Student government offers students excellent ways to get involved in the inner workings of their schools, both in high school and in college. Students who participate in their student governments are privy to a range of personal and professional benefits, and they can be exposed to a variety of opportunities in school and beyond. Hearing from students who have gone through it before and gaining a little background information on student government structures, roles, benefits and challenges can help high school and college students decide whether student government is the perfect addition to their personal and academic pursuits.
Many students are aware their schools have a student government, but the details can be bit hazy. With some understanding of student governments and their various elements, students can see why they might want to participate and where they fit into their school’s organizations.
Student government is a group of students that are charged with managing a wide range of events, activities, programs, policies and initiatives around school. Some members are elected by the student body, and others may be appointed by the elected officials to help with specific tasks or areas of interest. Student government represents the best interests of a school’s student body and helps shape the student experience on campus.?
Student governments may take on a wide range of responsibilities, and a student government’s role can vary greatly depending on the school and its needs. For instance, high school student councils are generally responsible for organizing student activities like dances, spirit weeks, community service and fundraising movements and assemblies. College student governments, especially those of smaller schools, may take on similar responsibilities and manage clubs and student activities. Larger college student governments may have more responsibilities, like managing campus health and wellness, community outreach, sustainability, drafting and pushing initiatives and policy and budgeting for clubs.
Schools may have more than one student government to manage different areas of campus interest. For example, UC Berkeley is comprised of multiple student governments that represent the university’s schools and colleges. The main student government, ASUC, is so large that it is run as an independent non-profit entirely separate from university governance. ASUC not only controls student club funding, provides student support and organizes programming and activities, it also represents and advocates for students at the university at the local, state and national level.
It depends on the school, but typically, high school student councils are smaller and have fewer responsibilities than their collegiate counterparts. A high school student council’s focus is very much within the school and centers around student activities. College student governments have the potential to be much larger to accommodate a larger student body and more intricate social and academic system. College student governments may have more roles and varied responsibilities, be comprised of both elected and appointed members, represent many aspects of student life and can have influence on university policies and standards as well as local, state and national legislature.
Any student can run for a position or try to get involved in other ways. Typically, students who get involved in their schools’ governments care a lot about their schools and campus communities, do well in leadership roles, are proactive, want to get involved with student life at its roots and are interested in government and politics.
It’s common for students to think that their student government isn’t important, but without student government, many of the aspects of high school and college life that they enjoy exist and persist because of student government. Student government also works as a representative body through which students can voice their concerns and interests. They are students advocating for students.
There isn’t a set of personality traits that students are required to have to join student government. Especially as they get into college, students will find that there are many different roles and responsibilities that benefit from unique perspectives, experiences and interests. However, having certain skills, wants and attributes can help students be successful in their leadership roles and enjoy the experience.
Doing a self-evaluation is helpful in figuring out if student government is a good fit.
Students who feel they are lacking in some of these qualities shouldn’t be discouraged; they may find that student government is an excellent way to develop and hone leadership skills and traits.
High school and college student governments have established structures and roles to help ensure they function as effectively as possible. Looking at a school’s government organizational chart or trying to decipher descriptions of roles, especially when you’re not very familiar with the names and purposes of school-specific clubs, initiatives and events, can get overwhelming.
Luckily, while there is some variance, most student governments and councils have similar structures and positions for students to fill.
The structure of student government can vary depending on the school, and the size of the institution and its level of student participation can play heavily into which structure works best. Despite their differences in details, there are a few main structures after which most student governments are modeled.
It’s common for student governments, particularly at the college level, to be modeled after the U.S. government. These student governments are made up of three branches: Executive, legislative and judicial. These branches work together to ensure balance of power within the student government.
The executive branch can take many shapes but at minimum consists of the President, Vice President and other directorial positions. It’s common for the executive branch to have a Treasurer, Secretary and Chief of Staff, who may act as head of the Presidential Cabinet, if one exists. The Cabinet can be composed of directors or vice presidents of different significant interest groups or factions of the student government, such as Legislative Affairs or Diversity and Inclusion.
A senate typically makes up the bulk of the legislative branch. School senators represent different colleges and schools or interest groups around campus and may cast votes on behalf of these groups. A speaker and parliamentarian preside over the senate and facilitate meetings. The legislative branch meets to address student needs, organize and carry out committee projects and initiatives, create legislation and work on ways to improve campus life.
The judicial branch is the big player in any legal matters associated with the student government and student interests. Comprised of a Chief Justice and Associate Justices, this branch works to ensure the executive and legislative branches, along with other student groups, uphold and adhere to legal standards. They may handle cases relating to student government bylaws and constitutions, contested elections and student government member conduct.
