Department: Cover Story
A century and a half ago, college students formed and joined fraternities as a way to create a special bond outside their day-to-day interactions on campus. Membership was exclusive and offered an experience no textbook, course or field of study could encompass. They crafted rituals and mantras and aspired to a set of ideals and standards in order to become better individuals. Society viewed attending college as a privilege for young men and women. The same could be said of being invited to join a fraternity. Often the brothers met in secret, crafted signs and symbols to convey their membership and hid their affiliation from university officials. Throughout a large portion of the 20th century, if a student wanted to enjoy leadership, camaraderie or social benefits, chances are good he needed to become a fraternity man.
Flash forward to the present day. Colleges and universities are experiencing record enrollments and tightening their requirements. Many campuses offer hundreds of student groups and organizations. Social media redefine the way we interact with one another, while students have become more isolated by connecting to the world through a monitor, phone or webcam. Other institutions offer web-based courses so that students don’t even have to step on campus to complete a course or degree.
At the same time, fraternities suffer from negative publicity in a world of fast information at our fingertips. Whereas it once took time for bad news to travel, now it appears instantly in our inbox, messages or tweets. It’s documented and stored for infinity in our digital age. Constantly, fraternities are being held under society’s microscope because the poor actions and behaviors of a few members overshadow the good ones. They don’t ascribe to our values, and they overshadow the good causes, hard work and positive experience that fraternities have the power to provide.
Rarely are fraternities featured in the news for good reasons. There exists a disturbing public perception that fraternity men misbehave, drink too much and haze their pledges. Yet those stereotypes could not be further from the truth. They’re not why we were founded, and they’re not consistent with our morals, values or mission statements. Yet the perception persists, and the communities in which we beg a question: Are we relevant anymore?
The answer, in short, is yes. We are just as relevant as we have ever been because we continue to offer an experience unmatched by other organizations. When fraternal organizations perform at their best, membership gives us an exclusive chance to be part of history, camaraderie, brotherhood and commitment. Its benefits transcend the ages. Young men who did not have a father figure or blood brothers find acceptance and mentorship in the Fraternity. Students who are not confident in their leadership abilities, decision-making or self-esteem have the potential to challenge themselves and form a new mold. Alumni of fraternities and sororities consistently rank among the top donors to colleges and universities. Members work hard on tens of thousands of volunteer and community-service hours each month to benefit others. Pledge and chapter brothers become lifelong friends who experience life’s best moments with each other.
Don’t take our word for it. Perhaps the best way to understand our relevance in today’s age is to seek the feedback of those men and women who come into contact with fraternities for various reasons. They each offer a different perspective, and many of them offer a view we cannot see since we are so deeply entrenched in our membership. Likewise, they understand the stereotypes fraternities face or the negative publicity that dominates headlines. Yet they believe in the concept of fraternity and in the need for young men to join a group that helps them prosper. Their experience and perceptions round out the answer to the question “Are we relevant?”
From the time new students set foot on campus – even before they arrive – they have preconceived notions about Greek-letter organizations based on what they’ve seen and heard during their adolescence. Ironically, a majority of members say they never planned to join a fraternity, supporting the notion that perceptions can, and should, change. Are fraternities relevant to them? Because our undergraduate membership remains strong and large, we’re led to believe they are.