Monday, March 23, 2015

It's Not Working

I’m sick of it.

We’ve got fraternity men hazing each other. We’ve got fraternity men chanting racist things that would have made the KKK blush. We’ve got fraternity men taking photos of naked intoxicated women and posting them to Facebook. 

And we’ve got fraternity men dying. We’ve always got fraternity men dying.

What the hell is going on?

It’s times like these that make me want to quit. As I look at these instances, which follow the Atlantic article and other high-profile stories of disgusting behavior, I want to throw up my hands and give up. I enjoyed and benefited from my fraternity experience, but why the hell should I continue to spend my time trying to extol its virtues when it appears like my experience was an outlier.


Perhaps it’s time to let someone else take this on. Or not take it on at all. I don't care. I’m starting to question so much about this movement that I love, because I’ve arrived at two stark and damning realizations.

1. None of it is working. By “it” I mean the entire education industry created to support Greek life. Think about the size of the support industry we have built for fraternity. All of the conferences, associations, companies, and individuals whose livelihood is focused on helping make the fraternity experience better. Think about the hundreds of different leadership events, educational speakers, and books, articles, and yes – blogs that focus on fraternity and sorority life.

We seem to be in no different of a place than we were before this great educational infrastructure was built. There is an old joke that the very first topics on the very first NIC meeting agenda 100 years ago were alcohol and hazing. And what sits on the agenda today? The same crap. And in between the first meeting and the most recent, how many minutes, hours, and days have been spent talking about those issues? How many different speakers have discussed those topics at how many different educational meetings? How many well-dressed and attentive young leaders have sat in an audience to hear about how much that stuff is ruining this fraternity thing, only to turn around and keep doing it?

None of it seems to be working.

Sure, individual lives have been affected through this vast educational infrastructure. But does that really matter if the institution that is wrapped around these lives continues on a downward spiral?

All of us (me included) educators and advocates have to look into the mirror and question if we’re just making noise instead of impact. We have poured millions of dollars and hours into fraternity life, and what’s been the return on that vast investment? Which leads me to my second realization, which is more dark than the first:

2. Why do we need this educational infrastructure anyway? What’s inherently wrong with Greek life that it requires so much education and support for it to live? You could argue that there is no other type of organization that seemingly needs so much infrastructure just to make it functional. In my darkest doubts of fraternity and sorority life, I wonder why our organizations seem to need so much “extra” to just make the “basic” work. Shouldn’t we be able to hand the ritual books to a group of men, and just let it go? Instead, we need staff, consultants, live-in advisors, conferences, and more just to get our groups to a minimum standard.

Set the Ritual book next to the risk management policies, the bylaws and other rules, the minimum standards reports, and officer manuals, and you probably can’t see it anymore.

We have men (and women too) who, unless they receive some kind of educational intervention, will naturally use our organizations for selfish and damaging purposes. For some reason, we are a place for those individuals to thrive. Why is that? Especially after we’ve spent so much time and energy on recruitment education and have built such a structure for “new member education.”

We talk about the idiots among us as “cancers” in our chapters. Well, we seem to be a petri dish that lets cancer grow unabated.

I want to travel back in time and find the founders of my fraternity and ask them if this is what they intended? Sure, our founders would look at where we are and probably kick our asses, but why does our DNA – the one they forged - seem so corruptible?

All of his has got me so tired. I feel like I’m running a marathon and the finish line keeps getting moved farther and farther away. I just want to collapse on the side of the road, and let the vultures do what they may.

I know many of you are feeling like me right now. I’ve seen your exasperation. Why are we doing this my friends? Why do we purposely reside in a world that is constantly criticized and maligned, and constantly affected by clowns and fools ?

I hate it right now. There are a million words in this blog, and does a single one matter? Let’s just walk away!





Okay, I feel better now. Back to work.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Our (Self) Segregated Greek Community

The situation at the University of Oklahoma regarding SAE and the racist chant caught on video is horrendous.  It’s disgusting, skin-crawling stuff.  I’ve read many perspectives on the situation from friends, pundits, and columnists and I’m not sure there is much I can add to this one incident.  Overall, I think the conversation has been productive.

