Beware the Trough of Disillusionment

Thousands of recently initiated first-year students have closed out their freshman years and have started the all-too-short summer march towards sophomore status.  Getting that first year under your belt is a significant achievement.  My worst year academically was the first year.  New experiences and new friends plus over-indulgences in things like food, beverage, and campus activities can be exhilarating, but can also take a toll.  If you made it through, then the wisdom you’ve attained will serve you well next year.

Fraternities and sororities also have to balance the desire to take a much needed break over the summer with the need to keep momentum.  At least keep your fraternity house lawn mowed.  Your summer orientation staff will appreciate it.

There is a lot of research and attention being paid to the sophomore year experience.  As described in Belmont University’s Sophomore Experience Plan, “many sophomores experience anxiety and feel pressured; some panic while others withdraw or begin to fail in response to the overwhelming reality of college. No longer are they in the freshman bubble, focused on making friends, learning campus life, and reaping the benefits of freshman experience courses, programs, and other support systems.”

This concern for the sophomore year reminds me of something I learned about just recently: the Gartner Hype Cycle.  Have you heard of it?  It’s a graph that illustrates the common public response to new media and technology.  Here it is:

Here is a summary of the points along the cycle:
Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off, especially thanks to media interest (think newest Iphone).  
Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by just as many (or more) failures. Basically, it’s time to decide if the product lives up to the hype. There is really no way it can.
Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver and because the technology did not live up to its overinflated expectations. 
Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can provide benefits become clearer and more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear.  
Plateau of Productivity: The real-world benefits of the technology are demonstrated and accepted. The final height of the plateau varies according to whether the technology has broad usability or only benefits a smaller niche market.

I’m most interested in the trough of disillusionment, because we all can relate to the let-down that follows an over-hyped experience.  If you are a techie, or a gamer, or even just someone who can’t wait for the next summer blockbuster movie, you’ve felt the highs of anticipation and the lows that always come afterward.

Can this graph apply in any way to the Greek experience?  I see a few connections.

Imagine the top of the graph – the peak of inflated expectations – to be the moment you hand the bid card to a new recruit.  At that moment, especially if it’s accompanied by cheering, hugs, chants, and celebration, the recruit feels euphoric about this opportunity.  They are on top of the world.  Their mind is filled with a highlight reel of all of the best thoughts of fraternity or sorority they’ve ever held.  So, of course there will be a downward slope.  Once you reach the peak, there is no other choice. 

However, the fraternities or sororities that can use their pledging period as a chance to harness this enthusiasm will push through the trough of disillusionment into a more productive phase.  These are fraternities and sororities that see the spirit and joy of a new member as an asset to the organization, and not something to quell because the new members “need to be taken down a notch.”  The new members begin to see how the fraternity can benefit them and how they can benefit the fraternity.  Those who don’t reach this enlightenment probably disengage and move on. 

Those Greek organizations that haze their new members and intentionally make pledging a negative experience are basically sending those new members on a greased sled equipped with a jet engine rocketing down into the trough of disillusionment.  And then those fraternities and sororities sit and wonder why they have a motivation problem in their membership.

Another fraternity connection to the hype cycle: new colonies.  New colonies are ripe for the trough of disillusionment because the amount of time and effort it takes them to reach the peak.  Campuses and headquarters alike love new colonies because they are a glimpse into our pledging-free, values-based, Ritual-driven core.  Colonies are the closest we get to our origins.  It’s too bad that often doesn’t last.  Newly-charted groups, in their effort to fight the doldrums of the everyday fraternity experience and to regain the electricity they once had, think the answer is to start doing what the other chapters are doing.  But that leaves them actively trying to be average.

The newly-chartered groups that achieve the realization that their differences are what makes them successful find that enlightenment that leads them back up.

A final application of this for fraternity takes us back to the start of this essay.  Just as universities are concerned about the sophomore year experience, so should you.  It could be argued that the sophomore year is the most critical year in the undergraduate Greek experience.  It’s really when a member makes the determination for how much they want to give to the chapter.  Those who vanish in their Junior and Senior years likely started to drift away as sophomores.

How do you support your sophomore members and help them keep stay motivated?  A few ideas:

  • Don’t build your pledge program to be a grueling sprint to the finish line (initiation), because a finish line is how they’ll view it. 
  • If you have a big brother or big sister program, the sophomore year is the time to really use it.  Pull together all of the big brothers/sisters for the newest pledge class early this Fall.  Ask them to pay lots of attention to their littles at the start of the semester, including things as simple as having them make sure the new members attend chapter meetings or get involved on committees.
  • Chapter presidents/officers can do a lot by just sending emails or letters to the new members over the summer months.  Help them remember their pride of membership, give them goals to look forward to, and thank them for their decision to be involved.

Hopefully this gives you something to think about over the summer months, especially if you have identified member involvement as a issue to address.  The point is to be aware of the trough of disillusionment, to understand that it’s part of any significant experience, and to not get stuck there.  There are ways you can make it easier to fall faster and harder into the trough, so be careful.  Instead, as you consider your members' experience, how can you make your fraternity or sorority one worth staying invested in, one worth working for, and one that creates enlightenment over disillusionment?