“Greeks” Make Good Grown Ups: 7 Life Lessons I Learned from My College Fraternity

It’s all Greek to me.

My college fraternity, Theta Chi, was founded on April 10, 1856 at  Norwich University in Norwich Vermont by two undergraduate military cadets: Frederick Norton Freeman and Arthur Chase.  

137 years later — on February 7, 1993 — I was one of 56 undergraduates who founded what became the Theta Sigma chapter at UC Santa Barbara on March 4, 1994. Sadly, the chapter closed in the mid 2000’s for reasons you might expect — and some you might not. 

However, as an undergraduate member, I embraced the opportunities presented and served my chapter as Historian, Secretary, and, my personal favorite role, Chaplain.

I also participated in numerous local, regional and national events. I made the most of the moment!

I never expected to be a “fraternity guy” and in many ways never was, but I embraced the opportunity with enthusiasm and made it my own. Interestingly, my fraternity experience was a uniquely entrepreneurial experience. 

Looking back, even just one year after graduating, it was clear to me that my years in Theta Chi taught me invaluable life skills. Recognizing this, I wrote the article below for the 1997 UCSB yearbook, La Cumbre (now the “Senior Book”). I worked on the La Cumbre for two years: first as Copy Editor and then Greek’s section editor. When I suggested the idea they were receptive.

When I wrote this article I had already graduated with my BA in English and was working locally in Santa Barbara as a technical writer for a medical device manufacturer. So, I had some “real world” perspective.

Some of the references are no doubt dated, but the overall article remains relevant.  The anniversary of Theta Chi reminded me of this article and I felt compelled to share it with you.


Toga! Toga! Toga!

Who can forget the 1978 National Lampoon classic “Animal House?” With characters like John “Bluto” Blutarsky and Otter the film made a seminal impact on the psyche.  During one of the many party scenes in the movie, Boone, a member of the infamous Delta Tau Chi Fraternity, and his girlfriend Katy have the following discussion:

Katy: “Is this really what you’re going to do for the rest of your life?”

Boone: “What do you mean?”

Katy: “I mean hanging around with a bunch of animals getting drunk every weekend.”

Boone: “No, after I graduate, I’m going to get drunk every night.”

Although this film is entertaining, as an alumnus of a college fraternity, its negative, exaggerated portrayal of the Greek system frustrates me.  Yet, at the same, I know there are Greek organizations that could easily be mistaken for Delta Tau Chi.

However, despite the existence of some “troubled” chapters, I firmly believe the Greek system still offers its members a diverse and impressive curriculum vitae of strengths.

Animal House reinforces the misconceptions and stereotypes that many non-Greeks share.  As a result of constant negative publicity such as this, many outsiders consider members of fraternities and sororities irresponsible, destructive, underachieving, spoiled, selfish, and superficial people.

To an extent, their assumptions are not wrong.  But neither are they entirely accurate.

As is the case with any large group, there are those who use their Greek membership as a stepping stone to greater achievement, and there are those who only want to have a good time.

Only through a proactive, aggressive approach to our problems can we turn the tide of public opinion.  It is therefore the responsibility of the Greek community to determine our finest qualities, and promote them, while casting aside the less desirable elements.

It is my opinion that the one quality most worthy of promotion is the tangible and intangible real world experience the Greek system provides its members.

Now, after a year as a Technical Writer for an international medical device corporation, I am extremely aware of how important my four undergraduate years with Theta Chi Fraternity were.

Many of the chapter events I participated in, structured or informal, taught me important lessons that have given me a competitive advantage over individuals who were not involved with the Greek system.

I feel fortunate to have had such a positive Greek experience. What follows is a selection of the areas in which I feel my involvement with Theta Chi have benefited me most:

1. Time Management Ability
From appointments to meetings, deadlines to simple errands, each of us has far too much to accomplish in the few short hours available to us each day.  College life is no different, in fact in many ways it is more complex.

In addition to contending with the basics (e.g., laundry, bills, groceries), college students must also contend with the far less predictable rigors of academia.