I guess one thing that I want to see from this is a chance for these young men and women to learn from this experience.  The student development professional in me cannot hate them.  I cannot cheer the fact that at least two of the young men have been booted from school and are going to wear a scarlet letter for a very long time.  I think the severe ramifications of their actions will teach them valuable lessons – I just simply hope it doesn’t ruin their lives.  Who I was at 19 is not who I am at 38.  We all deserve an opportunity to let life kick our ass now and then so that we get moved closer to the truth.  So, I hope these young men have people in their lives to help them avoid being hardened by this.

But there is one aspect of this situation, remotely related, that I think needs some further discussion.  It’s something I’ve struggled with for years, and I’m ready for some of your thoughts.  I’m nervous – as a white American – to make comments about race.  But I think this situation presents an opportunity for us as a greater Greek community to look at ourselves closely, because I can't help but wonder if we've fostered and celebrate an environment in which little progress can or will be made on race.

Here is why: The fraternity and sorority community is the most self-segregated place on today’s college campus.

We know that race relations, and human relationships in general, improve when we are exposed to people of different backgrounds than our own.

Before college, I didn't understand sexual orientation.  I was aware of it - but didn't understand it.  It all changed for me when I met gay and lesbian individuals in college.  The IFC office was right down the hall from the LGBT student organization, and it gave me a chance to get to know the leaders personally and to understand the greater cause.  I developed friendships which led to respect, understanding, and advocacy.  But none of it would have happened without those old-fashioned personal interactions I had.

In the Greek universe today, we seek to separate and not unify.  We have fraternities now for
almost every race and ethnic group: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Persians, South Asians, Armenians, and Native Americans.  There are also fraternities and sororities for the LGBT community and for many different religions.

I understand why.  And I’m not saying these organizations shouldn’t exist.  Absolutely they should. 

These fraternities and sororities provide a welcoming and accepting environment for minority groups that they obviously haven’t found in the traditional Greek-letter groups.  College is a tough time for anyone, and so it’s natural to want to find a community of like-minded individuals who share similar backgrounds to link up with.  It could probably be said that had the traditionally white fraternities and sororities been wide open and accepting of minority groups from the outset, others wouldn’t have needed to form. 

By the way – I use the word “traditionally white” in absence of a better term.  I could say “white” Greeks, which is mostly true but maybe not sensitive.  Or “historically white”, which may be more sensitive but is not true unless historically means right now at this moment.  I hope you’ll give me some latitude here. 

So – these groups exist, are strong and growing stronger (and actually deserve a lot of credit for the overall growth of fraternity/sorority membership worldwide).  They aren’t going anywhere and shouldn’t. 

But what does this mean for our educational goals?

Our goals as Greek organizations are to make our members better individuals and our uniqueness lies in our efforts to impact members in almost every aspect of the human experience: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. 

And we attempt to do this in a fairly segregated environment.  If your Greek community were standing on a football field, and divided up by chapter, what kind of visual would that be?

The educational environment we’re working with has this truth: Our members, during their undergraduate chapter experience, will likely only call someone of their own race their brother.  Or their sister. 

This is the environment in which we hope our members achieve higher levels of acceptance and understanding of others. 

We're hoping for a lot aren't we?

Sure there are exceptions.  But enough of them to change the hearts of individuals like those on that bus in Oklahoma?

Most of us are chastising those men in Oklahoma, bemoaning the racial insensitivity that is more rampant than we wish it were, and standing on high pedestal to shout louder than the other guy about how racially sensitive we happen to be.  And yet, we walk within and past an environment every single day that is greatly segregated, and don’t seem to care.

And so, as I sometimes do (and hopefully only rarely on this blog), I’m raising this observation without any idea for what to do with it.  Please add to the conversation and make these thoughts fraternal.  What is the answer?  And by the way, making sure the traditionally white Greek chapters attend the NPHC step show is not enough.

How do we succeed in building accepting and open-minded Greek members in an environment that structurally is designed to make interpersonal race relations uncommon?

By the way, in researching for this post, I found that others are discussing this trend.  This column argues fraternities to be a form of “American apartheid.”

