From a House to a Home: An educational approach to Fraternity and Sorority Housing

by Morgan Snow

The conversation around fraternity and sorority housing has largely been focused on the management of facilities, day to day operations, and occupancy. As an industry we have built systems, hired and trained live-in staff, and created student leadership positions focused on the operations needed to sustain housing our chapters. Our systems are easily replicated and scalable, no matter the campus housing structure, and they outlive staffing changes and student turnover. However, all of the processes for keeping our houses standing relegate us to think about the fraternity/ sorority house in a purely operational context, ignoring the significant role it plays in chapter operations and membership development.

A chapter facility, no matter the size, instantly becomes the soul of a chapter. For some this becomes the locus of their world. It is where they eat, sleep, study, and build community. While these aspects naturally form, the house tends to become a chapter’s identity instead of an extension of the membership development experience. We have a real opportunity to lean into the intentional development our colleagues in residence life are thinking about and employing in residential spaces.

A residential education model is a concept that focuses on student learning, development, belonging, persistence, and retention. Adaptable to organizational values and priorities, a residential education model can thoughtfully leverage organizational involvement while providing for personal, community, and practical skill development. The purpose of a residential education model, like a residential curriculum, is to provide a well-rounded experience to chapter members. Developing a specific and purposeful framework that aligns with organizational goals and values provides for an explicitly structured approach for staff, students, and volunteers to implement within the residential context.

Considerations for Practice

Developing Content

It is easy to assume when you’re developing a residential education framework, to center content around organizational membership. However, we must challenge the concept that organizational membership is all consuming and instead meet members where they are and encourage them to explore passions outside of their membership.

As you develop content areas, to focus learning goals and outcomes, they should be aligned philosophically with the foundations of existing programming, strategic planning, mission and vision statements. When developing content areas consider holistic student development which may be captured by including the following categories:

  • Wellness
    • A student’s living space plays an integral role in their ability to achieve their academic and personal goals. If we consider the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Eight Dimensions of Wellness model, each dimension is interconnected and builds upon one another. Students currently struggling with environmental safety or emotional wellness are unable to engage fully in intellectual pursuits (SAMHSA, 2016). By fostering safe and healthy communities that focus on individual and community wellness, we are able to move beyond meeting basic needs and can provide spaces for students to explore positive and productive behaviors in each of the Eight Dimensions of Wellness.
  • Transition to Adulthood
    • During their collegiate experience students are forced to interrogate their understanding of the world around them, as well as their positionality. Adulthood comes with increased responsibilities and expectations for personal health, academic and career achievement, decision making, safety, relationships, and resource management. It is important that students are able to build self-efficacy as they navigate these new challenges. If we consider that self-authorship is one of the goals of higher education, practitioners should employ approaches based on the Learning Partnerships Model to support students managing the complexity of adulthood and developing internal belief systems (Baxter Magolda 2004).
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
    • Students come to us with a variety of life experiences. As they enter the campus community, they may be engaging in the most diverse place that they have ever been or the least. Living within their fraternity/sorority house provides students the unique experience of being surrounded by individuals of similar ages working towards similar goals with a spectrum of life experiences and knowledge. Through the residential space, we have the opportunity to assist students in engaging in conversations and interactions that foster a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. Consider exploring the pedagogical approach of a Social Justice Education which seeks to align active engagement with social justice content in an educational way and the goals of social justice (Adams, 2016).
  • Academic Support
    • Being a student offers the opportunity to connect with content specific scholars, participate in hands-on experiences, and learn from individuals in a variety of diverse disciplines. We have the opportunity to create spaces where students extend their experiences within the classroom to their homes. Academic programming can offer the opportunity to invite faculty into the residential space for a celebratory reception or programming themed around research. Consider dedicating space to allow students to practice poster presentations, hosting 3 min thesis presentations, or a lunch and learn .

Implementation Strategies

When developing a residential education framework it is important to consider the ways in which staff, students, and volunteers will implement the content. Large scale programming or educational workshops may be beneficial for some topics but those formats do not capture the spectrum of educational moments. Passive programming, intentional conversations, expectation setting, and conduct meetings are just some examples of strategies that work to facilitate the aims of a residential education framework. Implementing diverse and nuanced strategies helps to account for the different modes of learning. Consider scaffolding content to best suit each student population’s development.

Staffing Structures

The key to successfully implementing a residential education framework is to purposefully staff and adequately resource the residential experience. Expecting student house managers to facilitate each strategy places an undue burden on student leaders. Preferably professional housing staff work in tandem with student leaders and alumni to employ different strategies to achieve the goals of the residential education framework. The inclusion of professional housing staff may mean a restructuring in staff responsibilities, hiring practices, and onboarding.

Student Training

We cannot assume that just because a student is elected into a position that they possess all of the necessary skills needed to be successful. As you consider who is best to implement each strategy, you may begin to include student leaders, like the chapter president, house manager, or brotherhood/sisterhood chair to name a few. We must engage our student leaders in capacity and skill building as we add new position specific responsibilities. Consider providing training and resources to students in the areas of conflict mediation, risk management, facilities management, expectation setting, and facilitation for both small and large groups.

As our offices and organizations contemplate the educational and developmental needs of students, it can be easy to overlook the role a fraternity/sorority house plays in our membership outcomes. Taking an educational approach to the residential space can deepen the affiliated experience, expand the return on investment for students, and cultivate productive growth centered spaces. Reimagining the way students interact with and experience the residential space may be a slow and measured process based on organizational culture, availability of staff, and capacity. However, to do so means taking the critical steps to advance membership development.

 

References:

Adams, M., Bell, L. A., Goodman, D., Shlasko, D., & Adams, M. (2016). Pedagogical Foundations for Social Justice Education. In Teaching for diversity and social justice (pp. 27–53). essay, Routledge.

Baxter Magolda, M. B., Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2004). Self-Authorship as the Common Goal of 21st-Century Education. In Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-authorship (pp. 1–36). essay, Stylus Publishing.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Creating a Healthier Life: A Step-By-Step Guide to Wellness. Creating a Healthier Life – SAMHSA Publications. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma16-4958.pdf

About the author

Morgan Snow currently serves as the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Advising at Colgate University. In previous roles, Morgan was responsible for facilities management and oversaw the development and implementation of residential education models specifically for fraternity and sorority members. Morgan holds a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Buffalo State University and a master’s degree from Miami University. Morgan is a proud member of Alpha Epsilon Phi and serves as a chapter advisor.

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