Schools may find that a bicameral system works better for them. Some schools may call this a “senate style” of student government. This model is similar to the federal model, but it usually forgoes the judicial branch. For instance, New York University is made up of a Student Senators Council and a President’s Council. These two groups work together to enhance student life and create policy that improves the overall student experience. The Student Senators Council brings student concerns to the University Senate, and the President’s Council works with the Student Senators Council to enact senatorial policy and increase student engagement.
High schools and some smaller colleges, like community colleges and technical schools, are likely to stick with a small student government, comprised mostly of the main roles of the executive branch: president, vice president, treasurer and secretary. At the high school level, the president, vice president, secretary and treasurer may be supported by officers and representatives from each class.
At the college level, club presidents may act as part of the student government, representing student interests. In these types of student governments, administrators and other school staff may play a larger supportive role than in larger student governments.
The roles a student may pursue in their student government can be numerous and varied, depending on where they go to school, so the best way to learn about specific roles and responsibilities within a particular school’s student government is to go to a few meetings on campus and research positions online or in person.
However, students who want to get a general idea of the governmental roles they may come across at their schools can check out the following list to learn about common titles and what parts they play.
Responsibilities: Runs student council meetings and facilitates discussion, acts as representative of the student body when meeting with school faculty, breaks ties in voting and participates heavily in student activities.Role Name: Student Body Vice President
Responsibilities: Shares the president’s responsibilities and stands in for the president when needed. May be in charge of managing student clubs and other academic committees.Role Name: Student Body Secretary
Responsibilities: Records the minutes and attendance of student council meetings, keeps records of discussions and decisions, and manages files and other important documents.Role Name: Student Body Treasurer
Responsibilities: Manages the student council’s funds and expenses, keeps financial records and works with the president and vice president to create budgets and allot funds for clubs and events.Role Name: Class Officers
Responsibilities: Each class level has its own president, vice president, secretary and/or treasurer. These are known as class officers, and they represent the particular interests of each class. They may have separate meetings from the student body council, and the president from each class may serve as the class’s representative voice during student body council meetings.Role Name: Class/Club Representatives
Responsibilities: Some schools may have students with close ties to student associations, clubs or other groups participate in student government. They voice the concerns, needs and desires of their respective groups during meetings.Role Name: Additional roles, like Speaker and Activity Coordinator
Responsibilities: Student councils may have special roles for duties that may not inherently fall under another council member’s. For example, a speaker serves as emcee at student activities or presents the student council’s ideas to faculty and the student body. An activity coordinator is responsible for putting together events and activities.
Responsibilities: Elected by the student body and represents the student body as a whole. They choose a cabinet and designate roles to help ensure the school is run in a way that best serves the student body.Role Name: Vice President
Responsibilities: Varies, but generally to assist the president in managing executive branch members and activities. May stand in for the president if the president is absent.Role Name: Chief of Staff
Responsibilities: Overseeing cabinet members and many of the logistics of running the executive branch. Chief advisor to the president and vice president and make sure that agendas are addressed and deadlines met. May meet individually with cabinet members to discuss needs and relay them to the president and vice president.Role Name: Cabinet Members and/or Additional Leadership Roles
Responsibilities: The variety and type of committees, boards and groups colleges may have can be vast, and the president of a school’s student government is often responsible for creating roles to represent and meet the needs of these groups and interests. For example, a president’s cabinet could consist of a Director of Campus Life, Director of Equity and Outreach, Director or Sustainability, Director of Public Relations and a Director of Academic Affairs. There may also be smaller roles within these breakout groups that exist as part of the executive branch.Role Name: Senator
Responsibilities: College legislatures are composed of senators that represent schools, clubs or other committees within the college. Senators voice the concerns and interests of their respective student groups and work with one another to enact legislature that will improve students’ overall college experience. They may also vote in favor of or against the President’s cabinet appointees.Role Name: Senate Speaker
Responsibilities: Presides over and facilitates senate meetings. Serves as the representative voice of the senate in meetings with other student government branches, university staff and faculty, the student body and the general public.Role Name: Speaker Pro Tempore
Responsibilities: Operates the internal affairs of the senate. May manage the signing on and resignation of senators, the senate’s finances and relay necessary information to senate members.Role Name: Parliamentarian
Responsibilities: Facilitates senatorial elections, writing and disseminating bylaws and enforcing procedure during meetings.Role Name: Chief Justice
Responsibilities: Presides over and serves as spokesperson for the judicial branch. Writes the official orders and decisions made by the judicial branch and relays this information to other student government branches and the university.Role Name: Associate Justice
Responsibilities: Must attend all meetings and cast votes in hearings brought to the student government’s judicial branch. Must ask questions in hearings and ensure they hear all sides of an issue before casting a vote.Role Name: Attorney General
Responsibilities: Acts as a liaison between grieving parties, accused parties, justices and other student government branches as part of the judicial branch. They may receive complaints against student government members and conduct investigations.Role Name: Committee Member or Other Representative
Responsibilities: College student governments can have a lot of breakout groups and members within those groups, so students may be able to find student government roles specific to their interests. Responsibilities will vary based on the group and role.