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Very Social Media

This is a guest essay by John W. Bloom, a fellow Kiwanian and friend. John is a member of Lambda Chi Alpha, a 1967 graduate of Miami University, and a member of the housing corporation for the Zeta-Upsilon Zeta chapter. I enjoyed his reflection on using social media as a continutation of the fraternal experience.  For recent alums, imagine those days without social media to stay in touch with brothers and sisters, and consider how much we may all take for granted how easy it is to remain connected today -- JS

I’m about to get another year older as my 70th birthday is less than a month away.  In recent years I’ve felt like I’m losing the battle to keep up with all the new technologies, but this morning as I reviewed my Facebook posts I had a new awareness.  Regardless of whether or not I use all the capabilities of Facebook, Facebook is one bit of technology that brings me incredible joy.  Here’s why!

I have 473 friends on Facebook, a modest number by some standards, but the majority of them are Lambda Chis.  The list includes current actives and associate members as well as alums from Zeta-Upsilon Zeta (Miami University) and beyond.  

On any given day I can go to my Facebook page and get uplifted, touched, awed, tickled, teased – you name it.  Most of all I get moved by the goodness and kindness of the brothers in the bond.

Here a just a few of the specifics:

Tributes to the passing of the beloved
The home makeovers
The proud parents whether for the first time or the nth time
The appreciative and loving sons and daughters
The achievements – yours and theirs
The laughter and the tears
The travels near and far
The thoughtful, reflective, spiritual moments
The heartfelt prayers for self and others
The sensitivity to those in need and the willingness to address those needs
The talent, the artistry, the athletic prowess
The politics – even if I don’t agree
The Browns, Bengals, Reds, Indians, Cavs, and the….
The Packers, The Patriots (but not the Yankees or the Steelers)
Oxford and Campus Scenes – and behind the scenes
The military service rendered then and now
Intramurals and (Miami) RedHawk hockey
Community service selflessly rendered via Kiwanis, church, Red Cross, Feeding America….
The weddings, births, baptisms, funerals
The eateries and the watering holes
The time parents spend with their children and the love each has for the other

While I’ve observed the above through my Lambda Chi eyes, I’m positive that others, whether Greek or not and whether almost 70 or not, share daily the joy social media can and does bring.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Stop Pretending That Service Matters To Your Fraternity

This is call for fraternity and sorority organizations to stop making service a core principle. 

Or, start doing it well.

Because the half-assed way by which we do it today is really serving no one, so to speak.  It isn’t serving our communities and it isn’t serving the development of our members and organizations.

It might be serving us as great photo ops, fillers for award applications, and likable Facebook posts.

Service is often the first value spoken about by Greek organizations and the last one on the actual priority list. 

Let me say this however…not making it an organizational priority is OKAY.

Service is something that every person should make time to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right for every organization.  Organizations exist for a purpose, and every single book, speaker, website, and ancient scroll that teaches organizational performance says that successful ones know their true purpose and stay faithful to it.

Perhaps it is not our true purpose to be community service organizations.  Fine.  The problem is, we try to be, we talk like we are, and most of us suck at it.

Here are three quick reasons why:
1. Most college students won’t live in their college towns long-term and thus don’t feel the emotional investment towards it that actual residents feel.  Again – this is OKAY.  It’s simply a fact that the college experience is designed to take us to a temporary location for a definite period of time.  We go to “that place” for 4 years.  It’s almost expected that we won’t stay.  Because of this, our service efforts in those communities are viewed as a college activity and not as an investment in our hometown.  Those two frames of reference create two very different kinds of volunteer experiences and motivations.

2. We think that service has to be a “T-Shirt” experience, meaning that it needs to be big and splashy enough for us to make commemorative T-shirts.  You know, like your formal or theme party.  That leads us to equate service with powderpuff football tournaments, polar bear plunges, Teeter-Totter Marathons, etc.  These events are fine – they are social, fun, team-oriented, and more.  But just because they result in a donation to some charity at the end doesn’t mean that service is a core principle.  It’s just a nice gesture.

