The service side of fraternity and sorority life
By Kristen Manieri
Ask the average person to describe fraternity and sorority life, and partying is sure to top the list of common activities. Movies like Animal House and the more-recent Old School don’t paint an entirely skewed picture of fraternity and sorority life, but they don’t paint a complete picture, either. Behind the stereotypical parties and controversial recruitment practices lie a national philanthropic force whose annual contribution to nonprofits rivals some of the nation’s biggest fundraisers.
Although Old School frat boy Bernard “Beanie” Campbell, played by Vince Vaughn, was not seen hammering roofs for the underserved, pass by a Winter Park home at Denning Drive and English Court and you’ll see the handiwork of a group of Rollins X Clubbers who spent many a Saturday revitalizing the house.
Ian Wallace ’12, this year’s X Club president, is one of them. Born in Tampa, Florida and raised by parents who infused his life with opportunities to give and serve, Wallace was already a believer in the importance of service when he came to Rollins in 2008. But, as for a lot of first-year students, his first semester was so full of academics and social events that service temporarily fell by the wayside. When he joined X Club a few months later, he quickly learned that service would be an essential, expected part of his fraternal life. Saturdays with Habitat for Humanity and the execution of fundraising events would be commonplace.
That service and fundraising are such a huge part of fraternity and sorority life can be attributed, at least in part, to the mandated service requirement nearly all fraternities and sororities impose. But whether passionately or with hesitation, these students make an unquestionably large contribution in the nonprofit world. In 2010, the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference reported that their members collectively gave more than 3.5 million volunteer hours and raised more than $20 million.
As part of their national philanthropy, Reading is Fundamental, the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority works with children at Orlando’s Grand Avenue Elementary School to motivate them to read.
According to Cynthia Rose, assistant director of student involvement and leadership, the Rollins fraternity and sorority community has set a 2011-12 goal to raise over $15,000 for their selected philanthropic organizations and contribute more than 6,000 hours of service to the local community. All Greeks at Rollins, in varying degrees, are engaged in volunteerism and fundraising.
“Some students like it more than others,” admitted Roxy Szal ’13, who served as Chi Omega’s community service chair in her sophomore year. “But everyone is on board with the role that community service plays. If there is an important need in our community, it makes sense to rally the love and passion of our members around that need.”
While not all are so gung-ho, there are many students like Wallace and his X Club brothers who take the concept of service and run with it. In many ways, X Club has taken its service commitment to a whole new level. By fate or design, its leaders are young men with a strong passion for community engagement. They spent a weekend together in Tampa working with children with disabilities and traveled together on spring break immersion trips. Two of the X Clubbers started their own service club, Making Lives Better, which prompted several brothers to travel to Nepal in 2010 to rebuild schools and arrange free health screenings with volunteer doctors.
According to Hal George ’76, affiliate president for the Habitat for Humanity of Winter Park-Maitland, X Clubbers have contributed more than 750 hours to the organization’s housing revitalization projects in the last few years. “Not only do these organizations help change the lives of the Habitat homeowners, they also provide a working example of volunteerism for our younger and impressionable high school students,” George said. “Their involvement and participation truly helps perpetuate the community service spirit, which in turn has an even further-reaching effect on the Habitat for Humanity program.”
Wallace believes the key is sending the message to current and prospective brothers and sisters that fraternity and sorority life is about good values. “But you have to put those values into action, because that’s the only way you learn what they mean,” he said. When members initially join X Club, their first group activity is a Saturday morning volunteer event. “If you’ve been given a lot, it means you have a lot to give,” Wallace said. “Fraternity and sorority life is a great opportunity to live that philosophy.” The result is a form of “good peer pressure,” as Szal called it, where the fraternity or sorority leaders, as well as the campus administration, set an unwavering expectation for global citizenship and push each other to exceed it.
Yes, service can often be a topdown directive,” said Meredith Hein, assistant director of community engagement. “And some do lose track of the deeper, underlying meaning. But when the really committed and engaged students bring their passion back to their organizations, they have much more success inspiring their brothers and sisters than I ever could.”
Hein, who gets several calls a week from fraternities or sororities interested in some sort of philanthropic effort, said their contribution to nonprofits is significant. “Service in the fraternity and sorority system isn’t simply something for them to do outside of social gatherings,” said Hein, herself a Chi Omega. “Community engagement has allowed these students to become more active in the community, understand leadership, and explore issues of social justice. For many students, it’s so much bigger than meeting their basic service requirements.”
And students like Szal and Wallace aren’t ashamed to admit that service work looks good on their résumé and helps them expand their network. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say we’re partly motivated by how we’re going to look in the community,” Wallace shared. But the Cornell Scholar is also keenly aware of the skills he is picking up along the way.
“Statistically, students who join fraternities and sororities gain greater interpersonal skills, are able to delegate responsibility, plan events, problem solve, and positively make decisions,” Rose said. “All of these skills directly correlate to the ability to gain employment or entrance into a graduate program.”
It’s a win-win situation all around. The community’s nonprofits garner the benefits of a large, often enthusiastic volunteer force, and the students hone their leadership skills, develop compassion, and in some cases, forge a lifelong commitment to community engagement. And while this dedication to service certainly doesn’t mean the end of fraternity socials (X Club’s annual Big Kahuna event remains one of the campus’s favorite bashes), there is no doubt philanthropy gives fraternity and sorority life a deeper level of significance that may stay with the students throughout their lives.