I do not really know why, but I have always taken an interest in fraternity and sorority history. Even as an undergraduate I wanted to consume as much information as I could find. I actually took the coffee table book The Heritage History of Sigma Nu to read on the plane on my way to my first Sigma Nu leadership conference as a sophomore. I was that guy, and by that guy I mean I was the one person who would do something so ridiculous. As a Leadership Consultant I relished the opportunity to dig through decades of folders in the dingy basement while discovering that many of the stories passed down over time in my chapter were completely off base. I have even presented a session at the AFA Annual Meeting about the history and evolution of the fraternity and sorority experience. I thought it was awesome. I have since been informed by my co-presenters, friends, and anyone who experienced any portion of that session that it was most definitely the opposite of awesome. Well….I still liked it.
My interest in our past has been less about this important thing that some dude I didn’t know did in some place I have never been. I find it more interesting to look at how things have happened as a means for understanding why things exist as they do today.
Stepping into a leadership role in AFA has piqued this interest yet again. This curiosity is directed toward both how this association has evolved, but also how our work as fraternity and sorority advisors has evolved over time, and what has helped to create the reality we experience today.
This issue of Perspectives, focused on how we gather to establish community within our work, got me thinking about how this has evolved, and how it has remained the same within AFA and our broader environment. We are a far cry from the initial group of pioneering fraternity and sorority advisors who could come together in a mid-size hotel meeting room back in 1976. Yet, despite the dramatic evolution, in some ways we very much cling to the identity of origin.
Our authors in this issue provide some excellent insights and greater depth to our understanding of our community. I hope to add something to the conversation through some of my reflections on where our work has evolved and what this means for us.
- Greater Complexity – A common thread among every aspect of our work, and every aspect of our environment is an increase in depth and complexity. The fraternity and sorority world has become far more expansive. Of course, perhaps it always has been, and we just continue to realize it. Something that has become apparent for me, is there is no singular power center in fraternity and sorority life. There is no one room where it happens, or a singular table of decision makers. There are lots of rooms, lots of tables, loosely connected groups, and varied interests. Within this complex reality relationships matter a great deal. This is where AFA can be uniquely positioned to facilitate a forum through which relationships can be fostered, networks can be established, and collaboration can grow.
- Diversity of Experience – The student experience is changing. Based on the glimpses I catch through social media, the current fraternity and sorority experience on an SEC campus is in no way comparable to my experience in a four-bedroom chapter house at Southern Utah University in the late 90’s. Although, I do not think the experience is changing in the same way for everyone. Moreso, there continues to be increasingly varied ways to have a fraternity and sorority experience on a college campus. We could do an entire issue of Perspectives on the way the student experience is diversifying. I cannot do the phenomenon justice here, but I can at a minimum acknowledge that all of these differing experiences have value for those students and those organizations. As we look toward the future as professionals, there is a real opportunity to embrace this differentiation rather than resist it. This will also challenge us to rethink our mental models about what the experience is, and how we support it.
- Increased Professionalization – There has been an incredible growth in the ways that people can work within fraternity and sorority life. Staff at headquarters have expanded with experienced professionals who have advanced degrees and specialized training. There has been significant proliferation of major director roles with leadership over the fraternity and sorority program area. There has been an infusion of entrepreneurship and innovation from private industry and non-profit organizations. This is keeping people engaged in our work longer, it is opening up new career opportunities, and it is elevating the standard of our professional practice. However, this also challenges us to rethink what it means to work in fraternity and sorority life. We need a broader definition of what this is and how AFA can support those who are engaged in fraternity and sorority work.I think it is a tribute to those who pioneered our professional roles to acknowledge this evolution. AFA is positioned to meet the needs of our contemporary professionals because of the work that has come before us.
- We are Getting Better at Doing Things – It can be an easy hot take to proclaim “nobody is talking about this important thing!” It can also be easy to repeat past efforts. While some of those proclamations are likely accurate, it has been my experience that they are largely overstated. I think closer scrutiny reveals our collective efforts have given significant attention to the important issues impacting fraternity and sorority members. Now, along with that, we should recognize that we are in fact getting better at doing this work.We are getting more sophisticated at identifying and understanding the challenges that require our attention. We are also getting more sophisticated in our interventions and strategies. This makes sense. Have my leadership programs improved over time? I would certainly hope so. I have been doing this for 20 years, I hope I have learned something along the way. Were my previous efforts terrible? Well, some perhaps, but I prefer to think of it in terms of a developmental arc. Those early efforts helped me get to where I am today in understanding how to develop student leadership programming. I hope in five years I am developing programs that are far better than what I am doing today.
We are continually learning, developing and creating. We had to be where we were to get where we are. By no means do I say this to indicate we have arrived at some finality. There is more growth to find, but let’s not pretend we are at step one in these efforts to address the challenges students are facing. Then, let’s collectively figure out what the next level of sophistication is that we need to find.
By taking some time to understand how we have gotten to where we are today, we can better understand our current reality and what our next steps are. For me, I think of this in terms of what AFA needs to do to meet the needs of our members. We need to continue to develop an understanding of the complexity of our environment. With that we can better understand how people are experiencing fraternity and sorority life. We can support the growth and professionalization of our workforce. And we can provide development opportunities that help us to continue to get better at this work. I would encourage you to take some time to think about how this impacts your work and what this might mean for your future opportunities as well.