3. We’ve got too much going on.  The big five core values of fraternities and sororities tend to be Academics, Brotherhood/Sisterhood, Character Development, Leadership, and Service.  That’s a lot of stuff for an organization to take on.  Can we be honest about something?  Service is often included in order to improve our image.  Truthfully, service (in most cases) was the last value to the party.  We’re really good at the other things because we’ve been doing them longer.  And, because they are more natural to our organizational DNA, they get more emphasis than service.

But wait, you might shout, isn’t any service good service?  Yes, it’s going to help somebody.  We should all maintain our service projects and philanthropic events, and maybe even add some more.  But, unless we’re willing to be better at it, let’s take it out of our big five and let’s stop talking like service is a defining characteristic of fraternity/sorority life.  It can be a nice experience for our members and something that gives them greater pride of membership, but it shouldn’t be sold as a critical piece.

Now – if you find this to be nonsense and think I’m full of it, I like your spirit.  That means you WANT service to be in the big five.  It means you TRULY believe it is important.  Again, I think it’s okay to make it a minor aspect of who we are, but, if you REALLY want it to be major, then let’s play.  Perhaps for a few of you, you’re already there.  But for most, here is what you should do:

1. Find your service organizations on campus and start working with them.  This could be Circle K or Alpha Phi Omega, or similar.  Service is definitely their top priority and their training and education is built around that belief.  They know where to find the needs in the community and how to take action.  Offer up your members and your resources for a joint project.  Your most service-minded members may want a dual membership in these groups as well, which can only help your chapter.

2. Replace half of your annual social events with hands-on service events.  Whoah!  Seriously?  Yes – because working together on a service project can be one of the most social things you can do.  Gentlemen, invite the ladies with you (and vice versa).  You might surprise yourself with how much fun you have.
(If you’ve found #2 to be ridiculous, then it's a good chance you aren’t really serious about being an organization committed to service.)

3. Treat your community leaders like your campus leaders.  You probably (or should) have ways to build relationships with your campus administrators, such as the Greek Advisor, Dean of Students, etc.  This could involve annual meetings, including them on your newsletters, and more.  Do the same with your town’s Mayor and other civic leaders.  Invite the Director of your local United Way to dinner.  Reach out to service clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary.  If you truly want service to be front and center, then you need to get to know your community.

4. Roll up your sleeves.  If we truly want our members to learn to be active citizens, then just writing checks to charities is not enough.  Hands-on service projects are more intense experiences that more truly deliver on our promise of serving our communities.

5. Make your philanthropies feel more like a service project than a party.  A good example is Dance Marathon.  Those events are fun and social but there is no doubt that it’s for a cause.  And most Dance Marathons work throughout the year to build awareness of child health issues.  If you must do the T-Shirt events, be very explicit in why you are raising the money and incorporate educational aspects for your members and guests.

6. Expect more of your national office.  If your national organization promotes service and asks that it be a priority for you, then request that resources be directed to help you (and your fellow chapters) grow those efforts.  If there is a national philanthropy, is there a toolkit to help you build a local project that supports those efforts?

My preference is for us all to more properly embrace service as a core priority and let our actions and behaviors reflect that belief.  Although if we choose otherwise, let’s be equally comfortable with that choice and stop pretending it really matters.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

For the Melvas in Our Lives

Within the first few weeks of arriving at Miami University as an undergraduate 20 years ago, I went searching for a job.  I needed a work-study position to help pay for room and board.  There was a job fair for such positions at the student union, and after perusing some of the options, I was drawn to a kind older lady seated behind a simple table.  Her name was Melva Brown.  She was the secretary for the Student Activities Office and they needed someone to serve as receptionist and do various clerical tasks.  I figured it was a good option, since I liked clubs and organizations.  Plus, she was really sweet and I kind of felt like someone I should get to know.  I was hired pretty quickly and learned later it was because she liked that I was a clean-cut guy.

Not long after, Melva became more than just my supervisor.  She fashioned herself as my second mom – my Miami mom – someone who would look after me, and she fit the part.  While I was in the office, she would ask about my life and keep tabs on both the academic and social side.  If I was late to work because of some exploits the previous night, she would act disappointed just like a caregiver should.  But, the ice would eventually thaw and I would go home that day still feeling loved and supported.  She got it.  She had high expectations, but she knew I was just figuring it out. 

