Fraternity is a Lightning Strike

Thunderstorms are powerfully beautiful, especially when the lightning is so fierce it lights up the sky.  Lightning is a force to be reckoned with – mostly for the negative destruction and mayhem it can produce when it strikes the ground.  But there is also a poetic quality to lightning, as a provider of energy and life-altering clarity.  When harnessed, it provides power unlike any other natural force.  Ask Benjamin Franklin, or Marty McFly.

My favorite rock band is Pearl Jam, and one of their latest songs, Lightning Bolt, has a great lyric:

Always something and never nothing,
Isn't that the way we're taught to be?
Flipping through the worn out pages
And stages when you knew not who to be,
Until the lightning strike sets you free.

“Until the lightning strike…sets you free.”  A lightning strike can personify a moment of extreme significance  - one that hits you so hard, you are forever changed.  As the lyrics state above, our lives can take on a very routine, comfortable quality.  But then, as the old adage says, life happens.  In fact, life can probably be described more in terms on the number of lightning bolts that strike, not the rarity of them.  Lightning strikes all around us all the time.  What’s rare is that we are directly hit by one of these strikes – these life-altering bolts of energy – and answer their call; or allow them to set us free.

A fraternity or sorority can be a lightning strike, in two senses:

In the positive sense, imagine a young undergraduate whose life map is seemingly carved in stone already at the age of 18.  Each step along her educational path has led her to this college, to a certain major, and a certain career destiny.  And then, she meets a sorority woman.  She attends a function and begins to understand what sorority is and can be.  And then the bid card is delivered and ZAP.  Lightning strike.  Her fraternity experience introduces her to different perspectives, different people, different career paths, and the power of service.  She discovers new things about herself that she never realized before, and a sense of calm clarity falls over her as she charts a different course (now with sisters standing by her side).  “Until the lightning strike…sets you free.”

Perhaps the longevity of the fraternity/sorority movement can be explained by the fact we continue to be one of the few entities that can offer lightning strike moments.  So much of our involvement and activities in our young lives are too narrow these days.  We tend to now pick one sport to focus on.  Or one after school activity.  For better or worse, a lot of childhood years are spent building deep capacity in one endeavor instead of light capacity in many.  

Fraternities and sororities are enterprises that provide many diverse opportunities and ways to engage.  In that way, they can be life-changing.  

Our organizations can be the things that inspire someone towards greater self-discovery, and open doors never before considered.  We can enable individuals to find their ability to work collectively towards something that matters and understand the influence of relationships.

Or, in the other sense, we can be the lightning strike that brings harm.  The lightning strike that takes an individual and shocks away his dignity and self-worth by hazing him.  The lightning strike that forever disrupts a person’s potential by surrounding him with apathy and debilitating choices.  The lightning strike that kills or maims through a culture of drugs or alcohol.  A lightning strike that burns and scars forever.

Which lightning strike – today – is your fraternity likely to be for the new members you invite in this Fall?

While there is no way to completely control a member’s experience, or how the fraternity impacts his/her life, there are conditions more favorable for a lightning strike that’s charging and life-giving instead of one that’s destructive:
  • Does the fraternity accept diversity and independence of thinking (instead of strict conformity)?
  • Does the fraternity allow members to engage with their strengths and at their desired level of involvement?
  • Does the fraternity offer rich opportunities for learning and education?
  • Is the fraternity as comfortable (or moreso) with interactions that are alcohol-free as it is when alcohol is involved?
  • Do older members offer their experiential wisdom with younger members?
There are other conditions as well, but exploring these questions might be a good start for you and the leaders of your organization.
Any organization that provides lightning strike moments is one that is eminently relevant.  People, whether consciously or subconsciously, seek these out.  Deep within us is a desire for our lives to be disrupted – to let go of routine.  If your organization is just another sunny day in an already sunny existence, then what value are you adding?  

Lightning strikes in nature are serious business, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  In the figurative sense, do not be afraid of lightning strikes in your life.  Your fraternity experience may be that for you, or you might be surprised as to when they come.  Look up and embrace their arrival, for this next lightning strike may be the one that sets you free.

(and by the way kids, THIS is rock and roll)

Could This Be the Most Important Study on Greek Life Ever Done?

Gallup just released a study on Greek life in partnership with the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference.   You can read a summary of the study here, and the results tell an impressive story of the impact of fraternity and sorority membership:
"...fraternity and sorority members are more likely than all other college graduates to be thriving in each of the five elements of well-being (purpose, physical, social, financial, and community). Thus, fraternity and sorority members are more likely than their non-Greek counterparts to find fulfillment in daily work and interactions, to have strong social relationships and access to the resources people need, to feel financially secure, to be physically healthy, and to take part in a true community."

This could be the most significant study on fraternity and sorority life ever conducted.  I say could be because I don't know all of the studies that have ever been done, but of the ones in most recent memory, this study stands head and shoulders above the rest.  Here's why: this is a study that aligns most closely with the broader societal purpose of Greek life.  Do we really matter to our members and the communities they live and work in AFTER they leave our halls?  We need to keep checking on that, because if we fall short on that measures, we might as well pack it up.

Sure, it's fine to know that Greeks give more financially back to their institution.  And yes, of course it's important to know that retention of Greek-affiliated students outpaces other students by an impressive margin.  But studies like that are directed towards institutions of higher education to prove that Greek organizations offer value to the college/university experience.  That we deserve to be there.  Studies like these are meant to justify our relevance to the contemporary college campus.

Frankly, I'm tired of begging higher education to believe in our relevance.  Especially when it's so blatantly obvious.

This Gallup study looks beyond the college campus and justifies our relevance to the greater society, which hasn't been so obvious because we don't talk about it enough.   

It's also important to note that this is Gallup, which is much more accessible and well-known to the general public.  No offense to the doctoral dissertations or journal articles out there that provide great wisdom, but those studies don't typically find their way to places like the Wall Street Journal.

It's time we take our case directly to society at large, and show them that a fraternity/sorority experience can improve lives.  Here is some research that backs us up.

If the mission of the Greek experience is the prepare individuals for society (matching our designation as "social" organizations), then this study shows we're on the right track.  This study shows that fraternities and sororities make individuals, homes, workplaces, and communities better.  Incoming first-year students should take notice.  Parents should take notice.   This study should make every mayor hope that its citizens are fraternity members.  It should make every employer strive to attract them to their business.  

The results can be interpreted as a challenge as well.  In the five elements of well-being that were measured, it's true that Greek reported higher than other students.  But each still only reached about 50%.  

All studies are imperfect, and this one does leave room to wonder if Greek organizations simply attract people already destined to be better off.  I tend to think the results are significant enough to say that the influence of Greek life on the outcomes cannot be dismissed.  

Bravo to the NIC and NPC for seeking to undertake this study, not knowing what the result might be.  Let's do more studies that examine the broader life experiences and contributions of those who took our oaths. Studies that tell us if we're achieving our greater societal mission.  Studies like this.