Prioritizing Change in Fraternity and Sorority Life

by Rebecca Neumann & Jasmine Samano

Fraternities and sororities have created community and connected members through a lifelong bond for decades. Tradition plays an important role: it is what connects members past, present, and future. Tradition is valued and vital to these organizations, and as membership continues it is important to find ways to respect tradition while making positive changes to best serve these organizations. Each generation differs from the next, and societal changes and life events shape the beliefs, values, and motivations of generations. As Generation Z and Generation Alpha progress through college, it is important to understand how fraternities and sororities are serving them. Through understanding these differences as well as utilizing trauma-based advising, we can find ways to honor tradition while implementing practices to best serve members. Social media has been influential in fraternity and sorority life and serves as a way to share news about Greek-letter organizations as well as a space for students to amplify their voices. By prioritizing these efforts, we can take the opportunity to turn to current members as catalysts for positive change, which can support the longevity of fraternities and sororities.

As graduate students, we have a unique perspective on working as professionals in fraternity and sorority life and holding collegiate membership in Greek-letter organizations within the last two years. Pulling from our personal experiences as recent members, new alumni, and incoming professionals, we have found several trends and considerations to support these organizations as an environment for creating pivotal and transformative experiences. These recommendations come from personal reflection on our membership and a passion to ensure a prosperous and sustainable future for these organizations. Fraternities and sororities are complex. As organizations, we are amidst a critical shift. Generational differences and influences on fraternity and sorority life show the importance of Greek-letter organizations prioritizing change.

Advising Practices

As older members of Generation Z, we can attest that the younger members of Gen Z who are attending and will be attending our campuses have witnessed numerous traumatic world events during their lives. These include but are not limited to living through the post-9/11 world, mass shootings, pandemics, and enhanced political polarization and discrimination. Not to say generations before Gen Z did not experience adverse events, but this generation is uniquely affected due to the availability of information and the ability to consume a vast amount of it. These traumatic events and experiences impact the well-being and health of our students. Failure to provide adequate support to affected students could lead them to leave our institutions and/or resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms (Schroeder et al., 2023).

Although we cannot change how these events affect students, we can alter how we support them. There is a need for fraternity and sorority life (FSL) professionals to alter their advising tactics to be trauma-informed. Many FSL professionals are the first individuals students turn to when experiencing life-changing events. While we acknowledge that FSL professionals are not mental health practitioners or counselors, integrating trauma-informed advising practices into our work can significantly impact the community. Trauma-informed advising recognizes how trauma affects a student’s social engagement, learning, and overall health. A trauma-informed professional incorporates safety, trust, collaboration, peer support, and transparency into their work (Schroeder et al., 2023). Professionals must recognize the impact of trauma and deliver services and care that are meant to promote healing (Schroeder et al., 2023). These aspects of trauma-informed advising represent just the surface level. Still, they can be used as building blocks to address trauma and adverse experiences that occur within the fraternity and sorority community, institution, and nationwide.

Shifting our advising and supporting practices to be trauma-informed can cultivate a community of trauma-informed individuals. Our members acknowledge that organizations have contributed to traumatic experiences due to hazing, assault, and excessive alcohol and substance usage. We have seen this highlighted on social media, through awareness events, and students challenging the norms of their organizations. As departments, institutions, and inter/national organizations continue to implement new policies and procedures to protect students and members, we must advise students at an individual level. By taking time to provide services and deliver care beyond handing out mental health resources, our students are able to take these practices back to their chapters to introduce a trauma-informed community. Becoming trauma-informed takes training, research, and the willingness of professionals to change their practices, but we believe this is needed for the growth of fraternity and sorority organizations. Basic semi-personal advising practices are not cutting it anymore. Current and incoming students want to know they are supported and cared for. Being trauma-informed is the next step to creating a healthy and sustainable community.

Pathways for Student Voice

Organizations that are social in nature are influenced greatly by outside opinions and news. Social media not only serves as a way to communicate news but also as a platform for student activism. Students utilize social media to call upon those in charge for change and accountability, and fraternities and sororities are no exception. Social media has been used to share news of tragic stories, organize demonstrations, and call on others to create change.

Addressing the problematic histories and actions of many organizations sometimes highlighted through social media can be challenging, however, there is an opportunity to utilize these stories as a time for reflection and to dive deeper into why organizations operate the way they do. Social media has drastically impacted Greek-letter organizations. Because this impact is not going away, understanding these platforms, reflecting on their use, and turning them into pathways for change can progress this community forward.

