It was during one of my first pledge education meetings that I read the Creed of Sigma Phi Epsilon. There was one part that especially stood out to me:
“I believe that a man will be made better for having been a member of my fraternity.”
I had never heard a fraternity make a claim like that. I thought that joining a fraternity could help guys make friends, meet girls, get invited to parties and network with alumni. But bettering myself? I thought that was up to me. The idea that my SigEp experience should build me into a better person is an idea that has continued to influence my life and the direction of my chapter.
When I joined SigEp at Wright State, our chapter was operating as one of the last remaining pledge model chapters. It was something the guys seemed proud of. There are lots of terrible stories about pledging gone wrong, but that wasn’t our experience exactly. Pledging even started off well for me. I was learning a lot about SigEp and having fun getting to know my pledge brothers. But despite the strong start, my pledge class and I were bitter and fed up by the time we reached initiation.
None of my pledge brothers were ever harmed physically, and there was no single moment when things started to change for the worst. The problem was about what wasn’t there. We were made to believe that there was a good reason behind everything we did during our pledge process, but many of the dots that were supposed to connect simply didn’t.
Once we were initiated, we were congratulated on “earning our letters.” I was happy for my pledging to be over, but I wanted more out of the experience. It wasn’t long until I realized that initiation was the finish line for most of my chapter. Guys either got elected to the executive board, or they just kind of coasted along, never engaging beyond chapter meetings or social events.
I found myself thinking more and more about the role that our fraternity should be playing in our lives. I thought back to the Creed and the words that I had recited first as a pledge.
I knew I wanted more out of SigEp, and I wanted to give my brothers a reason to stay involved.
I volunteered to help our vice president of member development and ended up attending a Carlson Leadership Academy. It was there that I first started to meet brothers from other chapters.
As I learned how other chapters operated, I also discovered something about my own. I realized that people were only showing up to meetings and parties because that’s all we were offering them. And the pledging experience that had been so disappointing? I realized there wasn’t much substance there either. We had a schedule of activities, but there wasn’t much more thought put into it beyond the question: “What else can we do to make this challenging?”
I worked hard to come up with a plan to improve my chapter. Soon, I found myself elected vice president of member development. I continued to look at what other chapters were doing, many of them through the Balanced Man Program, and I found lots of ideas I could borrow to give my brothers a chance to have fun, learn and grow through our Fraternity—for their entire time in college, not just the first semester.
I considered whether we’d be better off adopting the Balanced Man Program, but I didn’t think it was necessary. I knew there were benefits to the program, but many guys in our chapter were still afraid that adopting it would hurt our brotherhood or give us a bad reputation on campus as the only fraternity without pledging. Still, I was determined to treat the next pledge class better while still challenging them. I thought that would be enough. I ultimately discovered I was wrong.
At our next chapter camping retreat, a group of brothers took things too far. They singled out one of our members and gave him an especially hard time. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it, and there wasn’t anything productive about the dose of hazing they served him. I hated seeing it happen, but I didn’t intervene.
Afterwards, as I tried to console him, I realized that what he was feeling was legitimate. He felt betrayed and was questioning whether SigEp was really going to give him the experience he thought he had signed up for.
To this day, my lack of action is the biggest regret of my life. This incident helped me realize that pledging is not the healthiest way to build bonds of brotherly love.
I never wanted a brother to have that kind of reason to leave, and I thought back to the line in SigEp’s Creed that had made me want to run for office in the first place. At that moment, it was clear that pledging was leading my chapter down the wrong path.
That camping trip was a wake up call for our chapter. When we returned home, we knew that something needed to change. We thought the Balanced Man Program might be the answer.
Over the next year, we spent countless hours researching the program and talking about it with our brothers. We eventually put it to a vote, and officially adopted the Balanced Man Program.
Since then, everything has changed for the better.
Brothers used to have two choices: run for office or prepare to coast by. Now all of our members are contributing to the chapter. They’re all learning and getting something out of the experience—it’s changed the way people look at the Fraternity.
Our chapter used to think we needed to be hard on pledges to prepare them for the real world. Looking back, it is easy to see that the things we were doing weren’t preparing anyone for success, in college or after. Today, our brothers are completing challenges that are much more involved and thoughtful than our pledge program ever was.
As for our concern about what other people would think? Our reputation has only improved. We have strengthened recruitment standards, and potential new members want to join because we offer something better than every other fraternity. As a result, we are on track to double our membership within the next two years.
I don’t think all pledge-model fraternities are creating a horrible experience for members. Though some are, others may simply be falling short. They’re falling short of their potential, and falling short of their aspirations and fraternal values. That’s where our chapter started.
Today, we have the same Ritual and the same values as before, but the Balanced Man Program is making it easier to be the kind fraternity we knew we wanted to be.
The most important lesson I’ve learned through this transition is “actions speak louder than words.” I’ve seen chapters that are technically “Balanced Man,” but in reality provide a much worse experience than our chapter did as a pledge-model. Just calling ourselves a “BMP chapter” wasn’t going to be enough.
You can’t embrace a title and expect anything to change; you have to embrace a culture and a set of principles. You have to get the whole chapter on board. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.
We were afraid that we would lose our local traditions if we transitioned, but that wasn’t the case. We had to adapt some, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Not every tradition is best, and you should always evaluate why traditions exist. Create traditions that you can respect and be proud of. Respect the reason behind the tradition, not just the tradition itself.
The important thing is to embrace the original SigEp traditions that started in 1901. Our Founding Fathers believed in equal membership. Pledging was a time to learn about the fraternity, not to treat members differently.
Hazing developed much later and it hasn’t always been a part of the fraternity experience, and it shouldn’t be anymore.
We know we are not perfect, and all of the brothers in my chapter know we still have a lot of work to do, but I am now proud to say, “I believe that a man will be made better for having been a member of my fraternity.” It wasn’t easy to make this line of the Creed a reality. We had to stand up for it, work for it, and even fight for it. But the effort was worth the reward.
What can you do to ensure men will be made better for having been a member of your chapter? I challenge you to not only think about the answer to that question, but act on it.
Why? Because SigEp has taught me this: positive change is worth fighting for.
Gavin Doll is a junior at Wright State where he’s studying finance and marketing and seves as the student body president. He also seves as the current vice president of member development for the Ohio Pi Chapter and will be transitioning to chaplain in January 2016.