Fraternity and sorority involvement can help students thrive, particularly students of color. A new initiative is aimed at boosting Greek organizations on campus.
By Andy Steiner, Photos by Sara Rubinstein
Danita Brown Young became a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Sorority, Inc., a historically African American sorority, when she was an undergraduate at Kent State University. Years later, she’s reminded of her membership nearly every time she’s in an airport.
“When I’m on vacation and I’m walking to a catch my plane wearing a shirt that indicates I’m a Delta”—she snaps her fingers—“instantly people will spot me and say, ‘Hey, soror.’” Young, the University of Minnesota’s vice provost for student affairs, smiles, explaining the shorthand expression for sorority sister. “It’s a great feeling to know that no matter where I go, I can connect with somebody who has taken the same oath I have, somebody who has the same ideals as I do. It’s like I have family everywhere.”
That deep, lifelong connection was one of the central reasons Young joined Delta—and it is one of the reasons her office is leading an initiative to strengthen Greek life on campus. “Membership in fraternities and sororities—particularly multicultural organizations—really helps with recruitment and retention for all students,” Young explains. And in a majority-white institution like the U, Young says traditionally African American, or National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), and Multicultural Greek Council (MGC) groups like Delta Sigma Beta, become a home away from home: a support network that helps young students of color, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, navigate the uncharted waters of campus life.
Last year, when Mia McCurdy was hired as coordinator in the Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life, it became clear to her that NPHC and MGC groups needed her attention. Even though the oldest of these groups, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., has had a presence on campus for more than 100 years, most traditionally African American and multicultural fraternities and sororities have been at the U for less than three decades, and their membership numbers are low. According to the Office of Institutional Research, 133 University students are active members of MGC and NPHC organizations, compared to 2,500 students who are active members of Pan-Hellenic (PHC) or Interfraternity Council organizations.
Like graduates of PHC or IFC groups, alumni members of traditionally black or multicultural organizations tend to have a strong bond with their schools. McCurdy notes that membership in such groups leads to a lasting connection to the University. Plus, members of frats and sororities are more likely to come back to alumni events—and more likely to donate to the University.
Anthony Shields talks with a couple of his Alpha Phi Alpha brothers Anthony Shields (B.A.’14) didn’t join a fraternity until his junior year, but when he did, the experience changed his life. “For years, I was actually against Greek life, against fraternity life in general,” Shields admits. “It had a negative stigma. I felt it was toolish.” But when he learned more about the proud history of Alpha Phi Alpha, the University’s oldest NPHC fraternity, he began to see the organization in a different light.
Acquoi and Enwesi sport their Zeta Phi Beta jackets[
“I began to understand why people joined groups like this,” Shields says. “As a mixed-race person, I’ve struggled with trying to associate myself with my white or black side. My father wasn’t a really strong presence in my life. I saw that there are strong black men in this brotherhood, men I want to have in my life. ”
Colleen Enwesi, left, and Fata Acquoi
Though the U’s Alpha Mu chapter is small—there were just two active members when Shields joined—support from the fraternity’s alumni chapter is strong. Shields believes that joining this brotherhood, with its rich history of social activism and individual support, helped him complete his degree and chart the course for a career in education. He felt like he’d joined a family, one that expected him to be his very best. “There were moments in my undergraduate career when I felt so isolated,” Shields recalls. But being a fraternity brother put that to rest.
“The support our alumni showed us was amazing. They came back to the undergraduate chapter meetings. They were here for us in every possible way.” —Abiola Abu-Bakr
It would be hard to find more enthusiastic sorority sisters than Fata Acquoi and Colleen Enwesi, members of Zeta Phi Beta, a traditionally African American sorority that came back to campus in 2011 after a decade-long hiatus.
Zeta, a member of the Divine Nine—historically black Greek-letter organizations founded between 1906 and 1963—has seen a bit of a resurgence, thanks to the efforts of their committed local alumni chapter and undergraduate members like Enwesi and Acquoi, who joined this spring, taking on the duties of treasurer (Enwesi) and vice president (Acquoi).
“I was looking for a sisterhood of support, a group of people who have similar values as I do,” says Acquoi, who was born in Liberia and came to Minnesota when she was 8. She learned about Zeta when she came to campus for the Multicultural Kickoff, held every fall. She considered membership and even talked about it with her good friend and roommate Enwesi, but didn’t join until the spring of her sophomore year. Now she’s glad she did. “It’s the greatest thing,” she enthuses. “Once you join the organization, there is so much support.”
For Acquoi, support came in the form of financial assistance this spring, when she realized she needed nearly $3,000 in tuition fees to register for classes.
“I only had about $100,” Acquoi says. “When I realized I couldn’t pay my tuition, I put a call out to my sisters and they rallied, helping collect the money I needed. In less than 24 hours, I had thousands of dollars, everything I needed to pay my tuition.”
Enwesi, who loaned Acquoi more than $800, says this outpouring was a clear example of the strong sorority family that she and her friend had joined. “It was an actual sisterhood bond,” Enwesi says. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if Fata hadn’t been able to pay her tuition. I would’ve broken down. When I heard her predicament, I said, ‘No. Not today. We’re going to find that money for you.’ As a family, it is our responsibility to help you finish your education.” “They wanted the best for me,” Acquoi says. “I cried.”
Earl Wilson, president of Sigma Beta Rho, an MGC fraternity that has held colony status—given to new organizations that have low numbers—for one year, says he was attracted to his fraternity because of its diverse membership. Sig Rho was founded in 1996 at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the founder’s goals was to promote South Asian culture, but the University of Minnesota group’s membership is culturally diverse, according to Wilson, who is white. “Out of our 15 student members and graduate members, we represent 9 or 10 different ethnicities.”
