by Lisa Birle
Campus outreach can be a tricky thing.
How do you stand out among the other organizations and clubs on campus as one that's different? How do you get students to care about what you care about? How do you get them to care at all? How do you strike up a conversation with someone who will do anything to avoid being given another rave card or flier or being asked to sign yet another petition about lunch meat or parking lots?
Today, our team hung out at a local community college campus. But we didn't act like a club. We didn't have fliers or surveys or petitions. We weren't wearing matching shirts or hanging banners. We just showed up the first morning of finals week and asked students if they needed anything for their exams. No e-mail list or survey questions about where they might fall on the faith spectrum. No catch. In fact, all we had was a table full of the necessitites of these students' weeks—scantrons, freshly sharpened #2 pencils, and blue books (which are, in fact, now green—because colleges are much more environmentally conscious than when I went to school). We simply asked students walking by what they needed and they were able to grab sheets and books and pencils for their tests. And their responses were everything from joyful to suspicious. “No catch?” “What do I have to sign?” “Wait...it's free?” “Seriously?!” “Why are you guys doing this?” And all we would say is, “Who wants to buy scantrons? We just want to help you out and make your day a little easier!” They were flabbergasted and even a little suspect. (Some students purchased their scantrons rather than trust our shady-looking table.)
So many times, clubs and booths and banners and rave cards instantly deter students from their organization or club. Students will fake talking on their phones, quickly put in their earbuds, or grab a friend to chat with so they won't have to listen. Free scantrons met a practical need for them this morning, without asking for anything in return. We didn't say anything about Jesus. We didn't say we were a church. We didn't say anything about God. We just wanted to show these students that we care about them and wanted to show it in a practical way. The strategy here was to leave a positive impression...“Hey, remember those people giving out free scantrons? That was awesome.” We want to show these students that regardless of who they are and what they believe, they matter to us and we appreciate them. They'll see us next semester when we do the same thing (I'm thinking we even add some donuts to the mix...they're just as much a necessity as a pencil during final exams, after all...), and they'll ask us again why we're there.
And when we tell them, they might take out their earbuds and put down their phones with ease and be a little more willing to listen...