Melva would invite me to her house, and sometimes I would watch it while she and her husband Jim traveled.  And Jim – Jim was tremendous too.  A prince of a guy and so easy to get to know.  I would even dress as Santa for Melva’s family Christmas gathering – which was a sacred honor because Melva was Santa’s biggest fan.  Christmas was her thing.  She and Jim even placed a Santa mailbox in their front lawn each December, and kids would drop their wishes inside (and even receive a reply).

Melva was as important to me as anyone during those four years, and then even in the years that followed.   

And she passed away suddenly a few days ago.

As I reflected on my time with her, I realized that her decision to hire me on that day in 1994 could have been the single biggest moment in my career path, because it started my career path.  I went to Miami to be a TV broadcaster, but emerged wanting to be a higher education professional.  Working in that Student Activities Office introduced me to professional heroes like Steve Ransom, Gary Manka, and Bobbe Burke.  The office was also shared with the Greek Life staff and there I met Brian Breittholz, Amy Vojta, Tim Maugherman, and eventually others like Sue Kraft-Fussell, Lupita Temiquel, and Heather Hammer-Shuchter.  Can you imagine what a fun and dynamic office this was?  And it was anchored by Melva and her counterpart on the Greek side, Carolyn.  I wanted to be like all those people, and I don’t know if I would have ever been moved to chart a new career path if not for the opportunity to sit at that front desk in the office.

Melva was my rock.  College is a wild and crazy time, and all of us need adults to bring us back to what matters.  Melva was that for me.

On any given college or university, you have a wide range of employees.  You have the “academics,” the professors, provosts, and deans.  And then you have the student affairs staff, whose ranks are populated by those with advanced degrees and those striving for them.  But all throughout the institution, there are support staff:  secretaries, administrative assistants, groundskeepers, food service workers, bookstore employees, and more. 

It’s common to think that you will go to college and forge your mentoring relationships with those who stand at the front of the classroom, or who have the corner office, or who have a Dr. at the start of their name.  I wager to guess that we all can think of someone who didn’t fit these particular characteristics, but who meant as much or more to us.  And that’s because they had an even more important quality than any other: they cared.  This was Melva.

Do you have a Melva from your college days?  Someone who reminded you in the midst of your 20-page reports and 5000-page textbooks that it’s still the simple things that count?  Someone who would take you when you were at your best or at your worst and love you either way?  Someone who was always there, no matter the turbulence you were experiencing?  Someone who connected you to the community?  Someone who was such a real person in an environment that can often seem so unreal?

My parents don’t know many of the professors or student affairs administrators who helped to mold me, but they knew Melva.  And since my graduation, they exchanged Christmas cards with her and Jim.   They became friends, and I know were relieved to know someone was watching over me during that time.

If you have a Melva from your college days, call that person right now.  Tell them how much they mean to you.  I wish I could have done that one more time.

My condolences to Jim and to the entire Brown family.  And my condolences to Miami and Oxford, for they each lost one of their best.  Melva, you will be missed, but your spirit lives on in so many – including this clean-cut guy you took a chance on long ago. 

Farewell to my Miami mom.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It’s Time to Suspend All-Greek Suspensions. Permanently.

On January 9, the system-wide fraternity and sorority suspension at the University of Virginia will be lifted.  Let’s wait and hope that the university administrators who took this step (and refused to retract it even after the Rolling Stone article was debunked) will have a press conference to share with the public how the Greek community there is forever changed now that the suspension worked its magic.  How is the system different?  What new behaviors will we see?  When the curtain is lifted, what will be revealed? 

Well, nothing of course.  Because the all-Greek suspension was done for P.R. purposes only.  It provided the illusion that the university wields tight-fisted control over the Greek community.  It had no productive outcome – and really couldn’t.  

All-Greek suspensions, and especially in the UVA case, take a problem that can be isolated to certain groups or members and make it appear to be everyone’s problem.  And so every member – even those living true to their values - are caught in the net and may never escape the negative impression that comes along. 

There is no courage in such an act, either.