For fraternity and sorority members time is stretched even thinner.  With weekly chapter meetings, committee meetings, participation in Fraternity-Sorority Council events, philanthropic endeavors, house maintenance duties, and other time commitments, we have a great deal to contend with on a daily basis.  However, I believe that my fraternal experience taught me the modern art of prioritizing.

In order to win the war against time, the powers that be invented the (infamous) Day Planner, the modern day equivalent to a sidearm.  Although I now use this scheduling device on a daily basis, during my years as an undergraduate member of Theta Chi, I was constantly forced to balance my numerous fraternal, academic, and personal commitments in a similar fashion.

When I served on the Executive Council, effective time management skills were absolutely essential, as they are now, in the real world.  Through my involvement with Theta Chi, I learned the value of prioritization.  Because of this skill, I fulfilled all of my responsibilities, while graduating a quarter early, with honors.

2. Communication Skills
During my four years with Theta Chi, I served in a variety of positions that required an ability to effectively communicate, however, none were as demanding as Chapter Secretary.  During these two important years, I strengthened my ability to not only express my thoughts clearly through written media, but I also developed a powerful oratory ability.

My position also required that I maintain an open line of communication with our International Headquarters and National Officers who expected a high level of professionalism at all times.  Now, as an employee in a corporate culture, I am able to apply the professional communication skills I learned while an undergraduate during my daily interactions with everyone from my immediate supervisor, to the President of the company.

My fraternal experience also gave me the opportunity to improve my ability to effectively socialize and network with a broad cross-section of people.  Although a strong command of the written word is essential to success in business, perhaps the foundation upon which any business transaction rests, is verbal communication.

A recent survey of large corporations indicated that an ability to effectively communicate verbally is the most important quality an employee can possess.

The importance of verbal communication is perhaps most evident during the critical interview process, when it becomes your responsibility to intelligently expound upon your written resume.  You may have the best credentials in the world on paper, but if you cannot convey your abilities verbally, you will most likely encounter difficulty in any real world scenario.

Hashing during membership recruitment, general chapter meeting, and elections, whether you are running for office, or simply participating in the process, are all perfect opportunities to develop your public speaking acumen.

Furthermore, the success of your fraternity or sorority depends upon the active participation of its members, and communication is the foundation upon which participation can grow.

3. Necessity for Teamwork and Importance of Individualism
Dedication to Teamwork is an increasing trend within corporate America, thereby presenting a member of a fraternity or sorority a valuable personal marketing tool.  After all, the point of the Greek system is to mold a disparate group of individuals into a cohesive body, committed to the fulfillment of a common objective, as defined by the Ritual.

An effective Ritual will therefore stimulate its members individual talents while also reminding them of their commitment to something far larger than themselves. Through the Ritual, a member of a fraternity or sorority will hopefully develop an understanding of their own potential in relation to the needs of the group (society) of which they are a part.

A positive fraternity or sorority experience allows a member to try new things and, by doing so, nurture preexisting talents, or even discover an impressive latent ability. From something as mundane as By-Laws, to an event as pivotal as the performance of the Ritual, a fraternity or sorority allows its members to sample new things, within a relatively sheltered environment.

Furthermore, the communal living structure of a fraternity or sorority teaches its members to peacefully coexist with people who are often very different than them, but again, are bonded together by a common vision (the Ritual).  An ability to get along with a diverse cross section of individuals is absolutely critical to success in the real world, and, more specifically the corporate world.

As much as we hope for personal success, we also must stop and realize that we are also parts of a greater whole.  Because of this, it is important to remember that our actions affect more than ourselves, and our success often relies on the work of others.

The balance between individual achievement and a responsibility to your God, your country, and your fellow man, is a precarious one, but is one that can most effectively understood through involvement in a fraternity or sorority.

4. Respect, Responsibility, Accountability, and Initiative
The founders of our fraternities and sororities started our organizations with the hope that through a carefully structured system of values (the Ritual) and a solid grasp on positive foundations of society, the members could rise to the apex of their existence and better themselves, their brothers or sisters, and humanity.