Students may feel less cared for by their organization when they do not see these ideas and beliefs accepted or acknowledged. They may begin to develop an impersonal experience with their membership. Students have more platforms to express opinions and streamlined communication than ever. By not implementing change or communicating why ideas cannot be implemented, students may begin to feel as though their experience and opinions are not valued. In addition, when considering the generational shift, this desire to be heard is something that will continue to impact fraternities and sororities. There is an opportunity to utilize this influence to engage students to further their sense of belonging and connection with the organization.

Fraternity and sorority advisors can utilize these platforms as an opportunity to uplift student voices that are not always heard. Oftentimes professionals only interact with organization leadership and recognize it is unrealistic to meet with every member.  However, we can utilize social media platforms as a way to gain insight on additional membership experience. When  negative stories of membership are shared, it may be challenging and uncomfortable to hear, yet is an opportunity to reexamine the student/member experience. It is important as professionals that these stories are not dismissed but rather used as motivation to re-evaluate processes to craft a healthier and more accessible organization. There may be an opportunity to facilitate a conversation with the organization to aid in student development and growth through identifying the root of the challenges membership faces. This collaboration with students can promote their learning as improvements are made. As incoming professionals, we think it is vital to utilize platforms of communication to uplift the voices of all students, whether current members or not, as each perspective is influential in the shaping of the community.

Call to Action

Organizations that have existed as long as Greek-letter organizations have are bound to change. During times of organizational shift, turning to current members to lead that change can be one of the most effective ways to manage the shift. Campus-based and headquarters professionals, along with alumni, are vital to the success of fraternities and sororities. Without the work, knowledge, and expertise of these individuals, Greek-letter organizations would not be able to accomplish the things they have. It is also important to recognize that current members are at the most influential time of membership. These individuals are impacted directly by the policies, procedures, and decisions made for the organization. Emphasizing undergraduate members’ ideas for change and putting these into action can increase their connection to the organization and aid in their learning through self-authorship, which is vital for student development.

As professionals we can provide students space to share insight into policies and encourage them to build a sense of ownership for organizational and community impact. Through our own experiences of policy-based lectures and workshops as undergraduate members, we experienced opportunities that allowed us to provide voice and have an impact in our community. We truly believe having student voices in decisions is vital to the longevity of the community. As campus and headquarters professionals, finding ways in which you can invite students to amplify their voices can be as simple as sending a survey to get direct responses regarding policy or organizational change as well as advocating for them to be on inter/national organization and institution-based committees to ensure relevant voices speak about the membership experience.  It takes everyone: professionals, alumni, and current members, to ensure the success of these organizations. Current and future members are the stakeholders that ensure longevity. If these organizations are not serving the current active members or building practices to serve future members, they are not operating at their fullest capacity.

Conclusion

When embarking on the next chapter of change within fraternity and sorority life, it is vital to acknowledge the history and tradition within organizations. Though within this recognition, we must seek to break traditions that harm the progress and growth of the community. By addressing the current societal influences that affect our current and incoming student body, we can better prepare for their needs and support them. Altering our advising practices to those rooted in a trauma-informed approach can assist in crafting a community of care and understanding within organizations at an inter/national and institutional level. However, as we prioritize change with current members, it is necessary to lean into their voices and their knowledge. Utilizing social media as a gathering space to learn from members is a part of the change. As graduate students, it is our belief that undergraduate students should be a part of this current change as much as professionals.

Moving forward, it is essential to embrace this critical shift and continue to strive toward creating a transformative experience for all members. As graduate students, we are critical of the work of our organizations. However, this comes from a place of love and passion for the fraternity and sorority experience and we believe by coming together as a community, we can continue to build experiences as impactful as the ones that inspired us to do this work.

 

About the authors

Jasmine Samano (she/her) is a 2023 graduate receiving her Masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from The State University of New York Buffalo State University. She is a proud alumna of Sigma Alpha, which she joined at Oregon State University. She is an incoming fraternity/sorority professional who is passionate about the future of fraternity and sorority life.

Rebecca Neumann (she/her) is a current graduate student at Texas A&M University. She is pursuing her Masters of Science in Educational Administration, Emphasis in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education. In addition to her program, Rebecca is a current graduate assistant in the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. She is a proud alumna of Alpha Omicron Pi and was initiated into the Delta Gamma Chapter at Missouri State University where she currently volunteers as an advisor. Rebecca has greatly enjoyed her experience as a collegiate member and now an alumna. She is excited to continue to learn and grow as a professional in this field.

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