Participating in student council or student government can be an enriching experience with lasting positive impacts. However, the rewards don’t come without their difficulties. As with any commitment, students should be sure to consider all aspects of joining student government before going all-in.
Student council and student government introduces students to the overall structure and function of the government and its processes.
Working closely with other students and school faculty gives students the opportunity to build strong, meaningful friendships and professional relationships.
Those who get involved in student government can propose initiatives, policy, outreach and other activities that can create positive change within their school and community.
Professional skills like effective communication, research, presenting ideas, organizing meetings and events and collaborating between different groups can all be developed and honed through student government.
Because of the skills and knowledge gained and the commitment required, having student government on a resume can be an advantage when applying for college, jobs and internships.
Whether students know they are interested in developing policy or they accidentally stumble upon a passion for sustainability or community outreach, involvement in student government offers many opportunities to develop their interests.
Effective teamwork is an invaluable skill that students will certainly get to practice while in student government.
Student government members not only make connections with members of the student body, but also with faculty, school staff, local activists and policy-makers, community members and other people of interest and influence. This exposure can open many doors for students in the future.
The time needed to participate in student government can be taxing on top of other student commitments.
For many, school is a time to focus on studies and social life, so the extra responsibility that comes with participating in student government may be a drawback.
Working well with others is an excellent skill, but it’s not always a fun or easy one to master. Collaborating and communicating with a variety of people who have different passions and levels of investment can be rough.
Some student governments have considerable influence over the way their schools run. Others may feel more symbolic than anything else. Students may get excited to incite change only to find that their school’s student government doesn’t have much sway, which can be frustrating.
With the time commitment and responsibility required of student government involvement, students can get overwhelmed. Some can work through the stress and grow from it, but others may find it’s too much.
A big part of student government is getting the rest of the student body to participate. Students, especially busy, stressed ones with their own interests and commitments, can be hard to convince.
The types of students who are drawn to student government likely have a lot of commitments. School, work, friends, family and other activities may all play a part in students’ lives, and adding student government to the mix can be challenging.
Participation in student government won’t necessarily skyrocket students to lives of prominence and fame, but student government members can at least count on being in good company.
After filming her breakout role as Bridget in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, actor Blake Lively finished her senior year at Burbank High School in California, where she served as senior class president.
Add political prowess next to acting, singing and dancing on Hugh Jackman’s list of accomplishments. Before Les Miserables, X-Men and a slew of other high-profile roles, Hugh Jackman was class president of Knox Grammar School in Australia.
Hillary Clinton’s political career began early in her life. She was senior class president of Wellesley College before pursuing bigger roles in American politics.
One of America’s most prominent and innovative jazz pianists, Herbie Hancock, was elected president of his sophomore class at Hyde Park High School, where African Americans were in the minority, and was elected president of student council twice.
This iconic movie star, known for his unique voice and gait as much as for the iconic roles he played in movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit and The Alamo, was class president at Glendale High School.
Prior to becoming an on-screen superhero, playing both Catwoman and X-Men’s Storm, Halle Berry was class president at Bedford High School in Ohio.
Jesse Jackson, who is known for his lifetime of civil rights activism, was elected class president at Sterling High School. He would later run for President of the United States twice.
The American actor who would later become the 40th President of the United States was first student body president of Eureka College.
“I joined the student government my freshman year when I was new to Milton Hershey School. I wanted to get involved, and it sounded like a great opportunity to gain leadership experience while also meeting new people and learning about myself and how I could help impact the Milton Hershey School community. Some of the highlights for me were being able to plan events for my class and watch them come together as one, and work with other students who also wanted to make a difference. I also had the opportunity my senior year to get students involved in leadership roles and taking initiative who normally would not be in that position.
Being in student government, of course, has its challenges, but they also seem so minimal when you are actually able to make an impact. It was challenging to work on an idea and propose it and be told “no.” This, however, also made the times when you heard “yes” even better. My time in student government had a huge impact on who I am today. It gave me communication skills, confidence and friendships that I carried through all of high school. It also helped give me a better idea of what I wanted to do for my future career. I have those leadership skills ready for when I enter the real world.
I plan on doing student government to some extent in college, but if I decide not to, I will definitely be using the skills I learned. I learned a lot about patience, time management and how I can best serve those around me. I would highly recommend student government to other students—it is a great opportunity to not only be a leader to your peers, but to help you grow as a person and prepare you for after high school.”
