Western Carolina University boasts 20 sorority and fraternity chapters, with members making up 8 percent of the overall student body. Their commitment, they will quickly tell you, is 100 percent.
Greek life is prospering at WCU. The ideals and values of personal growth, academic achievement and community service don’t end at graduation, either. The legacy of Greek letter organizations is alumni involvement and civic engagement that are never-ending. So much so, WCU has created the Office of Greek Student Engagement and Development, effective July 1, 2016, furthering the university’s commitment to students and alumni.
“We have strong Greek chapters on campus with strong connections to the community. Why not build on those strengths and create a program at the director level?” said Kevin S. Koett, associate vice chancellor and dean of students. “It was a matter of taking into consideration our constituent needs, defining what we wanted to accomplish with a Greek life office and building on that foundation. We determined a mission and a vision for a system that rewards the Greek life, for all that they do.”
So what exactly is it that Greek life does at WCU? Greeks past and present after first mentioning philanthropic and community efforts refer to the bond of sisterhood and brotherhood as a leading reason for joining a Greek letter organization.
“This is family,” said Casey Gerringer, a junior from High Point, glancing at the women seated around her at a Phi Mu table in front of A.K. Hinds University Center days before Homecoming, giving away homemade cupcakes as a show of support. Being in a sorority, Gerringer said, “is everything that family is, or should be. Support, caring, taking care of each other. That is what Phi Mu gives me and makes me a part of. Even with sisters that I may not be as close with, I still can go to them for help. That is the bond that we have, which might be hard for others to understand.”
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
The home-away-from-home theme is a common one for students and alumni. Sororities and fraternities foster individual growth and discovery, they said, while providing a caring support group of peers.
“I was a first-generation college student in my family, so when I went away to college and joined Phi Mu, the girls I met became family,” said Janine Bryan ’83, a licensed counselor in South Carolina who sits on the WCU Alumni Association board of directors. “We did everything together; we ate together, studied together, walked to class together, socialized together, we basically grew up with each other. We went on weekend road trips together.” Bryan said it got to the point where she did not want to go home during the summer.
“The first couple of years after college, many of us would continue to drive back to WCU to visit our sorority sisters who had not yet graduated,” she said. “Not coming from a close-knit family, the bond with my Greek sisters was most important during these momentous years. In the years that followed, my Greek family continued to be my closest friends. Despite the miles between us, we continue to be extremely involved in each other’s lives.”
That sense of community and “home away from home” becomes more literal with The Village, WCU’s residential complex of six buildings for registered student organizations, including Greeks. The Village was built in 2003-2004, with a commons building, vending and laundry rooms, and volleyball and basketball courts. An $11.4 million project funded through student room fees, the complex is designed to provide modern housing for Greek letter organizations and other groups that otherwise might live off-campus.
Take a quick look into alumni activities and it is immediately obvious that Greek life remains vibrant following graduation. For example, for the past three years alumni of Theta Xi and Lambda Chi Alpha fraternities have held an annual golf challenge.
“The tournament started as an idea of Craig Locklear ’82, a Theta Xi and a very good friend of mine,” said Mitch Treadway ’83, Lambda Chi member. “Back when we were at WCU, we all had friends in the other fraternity, but were intense rivals in athletics, recruiting, anything competitive. So, a few years ago, he asked me to get a Lambda Chi team together. In other words, he challenged us! And we had about 28 players for the first tournament and it has grown each of the three years since. Once someone attends, they always come back.”
In the golf challenge, each foursome consists of players from both fraternities. “Lambda Chi brother Buzz Hartbarger ’83 created a purple jug decorated with university and fraternity emblems,” Treadway said. “The winning fraternity keeps the prize until the next tournament, with the jug traveling with each winning player for some time, similar to the Stanley Cup for the NHL, and the holder may make a few friendly jabs about the victory on social media.”
The challenge is a competitive event, but it’s really more about the fellowship, Treadway said. “Initially, the players were late ’70s and early ’80s graduates. As the tournament has gone on, brothers from many eras have started participating. I’ve met many new Lambda Chis as well as Theta Xis, and they have enriched my life,” he said.
What really unites the golfers, he said, is that “everyone is a Catamount. Everyone shares a love and bond, not just through the Greek life, but with the university.” Even non-golfers are now coming to the event, he continued, and there’s discussion of opening the challenge to other fraternities.
BATTLING THE STEREOTYPE
All of which is much different than the movie portrayals of Greek life as in “Animal House” and “Neighbors,” which are fictitious, WCU brothers and sisters said repeatedly. The stereotype is nothing more than sensationalized misrepresentation or, at best, exploitation, based on wild exaggerations, they said. Koett readily agreed, saying the Office of Greek Student Engagement and Development wants to emphasize the correct image of Greek life as one of people engaged in service and support. Alumni say they wholeheartedly support those efforts.
“When we think about the Greek system nowadays, there is typically an image that comes to mind of the obnoxious, inebriated, self-absorbed individual who sprays their sense of entitlement all over the place,” said Tim Gillespie ’86, an Asheville dentist, Western North Carolina community leader and active Lambda Chi Alpha alumnus. “And while this stereotype is certainly true for a small segment of the Greek population, the bigger picture is that Greek organizations figuratively provide a social meeting place for students to establish lifelong friendships through the shared experience of supporting and participating in their university’s programs, whether that be attending a football game, fundraising together for worthy causes, playing intramural sports, participating in student government, and so much more.
“The friendships developed through this shared history of time and place in the college experience lasts and this can be indirectly observed in the level of giving to the university by Greek alumni – not only that, but strong Greek alumni attendance at university events is palpable, as well,” Gillespie said. “People who have good, shared college experiences tend to come back and support the university physically and financially. I’m glad Western continues to support this important aspect of college life.”