Left to right: Sigma Beta Rho brothers Sudeepto Gangopadhyay, Zaki Khan, Earl Wilson, Ahmed Elhadidi, and Brian Niaz
Wilson graduated from St. Paul’s Como High School and was looking for a fraternity that represented a cross section of world culture. “My high school was really diverse,” Wilson explains. “That’s the environment I am most comfortable in. For me, being active in my fraternity is a way to meet new people and make friends, to learn about different cultures. Through Sigma Beta Rho, I’m learning to work with people from around the world, learning to overcome cultural and language barriers.” In the future, he believes this experience will help him navigate an increasingly multicultural world.
The flip side of NPHC and MGC groups receiving more institutional support is the high expectations Young has of them to grow membership. Student organizations must have a minimum of five members to be recognized by the University. Young has given groups with dwindling membership like Alpha Phi Alpha a clear deadline.
“I have told them that they have until next year to get five members,” Young says firmly, adding that MPHC groups have historically shied away from Rush Week or traditional recruitment tactics, instead relying on word of mouth or family connections. “When I got here, some of the MGC and NPHC organizations were way too small to properly conduct business. I’m telling them it is detrimental to them personally to have such small chapters. It’s a lot of work to run a chapter of two people. Most groups will be easily able to get to five members or more. They need to up their game if they want to survive here.”
Abiola Abu-Bakr, vice president of finance for Sigma Lambda Gamma, a Latina-founded MGC sorority that has been on campus since 2000, struggled last year when her sorority’s membership sagged to just two. The nursing major knew she couldn’t run a chapter by herself, and so she sent a call out to her alumni sisters.
“When it became clear that we were going to have to bring in new members soon, we were seriously wondering what we were going to do,” she says. When she talks about what happened next, Abu-Bakr tears up: “The support our alumni showed us was amazing. They came back into the undergraduate chapter meetings. At Multicultural Kickoff, myself and about five alumni sisters did a step routine. They were here for us in every way possible.” By spring, membership in the organization had increased to five.
This past year, Young hosted a dinner for members of all traditionally African American and multicultural fraternities and sororities. “It was a good way for me to meet them all individually and for them to meet me and to know about each other’s stories,” she says. “What I wanted to know was, what was their experience like? What’s been going on? Where have we fallen short? How can we help them more? I let them know that they are important to the University, that we are pulling for them, and that we are there to support them and help them grow."
The Greek Initiative
The initiative to strengthen Greek life on campus began in 2012, when University President Eric Kaler (Ph.D. ’82) called for developing a “sustainable and robust relationship between the University and the Greek community.” He appointed a Greek Community Strategic Task force cochaired by alumnus Fred Friswold (B.S.B. ’58) and former Vice Provost for Student Affairs Jerry Rinehart. The task force released an exhaustive report in 2013 with a number of recommendations related to students, alumni, and housing. The report notes that the undergraduate Greek community is the largest organized student cohort on campus, with approximately 1,800 members, many of whom assume leadership and service positions throughout their college careers and beyond. “Investing in this community is a sure strategy for enhancing the undergraduate living and learning experience at the University,” it says.
On the heels of the report, the University committed $6 million to a chapter house renovation loan program; opened the 17th Avenue Residence Hall, which houses two chapters and a Greek Life Learning Community; and committed additional funding over three years to support new Greek initiatives.
Calling All Greek Alumni
It’s going to be a big party, and it should be: It’s been 140 years in the making.
“In the 140 years of Greek history at the University of Minnesota, there has been no specific attempt to reach out to Greek alumni,” says Fred Friswold, (B.S.B. ’58), Greek Community Strategic Task Force cochair and a proud Theta Chi.
That changed in 2012, when University President Eric Kaler (Ph.D. ’82), inspired by research showing the positive influence Greek organizations have on the higher education institutions that host them, launched an initiative to strengthen fraternity and sorority life at the U. He reached out to influential Greek alumni, including Friswold.
Friswold was instrumental in establishing the Greek Alumni Council (GAC) , which is sponsoring Forever Greek, the first-ever Greek Alumni Homecoming event. It will take place at 7 p.m. October 17 at McNamara Alumni Center. Organizers are expecting some 1,000 Greek grads to gather for food, drinks, live music, and dancing. It’s a big event with many moving parts: Over 100 volunteers are already hard at work.
“We hope to bring Greek alumni back to campus,” Friswold says. “We want to reacquaint them with one another and reflect on the value they have accumulated over their years of being associated with the Greek system.”
GAC member Marnie Holman (B.A. ’68) is a key organizer for Forever Greek. She thinks the event will help raise awareness of the positive influence that fraternities and sororities hold, for both alumni and new students.
“I’m hoping this event gives alumni who haven’t felt connected with the University an opportunity to come back and reconnect,” Holman says. “The University is a big place. My sorority was where I could have a sense of belonging. I’d like to pass that feeling on to other students.”
Though the University’s Greek community is the largest student group on campus, it still represents only a small percentage of the overall student population, says GAC member Tish Reynolds (B.A. ’76). She and her fellow council members would like to change that.
“Only 6 percent of students at the U of M are part of the Greek system,” Reynolds says. “That’s half or a third of what it really should be, based on the size of the University. We see this party as one opportunity to expand those numbers.”
Friswold points out that the increased emphasis on Greek life has already had a positive impact at the University. “We’ve already increased the undergraduate Greek population on campus in the two and a half years since we started on this project,” he says. “The Greek community is a vibrant and growing group.” Forever Greek, and all the excitement that surrounds it, he says, will only increase the momentum.
Register for Forever Greek at www.MinnesotaAlumni.org/ForeverGreek. — A.S.