“I joined student government because I was applying for scholarships, and they all asked what I did outside of the classroom. I was looking for something to put on my resume other than just classes, and student government was during a time I didn’t have class. I never really had an interest in government before, but there are so many wonderful highlights that came out of being in SGA.
Getting to know what the Student Affairs department did and how to get involved in the University of North Georgia community was the best thing. I realized I had a love for Student Affairs and hope to be able to return to UNG as an employee in the Student Affairs Department and earn my Master’s Degree. I actually changed my major from business to General Studies so I could learn more about a variety of things for this type of position.
As SGA President, I was asked to give several speeches and address the student body and different members of the community in many ways. I hope through these speeches, I was able to encourage students to become more involved in the UNG community and to enjoy their time at UNG as much as possible.
I was also able to create new SGA positions and increase opportunities for leadership and campus involvement, and I had a hand in creating a memorial wall and carrying out a community service project that united UNG’s different campuses. UNG had gone through a consolidation a few years before I started, and we wanted to help students feel like they were part of the same university no matter what campus they take classes on.
The most challenging thing about my position was getting the help I needed to accomplish the things my council and I wanted to do. We had very poor attendance and participation because we are a commuter campus. Most students come to campus just to take classes, then leave to go home or to their job. Getting students to stay on campus was a challenge and getting them to commit to joining SGA was even harder. They felt they didn’t have time to participate in any activity.
The best lesson I learned from SGA was that to see an idea come to life, it takes a lot of time and dedication, but it also takes a lot of help from others. You have to have negotiating skills and leadership skills to be able to influence others to help you reach the goals you have set for yourself and your organization.
My advice would be to join and learn as much as you can about the organization, then run for office. Become a leader and participate in the activities at your school. You will form a tighter bond and connection with the community, and it will be a much more rewarding experience all around. Take advantage of all the opportunities you get to attend leadership training and conferences. You will not only learn new skills and have amazing experiences, but you will also make new friends you will keep for a lifetime. You might even have a new network of people you can turn to in your future career. And it looks great on your resume, too.”
“I joined student government because I had a desire to serve my community and directly contribute to the events and extracurricular activities that gave so much meaning to school. Some of my fondest memories come from Leadership/Student Council in high school; both directly being responsible for and subsequently participating in the quintessential “high school” moments like Homecoming, Winterfest, Prom, etc. was both educational and meaningful. It wasn’t without its rough spots, though.
In high school, I lost two elections within two weeks of each other, and I was devastated. It was the first time my sense of self-worth had been rocked at my core, and the experience taught me how to fail gracefully and how to root my confidence and sense of being in something other than the titles I held. I’m grateful for the lesson to this day.
When I entered college at the University of Oklahoma, I continued my participation in student government. I was part of the Sooner Freshman Council during my first year, then served as Director of Student Organizations (Sophomore), Director of Student Organizations (Junior) and eventually became Director of the Interior for my senior year.
That year, the University of Oklahoma experienced a national controversy when fraternity men on a bus began a racially-charged chant while coming home from a party. As Director of the Interior, I handled a lot of the response for the Student Government Association, coordinating with the administration, other SGA members and community members. This was one of the most challenging and unexpected student government experiences I underwent.
I’d like to think that the student governments I’ve served in have made a positive impact. We created experiences for students to enrich their time outside of class, like prom; we advocated for their voices to the administration, like addressing parking concerns; and we saw our students through trying times on campus by serving as examples, like acting appropriately when dealing with the fraternity incident and, in high school, when a violent video of students fighting circulated around school.
I also credit my time in student government with developing my ability to manage people. I run two large organizations at my law school, and I find myself comfortable in management positions. It has also inspired an interest to serve my broader community in some capacity one day. I have also learned to work with administration and hold my own against those with actual power, and how to speak truth to power.
I’d absolutely recommend participating in student government to other students. The experience will enable you to hone a skill set and a number of organizational abilities that a classroom education cannot, and you’ll make memories to last a lifetime.”
Students looking to learn more about student government and student council or get ideas for improving their current student government system can start their research at these websites:
ASGA is a go-to resource for members of collegiate student governments. This website provides a wide range of resources and services, from revamping an existing student government to conducting research.
Students can use Campus Compact’s student government training and resources to become better leaders and build strong campus governments.
NatStuCo is a national organization dedicated to helping student build more effective student councils. They provide leadership development opportunities, host events and provide a ton of resources for high school student councils.
Student Government Resource Center is a comprehensive resource for college student governments. Students can access toolkits, training and other information and services to help them improve their campus governments.
Geared towards high school student councils, this YouCaring blog provides an array of fundraising ideas.