Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Andrew's Story: A Young Alumnus on Hazing

To further conversations regarding National Hazing Prevention Week, we wanted to explore the complex challenges students face when dealing with fraternal hazing. To do this, we talked with someone who was willing to be honest and open about the very real problem of pre-initiation hazing and ritual degradation that still happens within fraternities and sororities.

Luckily, Andrew (we've changed his name to protect his anonymity) stepped up to the task.
Andrew recently graduated. He served in several officer positions, including Hell Master, an officer solely in charge of putting new members through severe emotional and mental distress the week before initiation. 

Andrew stepped forward to discuss his experiences because he cares deeply about fraternal life and believes hazing contradicts the values on which fraternal organizations were founded. He chose to remain anonymous because even as an alumnus, speaking out against the practices of his chapter strains his relationships with his fraternity brothers. Here are Andrew's responses to our questions:

How do you describe your experience as a new member?
I joined the chapter and I was excited. The semester of joining, there were a lot of things we had to do and a lot of information we had to memorize. It didn't seem like there was any real hazing going on. When I came back before second semester to be initiated, that's when it all changed. Hell Week began.

 What was Hell Week like?
There were both emotional and mental aspects to the week. There were so many tasks and things we had to do, it felt like we weren't going to get initiated. The active brothers gave every new member a set of pebbles and took a pebble from us each time they said we messed up. If we lost all of our pebbles before the end of the week, we wouldn't be initiated. Additionally, pledges had to thoroughly clean every part of the house; we got almost no sleep. The whole process was very intense and by Thursday night almost everyone had lost all of their pebbles. On Friday, the active members were upset and threatened to take our last pebbles. But, then they said, "We got you!" and told us the vote for our membership actually took place several months before. All of this was for nothing. One of my pledge brothers almost quit after hearing that.

What was the most challenging part?
We were all exhausted from the emotional roller coaster and mental exercises. My pledge brothers thought it was all so stupid but I convinced them to stick with it. It put an intense emotional strain on us.

How did you feel after the week was over?
We did Ritual the day after Hell Week ended. We were so tired we couldn't even think straight and therefore didn't recognize the Ritual for what it is. I knew we had been hazed. Based on the traditions of the chapter, the next Hell Master was one of the newly initiated. Somehow I knew I was going to be the next Hell Master and I didn't like it at all. I didn't want to put people through what I went through.

So why did you decide to run the next initiation week even though you disagreed with it?
The brothers told me to watch how the new members came together and bonded during the week. They said I needed to participate from the other perspective to understand it, so I did. I was tough as Hell Master, and I thought the pledges were bonding and connecting as a result. But, just after the week was over, a parent of one of our pledges who had left during Hell Week contacted our National Organization. The Headquarters staff and University professionals asked us "Do you feel that you were hazing or hazed?" No one else said we were hazing, but I decided to say "Yes, we were hazing."

And how did the members of your chapter react?
Some of the new brothers asked me why I admitted to hazing since I was the one who hazed them the most. One of the really negative things I learned about hazing is how much it separates the new members from the rest of the chapter. It becomes us against them. They ask, "Why are they being such jerks about this?" but can't do anything about it. This separation is harmful to the chapter. Sure, the new members were coming together, but they were coming together against us.

What sort of effects did the formal hazing investigation have on the fraternity?
Chapter performance went down. Lots of disagreements started to occur. Some people still felt we did nothing wrong. We cut the initiation week program but we didn't have anything to replace the hazing with. There was also no motivation for new members to do anything about the problem. We lost a lot of the structural support. A lot of people were angry there was nothing to help rebuild.
What advice would you give to another student in your position?
(If you're hazing) Stand up and say something about what's going on. Sometimes, the alumni are the problem too. I remember when we finally brought this up to the alumni and all they said was, "How did you get in trouble for this? We thought we removed everything that was considered hazing a few years ago." This created dissonance between the chapter and the alumni.
To member educators in particular, I'd say, "You have it tough." In order to stand against hazing, member educators have to go against both the active members and the alumni - assuming both of those groups think hazing is okay. If you've already vocalized your concerns, and everyone says no, the best you can do is to opt out of the week or activity. It's a tough call.

How do you feel about hazing now?
There is no reason why you can't have programming that builds better members and doesn't involve hazing. There is no value in hazing. I mean, making someone eat a goldfish, what purpose does that serve? Hazing doesn't align with Ritual and it alienates new members from the rest of the group.

What is the best way to know if you're hazing?
Here's a great way to test if you're hazing: tell the new members everything up front before they join. Tell them what they're going to go through in member education. If anyone has a problem with what's said, you either need to explain the reasoning behind your action, or you're probably hazing. If you have to hide some part of it until the last minute, avoid those actions at all costs.

What do you think are the best resources to help develop alternatives to hazing?
If the men or women who feel hazing is wrong aren't there in a year, change may not continue. Turn to your campus resources and look for partnerships with events on campus that build positive qualities in your members. Have the alumni come do a professional networking day. Talk to other chapters about what they do. Include activities that focus on building skills and encouraging teamwork. Build communication skills training; help members learn to talk to people they don't know. These are values that are important for real life: communication, teamwork, unity, friendship, and all the values that Ritual promotes. Based on the values of your Ritual, it's very easy to figure out which values are important. After the whole process, the new members should be able to identify the most important values from their experience. Consider it a preview of what your organization finds important.

Our Thoughts:
Understanding perspectives like Andrew's is essential to preventing hazing. It's easy to numb the vulnerability and fear we feel toward hazing in our own organizations by thinking that hazing is perpetuated by monsters. But it's not. Hazing is more often enabled by real, good people who don't know how to challenge a dissenting majority. They just need the courage to speak up.
As you reflect on your commitment to ending hazing this week, we challenge you to consider Andrew's story. Do you know someone who is in a position to prevent others from experiencing the humility and degradation that accompanies hazing, but isn't sure how to speak out?
If you answered yes, now is the time. Take that person out for dinner, go for a run together, do whatever you have to do to engage him or her. Your offer of support could change their life - and your organization's future - forever.

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