bite to eat with another member, the club can act as a pillar of support while I navigate this crazy thing called life.”

By Riana Jicha, a double major in administration of justice and political science.