I am reminded of the time I was on a plane, and we had just taken off.  I needed to use the bathroom, but the seat-belt sign was illuminated, which means you need to stay put.  After a few minutes, I thought I heard a ding and that we had reached an elevation where I could get up and go.  So, I unbuckled the seat belt, walked to the back of the plane and right past the rear jump seat where the one flight attendant was seated (still buckled in).  While in the bathroom, I heard over the loudspeakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, the fasten seat-belt sign is still illuminated and you need to remain in your seats.”  Now, half the plane had seen me walk down the aisle.  So, it was obvious who she was talking about.  And, since I walked right past her, she could have stopped me and calmly told me to return to my seat, which I would have done without hesitation.  That would have been a more effective act than using the loudspeaker to admonish everyone for my error.

And so we have Greek communities where some chapters are making loud and boisterous errors, and when a dramatic incident is the result, the university administrators grab the loudspeaker and shut down everyone.  Is that courage?  If there is a continuum, I think it’s closer to cowardice.  It’s the easy way out.

Whereas a patient and targeted approach is better, it’s easier for a university president to look tough and in control by being heavy-handed and using words like “suspended” and “banned” at their pressers.  I also helps with P.R. because our society is increasingly letting our emotions control logic in demanding swift and immediate action.  Fire him!  Shut them down!  Boycott that place!  OUTRAGE!

But all-Greek suspensions are wrong on many levels.

There is certainly a fairness issue here.  When there is an alleged sexual assault by a member of the football team, for example, the entire sports program is not suspended.  In fact, rarely is the football program.  Residence hall activities are not halted when a handful of residents make poor choices.  But with fraternities, it’s becoming a common tool.

Actually, is there any other system that is treated this way?  We don't close all community restaurants when one fails to meet code.  We don't close all schools in the district when one or more fail to meet state standards.  Somehow in every other place in society we are able to conduct investigations and make improvements and yet keep business moving.  Except in Greek life it appears.

There is also a constitutional argument regarding freedom of association.  While it doesn’t keep me up at night, I understand some peoples’ passion around that argument.  And I agree with the spirit of the statement released by the NIC and NPC recently.

On a side note – in regards to that statement – can we have the political action committee release a separate statement next time?  Lumping the associations in with the political lobby feels a little overly...well...political.

To me, the biggest reason to suspend all-Greek suspensions is effectiveness.  Or lack thereof.
Can anyone point to an instance when an all-Greek suspension made a meaningful culture change for a Greek community?  I can’t find one.

The joint statement by several higher ed groups – including the Association of Fraternity Advisors - made the following assertion about suspensions.  Since it was in reaction to the UVA case, I assume they are defending the right of the university to suspend all groups at once, although it's not clear.  The emphasis is mine:
Finally, we support both students’ rights to freely associate and in rare cases, temporary, well-defined and purposeful suspensions of fraternity/sorority activities in response to widespread allegations of misbehavior, especially misbehavior that harms other students. Temporary suspension of the activities of student groups does not violate student association rights however, pausing the activities of student groups for a reasonable, defined period of time can be a useful mechanism in helping a reeling group evaluate and assess in a time of crisis, especially when that crisis may be related to the group’s activities, as may be the case with sexual violence, hazing, and binge drinking.
This statement deserves more explanation.  Specifically:
  • What is temporary?  What amount of time is too light or too severe?  What amount of time creates a more effective result?  If I believe temporary is 4 weeks and the guy down the street believes it’s 4 years, is that okay?
  • Can AFA or NASPA provide some examples of a well-defined suspension?  It’s not clear what that even means (in other words, it’s not well-defined).
  • Finally, what is considered a purposeful reason for a suspension?  And what isn’t?  If these higher ed groups believe there is a purpose for suspensions, can some examples be provided?  Using UVA as an example, I can’t find any real purpose stated for the suspension (there are some goals described but it isn’t clear how a suspension is necessary to achieve them).
This Rolling Stone article, what it created, and its aftermath may have opened a wider rift between campuses and fraternal organizations.  There is a higher ed/AFA camp and a NIC/NPC camp, as evidenced by their conflicting statements.  I believe that both sides understand the painful issues – such as sexual assault – that need to be addressed. Believing that all-Greek suspensions are ridiculous does not mean a lack of appreciation for the severity of these  issues.  And both sides love the fraternity experience, although one favors the ability for that experience to be altered or taken away from an upstanding member in an instant because of association.

