June 10-17 is Secular Students Week, sponsored, obviously, by the Secular Student Alliance, and I’m happy to help promote that event and SSA in general with this guest post by Sarah Wright, one of the SSA leaders at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
When I became an Atheist several years ago, I greatly appreciated the support I received from secular groups around me, especially from local Meetup groups. I wanted to help provide that same type of supportive environment for secular students on my campus. When I realized there was no secular student group currently at University of Illinois – Chicago, I joined forces with two other inspired students to found the Secular Student Society! In our constitution, our purpose was to “advocate for secular identities and promote secular values on campus and in surrounding communities through student organization and cooperation.” It took a few months for us to organize our documents, find a faculty advisor, and apply for student organization status.
Finally becoming an official student organization at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the beginning of this spring semester, Matt, David, and I were ready to start bringing in members. We realized a big event would be the best method of communicating our existence to as many students on campus as possible. We picked a controversial topic, “Can we be good without God?,” to intrigue people to come, and we added the best incentive of all… free pizza! We knew our debut event would be difficult to plan and pull together, so we asked for help from a second student organization, our faculty advisor, and the Secular Student Alliance.
Because we were a secular student organization, we wanted to make sure our presence on campus was seen as positive. We wanted people to know that we were on campus to support students and did not fit into any previous prejudices or biases held about secular people. So we joined forces with a Christian student organization called Cru. The student president, Clara, was very excited about the debate and pulled together a team from her organization to help us. They found the counter debater Dr. Constantine Campbell, printed the programs, helped advertise the event, and provided a strong working presence the day of the event. Our partnership went so well that Cru members wanted to do more events with us, including a potential second debate in the next academic year! Our faculty advisor, Kevin, was able to connect us with the UIC program in Religious Studies in order to obtain funding for the food.
The Secular Student Alliance was a great partner to have throughout the entire process. Their larger networks allowed us to have Dan Barker come be our debater for free! The SSA website had great information about how to run a debate, what the schedule for a debate should be, and even an example script of what to say. I remember sending a ton of e-mails to our regional SSA contact Jessika Griffin who was very nice, informative, and patient. When I was unsure of something, wanted her to look at our designed programs and fliers, or had general questions, she and the SSA were there to help. It was great finally meeting Jessika in person at a regional meeting in Chicago later that same semester.
Cru and the Freedom From Religion Foundation did a tremendous job helping advertise for the event. We all passed out fliers, did some tabling in the student center, sent e-mail blasts, posted on Facebook, and even chalked on the sidewalk encouraging people to come. The debate was a huge success with over 120 people in attendance! Many people expressed their enjoyment of the debate and were looking for more events that our student organization could host. We also received requests from some students to join our organization and be on our e-mailing list. Due to the exposure received by the debate, we strengthened ties with the local FFRF chapter in Chicago, became familiar with SSA and all that they had to offer, and established ourselves as an exciting and legitimate student organization at UIC.
I am proud to say that my goal of supporting secular students on campus has been a victory this last semester. I know the Secular Student Society will continue to be a positive presence at UIC, especially with dynamic and hardworking officers such as Matt and David and with the invaluable backing from the Secular Student Alliance. To conclude, I’d like to let you know that I’m writing this because this week is Secular Student Week! I am a student activist and member of the Secular Student Alliance. Student organizations such as my own would not be possible without SSA – they make our work possible! The SSA has set a goal of 500 donations during Secular Student Week so they can unlock a challenge grant. Please consider making a donation to help reach that goal!