Navigating Unique Challenges and Opportunities of Fraternity/Sorority Life in the Vast and Diverse West

Lindsay Sell and Mark Gehrke

Like in any region, higher education institutions in the western part of the United States are not monolithic. Institution type, geographic location, and student demographics all impact the way the institution operates and how impacted the institution and, by extension, the fraternity and sorority community, is by broader trends. As professionals working at two western public institutions of higher education in the Mountain West Athletic Conference, our understanding and insight into trends in the broader West is naturally narrow. However, as we work with our colleagues across the region and consider our own communities, there are themes that emerge from our efforts that guide continued reflection and opportunities within the west.

As we discussed our daily realities, the similarities and differences between our institutions, and our collective understanding of the evidence-informed realities of our region, the following points of reflection emerged:

  • The West represents a vast, often geographically sparse area of varied institutions and experiences. Crafting any insight into a giant part of the country that includes such politically and culturally different states and every type of institution imaginable, means it’s impossible to make generalizations. This recognition may make it challenging to serve fraternity and sorority chapters in the western part of the United States and means that intentional efforts to understand varied needs are It also means that campus fraternity and sorority communities may benefit from identifying institutions in the region that are the most like them for ongoing support and benchmarking (a practice already pursued by many institutions in the west). Considerations for determining which communities may serve as appropriate and relevant benchmarking models could include: community size and demographics, age of the community and institution, Fraternity/Sorority Life (FSL) staffing model, chapters/councils represented, and educational priorities/initiatives of the community.
  • Fraternity and sorority membership trends and realities also vary in the region, meaning that some institutions and chapters are thriving, while many more schools in the west find themselves in membership decline (often independent of simultaneous increasing enrollment). The focus on how potential members are attracted to the experience in addition to how they are retained is imperative in this area and unique to each campus (i.e., there’s no silver bullet solution). Enrollment is increasing in many states in the West (although not all, and not at all institution types), and we have an opportunity to harness this growth and understand the ways fraternities and sororities can meet student needs. The “maybe joiners” – students who come to college unaware of FSL opportunities, or unsure if FSL is for them – are the largest population for membership growth and opportunity. While this growth may not be predicted for the long-term, the current reality is some growth is predicted through at least the next five years in many western areas, which is an exceptional opportunity to examine how fraternal organizations, by targeting the “maybe joiners,” can become an increasingly relevant and compelling involvement experience for more students. That requires nuancing the experience and, in some cases, creating flexibility to meet the needs of the members and potential members. Fraternity/sorority communities and organizations can:
    • Find what attracts and keeps students unique to the specific campus community. Since many of the campuses in the west exist in geographically isolated locations with unique campus cultures, what works one state over may not compel interest somewhere else. For instance, institutions with a focus on or with a significant out-of-state population may create ideal opportunities for sorority and fraternity communities to provide those looking to connect with other students far from home. For campuses looking to focus on in-state students, fraternity and sorority communities can partner with enrollment services to focus on the strategic demographic priorities of the institution (i.e., first generation, rural, Latinx, etc.). Aligning the enrollment priorities of the institution with the growth strategies of each community paves the way for increased retention of students alongside membership growth.
    • Understanding members’ motivations for joining and their desired experience has never been more important. Again, while not a monolith, there is a trend related to interest in joining fraternities and sororities at many institutions in the western part of the country that is distinct from other regions and requires institutions and organizations to critically examine and research what the barriers are for students joining a community and what the motivations are for those that do join (and stay). In an area with a lot of “maybe joiners,” this effort becomes crucial for ongoing growth and sustainability.
    • We also need to understand why members are leaving. While again not unique to the West, the motivation to join and stay in a fraternity/sorority may not be as strong in other regions, potentially making it easier to leave the experience. If fraternities and sororities are not as salient a part of the campus culture and individual student experiences as is often true in other regions of the country, determining where the gap between desired experience and realized experience exists is needed.
  • It is essential to understand who is attending our institutions in the West. Our institutions in the region are becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse (with specific disaggregated data varying widely by state), and our campuses and inter/national organizations have to attend to what that means for the experiences we provide, how we support culturally-based organizations, and how the fraternity/sorority experience more broadly is relevant to a diverse student community that desires to engage in conversations about identity.
  • There are varied political realities in western states that inform the student experience, including student activism. Often these realities impact the fraternity/sorority experience, and there is not consistent commonality across the region. Some states have enacted laws that criminalize social justice education from state employees at state institutions, while other states are among the most politically liberal in the country. Students connecting with their peers across a state line, or one state over often have disparate experiences based on these realities – for example, Washington State in Pullman, WA, and University of Idaho 15 minutes away in Moscow, ID. This may prove challenging to staff and volunteers working to support chapters and communities with such different institutional supports and entry points for education. Understanding where each community falls on the political spectrum is important when navigating the needs and priorities within the institution and home state/town.
  • It is vital that communities acknowledge the critical challenges and opportunities that coincide with geographic isolation. While technological advancements and competence have emerged these past several years, chapters are often still likely to receive less support and attention than their eastern members or than institutions located in closer geographic proximity than many of those spread out in western states. Similarly, alumni and advisor numbers draw from states with lower population densities and in places that sometimes require advisors and alumni to travel significant distances to be physically present. Although these avenues of support may be different in the region, it can also lead to an experience primarily driven by students where those students look more internally for support than communities with other campuses/chapters only a few hours (or miles) down the road. Resilience to external pressures or expectations can create opportunities (and/or challenges) to focus on the most salient, local priorities.

As we consider the vast area encompassing the West and wrap our heads around our own points of interaction across the region, we recognize the challenges with trying to group together any set of campuses and organizations. These reflections call on some of the challenges that exist for many communities across the West and may provide points of contemplation for those of us working to support these unique and varied fraternity and sorority experiences.

 

References

High school graduate profiles. (2023, March). Knocking at the College Door. Retrieved April 2023, from https://knocking.wiche.edu/dashboards-profiles/.

About the authors

Lindsay Sell currently serves as the Director of Fraternity & Sorority Life at Colorado State University, a role she has held for over 10 years. Lindsay’s work as a campus based professional at multiple institutions has been supplemented by work in other functional areas of higher education, including development, conduct, and alumni relations. Lindsay is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta and actively volunteers for her organization along with other community and industry organizations, including the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values.

Mark Jasper Gehrke currently serves as the Assistant Dean of Students for Fraternity and Sorority Life at Boise State University and is a member of Delta Upsilon Fraternity. He has worked with sororities and fraternities for over eleven years through his national headquarters, the Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values, and as a campus based professional. Throughout his career, Mark has partnered with hundreds of campus communities and helped plan educational programs for tens of thousands of student leaders.

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