Community service actions such as food and clothing drives, river clean-ups and seeking bone marrow donors do make the news. But so do those other things, such as hazing or outrageous conduct. Rites of passage or initiation into organizations are permissible – hazing is not. Defined as an act that endangers a student or damages property for the purpose of admission into or affiliation with a group or organization, hazing is strictly prohibited by the WCU Code of Conduct and North Carolina law. Neither expressed nor implied consent of those involved or apathy or acquiescence in the presence of hazing are a defense.
“I would be ignorant to say that hazing doesn’t happen around the country, because I know it does,” current Phi Mu member Gerringer said. “But seriously, there is no hazing in Phi Mu at Western Carolina University. I was made to feel good about myself and that I wasn’t going to be put through anything I didn’t want to be put through. I had to show commitment and that I wanted to be there, to be sure. But they are sisters for a reason and you’re not treated different because you are new.”
But isolated incidents have occurred – with prompt disciplinary and legal action taken by the university and law enforcement. In April 2015, WCU suspended the Zeta Xi chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity for five years for violating the university’s code of student conduct, following an investigation into allegations of pledges being hazed. Federal law prohibits the disclosure of results from university disciplinary hearings, but the action was taken following completion of appropriate procedures, with notice communicated to the chapter president, its adviser and national fraternity staff.
“The behaviors exhibited by members of the Zeta Xi chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha are not in any way indicative of the values of Western Carolina University,” said Chancellor David O. Belcher in a statement made at the time. “While we appreciate the many positive contributions that Greek letter organizations add to campus life, we absolutely will not tolerate behaviors that put the health and safety of students at risk.”
Hazing may be associated with fraternities and sororities, but certainly isn’t limited to Greek letter organizations. Recently, there have been incidents at other universities involving marching bands, athletics teams, military units and other groups, ranging from tragic to notorious. In September 2015, the Associated Press reported that Rider University in New Jersey had suspended its entire men’s cross country team after reports the squad planned to run naked around the school’s track. A university spokeswoman said an investigation found no intent to coerce any of the team members to participate, but the behavior was unacceptable and considered hazing.
TRADITION OF GIVING
Perhaps not as readily associated with fraternities and sororities are scholarships. A total of seven Greek life scholarships are available at WCU, and Greek alumni provide tremendous support of scholarships overall.
In 2015, 545 Greeks raised close to $550,000 in scholarship support through the Catamount Club, said Bryan, the Phi Mu alumna. “It is because of Greek life that we have these lasting friendships and lasting memories, why Western Carolina University means so much to us. And it is why we, as Greeks, give back to WCU.”
In addition to at-large scholarship endowments and fundraising, many of WCU’s Greek organizations offer scholarships for members and sometimes non-members.
“Collectively, better than one-third of Greek alumni contribute in support of both endowed and annual scholarship funds. Like me, most believe in paying it forward, as Western Carolina gave them the best preparation for a lifetime of successes,” said Mickey Pettus ’74, of Davidson and a senior manager for a leading health care group.
“I understand the contribution of Greek life to the university experience of social development and the importance of meaningful networking and futures,” Pettus said. “The solidity of those networks survives the years and allows alumni a sense of ownership in campus development. What better way to engage and make an impact than in the social development of young men and women at the university that was the key to our lifelong successes?”
There is another aspect of belonging to a Greek letter organization that appeals to students – and parents. A University of Missouri study found that membership in a fraternity or sorority increased the likelihood of remaining a student in college and graduating. At WCU, students in Greek letter organizations have grades consistent with non-Greeks, said Koett, dean of students.
“A common stereotype about Greek students is that they are more interested in social life than academic success,” he said. “Data shows that students who are a part of Greek organizations at WCU perform at an academic level equal to non-Greek students. A common goal between the university, alumni, current Greek students and national offices is to continue to strive for high levels of academic success in the Greek community.
“WCU has a strong foundation that will help the university reach its academic goals for Greek student engagement and development,” Koett said. And, based on the history of Greek alumni giving back to their alma mater that bodes well for the university’s future, he said.
The Catamount Club has created a winning tradition in the Greek Challenge, now an annual part of Homecoming that helps alumni celebrate the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood while building scholarship support for WCU student-athletes.
The traditional camaraderie and tailgating continues to exist among Greek alumni at Homecoming, but now the rivalries have been rekindled in the spirit of giving back to WCU through a competition among fraternity and sorority alumni with the primary goal of increasing scholarships for Catamount student-athletes.
“The Greek Challenge has provided WCU an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with our alumni and, through our success over the past two years, we have been able to generate much-needed increases in scholarship support to make a difference in the lives of our student-athletes,” said Stefanie Conley ’08, the Catamount Club’s associate director of development.
“Fraternities and sororities have a lasting connection to Western and exemplify true Catamount pride,” Conley said. “We strive to create a welcoming atmosphere for our Greek alumni, to share memories and create new ones, for a true Homecoming experience. The investment they have made and continue to make back to their university speaks for itself.”
The athletics department’s fundraising arm, the Catamount Club has nearly tripled its annual scholarship fundraising from five years ago with the help of the Greek Challenge to reach an all-time record of more than $1.1 million raised during the past membership year. Specifically, over the last year, Greek alumni giving accounted for 44 percent of all money raised to support scholarships for student-athletes, Conley said.
“Needless to say, Greek alumni are making a difference for WCU,” she said.
The winners of the 2015 Greek Challenge were Kappa Alpha Order fraternity and Alpha Xi Delta sorority, with leaders from the top three organizations recognized as honorary captains during football pre-game celebrations at E.J. Whitmire Stadium and Bob Waters Field on Oct. 24.
For more information about the Catamount Club and being a part of the 2016 Greek Challenge, contact Conley at email@example.com or 828.227.2013.