IFCs and Panhellenics - you don't need to accept this as a solution.  All-Greek suspensions are simply unfair and ineffective.  I agree with the following quote: “in any crisis it can be far too easy to paint with a broad brush, and to blindly attack entire groups of individuals. This is not a responsible reaction.”  

Who said that?  UVA President Teresa Sullivan.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Scariest Part of Being in a Sorority Is…

Guest Essay by Jen Glantz
Do you want to know what the scariest part of being in a sorority is?
It’s not suddenly becoming friends with more girls than you’ve ever known in your life, or dealing with fraternity guys who smell, permanently like tequila and stale Doritos, or having to wear matching outfits to things (though have you seen 150 girls all wearing the same t-shirt and white shorts and brown sandals? It’s a little scary).

It’s doing something called recruitment. And no matter if you’re in the most popular sorority on campus or the least, you have to do it.
What is it?
Well it’s 4 to 5 days of timed conversations with absolute and complete strangers.
It’s terrifying.
All of a sudden, the doors of the sorority house swing open and there they are. A group of 100 girls you’ve never met before in your life. Who are forced to go from sorority to sorority and decide which they’d like to be part of.

I wasn’t in the most popular sorority when I was in college. No. I was in the “new” one. The one with more “down to earth and unique” kind of girls. The one where if we wanted to recruit a new group of women, we had to work to prove ourselves. We were the only ones without a house on campus – so, for the week, we’d rent out a falling apart fraternity house and decorate it with balloons and spray gallons of Febreze all over the place.

Day one: You vs. a group of 3 girls. You have to speak with them for 35 minutes straight. No cell phones, no distractions, nothing to do but talk. You talk until the music starts to play and then you say goodbye and walk them out of your house.
And then what do you do?
You do that 10 more times that day. And then the next, and the next, and the next.
So what do you say?
Well, somewhere in whatever you say, you need to also toss in some props for your sorority and tell them why they should join.
But seriously, what do you say?
It’s frightening and awkward and every single girl in the sorority has to do it. And not just once, every single year you’re in it, this is what you have to do the first week of August or January. And after a couple of days, when the selection process continues, some of the girls who come to your house are forced to be there. They don’t even want to be there – but the recruitment gods make them go and give you another chance.
Want to know what they do to show us how mad they are about that?
They refuse to talk. They play mute. You’ll ask them how their day is so far and they’ll look at you like you just wiggled around and did a dance. Or maybe they’ll speak. In one word answers. And so either you can do a 35-minute staring contest with them or you can talk. 

Talk like no one is listening (because let’s face it, they aren’t).
I bet you don’t hear about this often?
Which is a shame because sororities are most-well known for liquor gorging themed parties and hazing incidents. But they are not known for this. The one thing that actually builds extinct social skills in our 20-something, technology obsessed selves. One day, I know, this recruitment process will be out of date and sororities will recruit people like we do dates on something like tinder. Swipe right if this girl looks like a good fit for your chapter.

