After graduating from high school with a class of 30 students, I was anxious to find a way to make my college campus of 25,000 students feel a little less overwhelming. I did not know a lot about “Greek Life,” but one of my older friends from high school had joined a fraternity at a different school the previous year, and it seemed to be working out for him. On top of that, my dad, a blue-collar union worker his entire life, said it would be a good way to make some important connections, whatever that meant.
CNN reported in an August 22, 2018 report that there are 800,000 undergraduate members of fraternities and sororities on 800 college campuses, with about 9 million alumni members around the world. Despite accounting for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, members of fraternities and sororities are significantly overrepresented in high profile roles in corporations and government, including 25 percent of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 40 percent of the members of the U.S. Senate.
I participated in recruitment events at almost all of the fraternities on my campus, and I signed my invitation to membership, or “pledge card,” after finding a good fit. However, soon thereafter, the chapter closed for financial reasons, and I was eligible to join a different fraternity, which I did the following summer.
I had chosen to join the first fraternity because I felt a good connection with its members, and I felt like we shared many of the same values. The second fraternity, on the other hand, had been investigated and disciplined the previous semester, removing 16 members in the process. When I went through the fraternity recruitment process a second time as a sophomore, the opportunity to take on a leadership role sooner was appealing to me, and I had no reason to suspect my experience with the second organization would be any different than the first.
From the beginning, the culture of hazing completely consumed the second organization. “Hell Week,” “Line-Ups,” and “pledge tasks” were part of the daily vocabulary of the chapter during my first semester. My experience is not altogether different from many others. According to data from a National Study of Student Hazing in 2008, 55% of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing, and 47% of students come to college having experienced hazing. In 2017, four students died from hazing-related incidents, making it one of the deadliest hazing years in history, according to data maintained and published by Hank Nuwer, one of the foremost researchers on the topic.
The hazing continued for the entire first semester, as well as the first two weeks of the second semester. After surviving my own pledging, I partnered with two of my closest friends in the second fraternity to challenge and confront the culture of hazing.
When the chapter’s leaders found out that I had shared the details of the hazing that had been happening in the second fraternity, they surprised and trapped me in the chapter meeting room at 11 p.m. during finals week.
After I was allowed to leave, I knew I had to move out in the middle of the night. I immediately called one of my closest friends, who was a member of the first fraternity-the one I had left. A few minutes later, my friend and two other members of the first fraternity moved me out, facing the same hostility and threats of violence that I also faced.
I certainly have seen the worst of what fraternity life can be. But despite that experience, I believe in the positive potential of fraternities and sororities, and I have worked for 20 years to protect them from the dangerous, dysfunctional, and destructive forces of hazing.
In my book, Building Up Without Tearing Down, I describe the destructive nature of hazing, both for individuals and their families, but also for the organizations, as well, due to the psychological power it wields on almost everybody who participates in it. However, in my book, I also present a strategy for using that very same psychology to create organizations that ignite, rather than inhibit, the growth and individual potential of every one of their members.
This is the transformative power of fraternities and sororities, and it is available to everybody who is willing to embrace its true mission and potential, which are embodied in their founding principles and values.