Although the methods of our Rituals differ, the messages most likely revolve around the following concepts:

1. Respect for other people, their views, opinions, possessions, and inalienable rights.

2. Responsibility to actualize positive results for ourselves, our fraternity, and our community.

3. Accountability for our personal actions and those of our brothers, or sisters.

4. Initiative in realizing a need, problem, opportunity or deficiency, and ensuring its resolution.

These easy to understand, yet powerful values represent the cornerstone of every fraternity or sorority.  And, not surprisingly, they are a vital part of every business and personal encounter in the real world.  Anyone who understands and practices these four concepts will be an asset to any company.

Motivation, dedication, and innovation are all by-products of any fraternity or sorority, and are the essence behind success in the real world.

Furthermore, just as our own organizations have Standards Boards and  Codes of Conduct that hold us accountable for our actions, house maintenance duties that teach responsibility, and methods of soliciting participation, so do all successful business, and, in a less formal sense, all families.

Without an awareness of these four important values, anyone will most likely encounter trouble in their future endeavors, personal and professional.

5. Sense of Spirit and Competition
Greek Week festivities, participation in Intramural sports, attendance at local, regional and national fraternity or sorority events, undergraduate (and alumni) involvement with collegiate activities, and a strong presence of fraternal spirit are all ways in which you can increase your potential for success in the real world, while having fun in the process.

The power of fraternal spirit and a healthy desire for competition should not be underestimated.  As Charles Darwin so effectively realized, only the strong survive.  And what better way to ensure your survival in a highly competitive society than by getting involved in a wide spectrum of activities, either through your place of employment or beyond the walls of your office.

You will not only meet new people, experience new things, but you could also pave the way for future success.

Additionally, employers are constantly on the lookout for energetic, motivated individuals, whose effusive personality more than compensates for their lack of experience.  Credentials will get you to the front door, personality can get you the corner office.

6. Responsiveness to Change
During my undergraduate years in Theta Chi, it was rare when a day went by without some element of “the great unknown” affecting it.  Although we tried to plan events so they would run smoothly, inevitably, something always interfered with this simple goal.

While it is essential for a fraternity or sorority to maintain an organized infrastructure, any Greek organization must be able to quickly respond to a rapidly changing environment.

Again, life in the real world is no different.  I re-prioritize my project list on an almost daily basis in response to the constantly changing, and often unpredictable needs of “Upper Management.” During the past year, there were at least a half dozen times when I was almost finished with a project only to have it suddenly fall by the wayside, in deference to a more urgent project.

As frustrating as this situation is, because of my fraternal experience, I can rapidly adapt to a constantly changing environment.

7. Ability to Function Within a Hierarchical Power Structure
Although college is a time of great individual liberties and personal discoveries, it is nevertheless a highly regulated experience.  From mid-term schedules, to term paper requirements, college students learn to function in a world with a great affinity for bureaucratic red tape.

Unfortunately, the paperwork jungle only gets more dense after graduation.

However, a fraternity or sorority is an incredible resource through which a member can learn to function within a distinctively corporate hierarchy.  There are numerous positions within any company that are remarkably similar to those in a fraternity or sorority.

For example, almost every company has a CEO or President (Chapter President),  CFO (Treasurer), Documentation Manager (Secretary) Training Manager (Marshal/Pledge Educator), Marketing Manager (Rush Chairman), Environmental Health and Safety Manager (Risk Manager), to name a few.

Additionally, just as a fraternity or sorority experience begins with a pledge quarter, so too are (usually) the first three months of any job considered an introductory period.  Most companies usually have a company handbook, which functions very much like a Ritual.

There are also opportunities for career advancement in any place of employment (annual elections), performance reviews (membership reviews), facility maintenance (house cleanups), and company (chapter) pride.  The list of similarities is endless, and an astute member of the Greek community will capitalize on as many as possible.

In closing, is important to remember that there are an unlimited number of opportunities available to any fraternity or sorority member.  This article highlights only a small number of such opportunities.

Fraternities and sororities empower their members to shatter John Stuart Mill’s claim that, “The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.”

We should not be afraid to expect more from our affiliation with a Greek Letter Organization, in fact, it is our duty.  Only through an active participation in our Greek experience will you discover the key to unlock the doors of real world success.