This week ushers in the first full week of summer. Many of us look forward to these days in the academic calendar to take some much needed annual leave, recharge, and to plan for the fall. Every summer, as I complete my budget request, I’m struck by the sheer number of possibilities when it comes to programming I could do. It’s an opportunity to show creativity and it’s one of my favorite aspects of doing integrity work for a university. One area that I always try to mix up and keep fresh involves the materials we put out across the university. These run the gamut from resources and handouts to promotional items meant for students. Today, I wanted to share two particular successes and why I think they have worked.

The first includes the story of my first foray into the world of promotional schwag. A little background here: I was a tenured English professor before I took my current position, but I did have a little experience with student organizations. I advised the College Democrats and we had notable success with programming from time to time. However, I was never really expected to think about what kinds of schwag (or other promotional materials) mattered to students. That’s why, when it came time to decide on materials in my first year, I started from scratch. My saving grace (in other words, the thing that kept me from wasting money) was that I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing. So, I started asking students. I asked the students who tutored in our unit (the Institute for Learning and Teaching) and I asked students in adjacent student affairs units. The first question I asked was, “What was the best schwag you ever got on campus?” The second question I asked was, “What was it for?”

I got a lot of answers, and, in addition to ideas for individual items, I started to piece together what made schwag successful. Here’s what I concluded:

  1. It had to be something students wanted.
  2. It had to be something they wouldn’t throw away immediately.
  3. It had to have an obvious connection to your department or program, but it didn’t have to be perfectly connected. In other words, as long as the item was branded clearly, it didn’t matter if its function was related to the work done in your department.

That last part was particularly important. If the student couldn’t tell me who gave them the item (that they remembered as the best), what was the point?

That first year I decided to do hot/cold packs with the CSU Honor Pledge emblazoned across the front. What do hot/cold packs have to do with integrity? Nothing. Why did I put the pledge on a hot/cold pack? Simply put, it was another place the students would see the Honor Pledge, and we believed that in addition to seeing it on their exams, on screens across the campus, on building walls, and in other places, there was a cumulative effect. They were about the size of your palm and so I liked the idea that, when they were nursing a sore knee or elbow, they had to read the pledge.

Hold cold pack

The second successful campaign was a refresh from work my predecessor had started. Simply put, the idea was to make bookmarks with the CSU Honor Pledge on one side; a copy of the academic calendar on the other. At first glance, that sounds like the kind of thing students throw away easily, but what I found was that the academic calendar (especially with its relevant “add/drop dates”) kept that item around.

I tried multiple versions of those bookmarks. The most successful version, I think, involved removing the Honor Pledge (which, by that time, had appeared on them for four years running) in favor of integrity-related quotes from recognizable and admired speakers. I included quotes from Mr. Rogers, Frederick Douglass, and Michelle Obama.

However, the thing that made the bookmarks most successful was this: I created them knowing exactly how I would use and distribute them. Every fall, our Housing department puts together a welcome packet for every student entering the residence halls. I knew when we created all 6900 of them exactly how we would get them in front of students.


That leads me to my next take-away: the best schwag is created in collaboration. I knew our student government group needed something to hand out during Academic Integrity Week, so I gave them hot/cold packs. I knew that the dorm wanted something for their welcome packets, so I gave them bookmarks. The best use of our money comes in these moments when we can match our need to get information out about our program with someone else’s opportunity to distribute them directly to students.

Finally, it’s worth sharing advice that my friend and supervisor gave me when exploring these different ideas. After all, none of these ideas are cheap to design or produce. She asked me to remember that these funds represent money that is supposed to support students and their learning. If the efforts don’t match that mission, should we really spend that money? I think about this when I see some of the lavish spending across ostensibly student-focused departments: office-branded moleskine journals, coffee mugs, and t-shirts/fleeces for their employees (to say nothing of the sad parade of expensive team-building retreats). If you can’t make a reasonable argument that those funds are being used for students, keep your money, get creative, and go back to the drawing board.

As we head into the fall and you conclude your season of planning, may these experiences and take-aways guide you to better ideas that serve your students. Of course, if you have successful campaigns/ideas you’re willing to share, please let me and your colleagues know!