Until then, this process takes everyone – from the shyest girl in the room to the one who could talk to a wall – and makes them do this.
I once had to talk one of my sorority sisters off the ledge. Literally. She was hiding in a bathroom stall, standing on the toilet. Refusing to come out because she was so scared to do this.
Talking to strangers is absolutely terrifying.
Here’s some of the techniques we’re taught in order get through this – which truly apply to real life conversations as well.
  1. Open ended questions - ask these kinds of questions so the conversation doesn’t die. Questions like: where are you from? Why did you move here? Tell me more about your job?
  2. People love to talk about themselves: so indulge them. Find out the keywords and phrases that they say that make them light up and ask them to tell you more, to elaborate. It’ll get them talking and talking and talking.
  3. Level set. “You don’t want to be here, do you? Me either.” Drop the act and be real with the person you’re trying to talk to.
  4. Water cooler topics. Oh my god, did you see the latest episode of Scandal? What do you think about Kim Kardashian posing naked on that magazine? Can we talk about that legendary Photoshop job for a second?
I’ve done recruitment 3 times in college, and then I worked for my sorority afterward, running recruitment workshops for chapters around the country.
You’d think I’d be a pro at this by now.
You want to know the truth?
I’m not. I still get terrified. Sometimes I go to events alone and want to approach a group of girls but I freeze and I get so nervous that my heart races and I just end up standing 3 feet away from them lurking over their shoulders, wondering if they see me. They do. I know they always do.
Last weekend, I was invited to a conference put on by Cosmo. There were 2,000 women there – all in my demographic. I had to go and speak to as many people as I could about my blog and my book and my business. I packed a gigantic professional looking briefcase with as many business cards as I could stuff in there. I put on a blazer. I brushed my hair. I checked my teeth before I got there for lipstick. I wore a new fur coat – which I realized 4 hours in, I forgot to take the tag off of.
But when I got there, I froze. I couldn’t speak. If I did speak, it was only to say, “Hi, I’m, Jen,” and then the conversation would die. One time I tried this on a girl who was about to sit down next to me and I put out my hand to say hello. But the girl was carrying too many things at once and when I stuck out my hand, I accidentally knocked over her half eaten yogurt on the floor. And the whole thing was so jumbled and awkward that she ended up moving three rows behind me because she probably thought I was some kind of clumsy breakfast stealer.
So what did I do?
I took my 4 years of recruitment experience, my briefcase of beautifully printed business cards, and I left.
Yep. I left.
I walked 5 blocks east to Argo Tea. Ordered a large muffin and an extra-large tea.
I was finally safe.
But then I told myself, no. No. It can’t be like this. You have more conversational training and skills than anyone in that entire Lincoln Center ballroom. You’re going to go back there. You’re going to tell them who Jen Glantz is. You’re going to talk to strangers and shake their hands and not spill their food. You’re going to do this.
And of course, I’m saying all of this out loud to myself in Argo Tea and a group of tourists are staring at me. One of them pulls out his iPhone to video my powerful monologue and another one whispers something loud enough that I hear him say, “New Yorkers are absolutely bonkers.”
So I went back. Yep, I did.
Okay, I thought to myself. How can I do this?
And then I remembered this, the best way to enter conversation with someone is to do it naturally. People will get weird if you walk up to them and say, “HI, I’m Jen Glantz. I just talked out loud to myself in Argo Tea about how I was going to come back here and make friends."
Natural conversation forces people to let you in. It’s conversation they are used to, trained for, neurologically wired to respond to. Because if it’s not natural, we’re trained to ignore it, just like we ignore the guy on the street shouting at us that the world is going to end! Or the guy who approaches us as we’re waiting for the subway and says, “Damn, girl, let me show you a good time.”
Ask a question that makes someone do something to help you. It’s the key to getting any stranger's attention, to letting them let you in, to starting that stranger trust.
“Do you girls know when the next session starts?”
That’s how I did it. I walked up to two women and I asked that. We then spoke for 45 minutes, exchanged info, and took a selfie together.
It’s that easy.
Okay, maybe it’s not.
Maybe it’s getting somewhere new, eyeing a bunch of intimidating strangers and having to throw yourself in front of the bathroom mirror to pep talk the heck out of yourself before going back out there and speaking to someone, something, other than yourself. Maybe it’s making someone spill their yogurt or having a group of girls wonder why the heck you’re standing so close to them and not saying anything. Maybe it’s spending your first few days of recruitment, at the age of 19, making every single conversational error in the book. Saying lots of “ummms” and sweating through your yellow cotton shirt so badly, that you start all conversations with, “It’s getting hot in here, isn’t it?”
Maybe it’s a bunch of that before you finally see that the less you plan it out, the less you let yourself get all suffocated with nerves, the more you'll just go for it.
Toss yourself into the conversation like you’re the keynote speaker.
Believe deep down that you are.

Jen Glantz is the author of the novel, All My Friends are Engaged. She’s exposed the intimate details of her dating, career, and personal life on her website The Things I Learned From for the past three years. Most recently, her “professional bridesmaid” ad from Craigslist went viral within 48 hours – and became an overnight business called "Bridesmaid for Hire"