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Wilfrid Laurier University grad Kelly Warren, left, and her friend Emily Shea volunteer during orientation week in 2014.

Amelia Rutledge found herself smiling at strangers and happily giving away ketchup samples at the Calgary Stampede this July. It was part of a summer marketing job, and she was having a blast.

But the new commerce graduate from Dalhousie University in Halifax hadn't always felt so comfortable interacting with strangers. In fact, Ms. Rutledge is the first to admit she was "highly, highly introverted" back in high school. Simply talking to people she didn't know made her feel nauseated.

So what flipped the switch?

"I think through my involvement in university [activities], I became more extroverted," she explains, mentioning that Dalhousie allowed her to explore her interest in marketing when she landed the position of vice-president of marketing in its Commerce Society. "Meeting new people is definitely a lot easier now."

Beyond gaining confidence in social situations, taking on extracurricular leadership positions in university has all sorts of other benefits: networking opportunities, scholarships, résumé-building, time management skills and a general sense that you're making the world a better place.

At least, that is what recent graduate Kelly Warren discovered during her five years at Wilfrid Laurier University juggling a myriad of leadership jobs and a degree in contemporary education. She jumped right in at Laurier to volunteer in a first-year residence leadership program, orientation weeks, an outreach literacy program with the local library that had her working as a reading buddy with elementary students and even as a residence don.

Ms. Warren still remembers how terrified she was the first time she had to host her first community meeting with the students living on her residence floor, though. The meeting went just fine, as it turned out.

Learning by doing is the best way to become leadership material, but some universities are now offering workshops to get students up to speed quickly. Take the University of Waterloo's Student Leadership Program, a set of 12 free workshops.

Completing the workshops, which cover everything from communication and leadership style to motivating others, and even how to run effective meetings, earns students a certificate.

Jill Knight, the program's co-ordinator, says universities are great places to explore team management skills.

"At a university it's kind of a safe place," she says. "There are thousands of opportunities literally at your doorstep."

How to juggle

But with all of those available choices, how can students best juggle academics and extracurricular options without getting burned out? That is a question students often ask, she acknowledges. Here are a few ways to find balance, according to Ms. Knight and a couple of students and grads from Waterloo.


That is what Winnie Luong did before graduating as one of the University of Waterloo’s mathematics faculty’s valedictorians this year. Now an actuarial analyst in Toronto, she was the president of the Actuarial Science Club by her third year at university. Juggling her demanding math degree and leadership position wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it was tempting to plan social events – something she learned she enjoyed – instead of studying. Ms. Luong ended up deciding in advance how much time she would volunteer and was careful not to deviate from the plan.


Katie Arnold, a third-year mechanical engineering student and president of the university’s Engineering Society, says it is easy to get sidetracked by volunteering and extracurriculars. She thinks back to the time when a mentor warned her that her society work might take over.

"You look at your school assignments and they seem less relevant," she says. "That's a point you don't want to be at."


Sure, it would look amazing on your résumé to list a dozen student council and team leadership positions while still in school, but if that means too many nights burning the midnight oil to keep up, the stress is probably not worth it.

“I find that when you can no longer feel the enjoyment in what you’re doing and it feels like an obligation, that’s when you need to recognize that you need to start saying no a little bit more,” says Ms. Knight.

She recommends choosing a few opportunities students are passionate about rather than dabbling in many.

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