Mike, Alex, Paul, and Carlisle moved out of the chapter house last year after completing their two years of residence requirements and each serving in various positions in your fraternity as well as the All-Greek Council. They don’t come to the house much anymore, even for socials. You ran into them at the University Center and they said hi and went back to their conversations with some guys you recognize from another chapter on campus.
Xavier is doing an internship at a local nonprofit. Working there 15 hours a week and taking four classes is keeping him busy, not to mention studying for the GRE and managing his relationship with Vanessa. He approached you as chapter president that he’s going to have to step back from his responsibility as Vice President.
Maria just studied abroad in Brazil in the spring. Entering her senior year, she’s decided to add a minor of international studies. She hasn’t come to the first three chapter meetings, Saturday service project, or the beginning of the semester swap with Alpha Beta Gamma. You ran into her over the weekend at a local coffee house with some friends she had made through the study abroad program. She was nice to you but didn’t even ask about how things are going with the sorority.
These cases are not unique. They happen all the time in fraternity and sorority life: seniors start to disengage. All types of fraternal organizations have the challenge of members who are looking ahead to graduation and life “in the real world.” This article addresses the causes of this disengagement and solutions to fixing it.
Reasons for Disengagement:
- Beyond social: seniors have grown a lot over their time in the chapter. While they may have joined to create a group of peers with similar interests, they have now created those relationships, maintained those that matter to them, and are less interested in creating new friendships. The core of many fraternities and sororities is the social aspect and this is just less important for seniors. As the case with Mike, Alex, Paul, and Carlisle, they have chosen to socialize with those who are their friends and do so outside of the typical chapter provided experiences.
- Fraternity/Sorority takes a lot of work: and ultimately some who lead will need to lead for now and then move on. The case with Mike, Alex, Paul, and Carlisle is evidence that chapter leaders and those who meet the requirements of membership can possibly burn out or disconnect because they have already given so much. They may have an impression that they have “done their time” and now they can pass the torch to you and others (and likely feel confident that you will do good work).
- Priorities (appropriately) shift: Xavier is focused on preparing himself for life after college. His internship will help him make connections for a job and his classes are demanding. His relationship with a significant other is important to him and he’s considering life after college with this person. It makes sense that his time and energy is given to those things that he sees as part of his future. Even as organizations that have lifelong membership, the extent to which he sees his fraternity involvement continuing is much more questionable than the needs to find a job and manage a long-term relationship.
- Expanding worldviews: Maria is an example of someone who has expanded her perspective on the world through her study abroad experience. She is experiencing changing priorities and the same old activities, even if somewhat meaningful such as serving the community, just aren’t as important to her right now. While she once had meaningful relationships with others in the chapter, she is now spending time with those who have had the shared experience of studying together in another country. To some extent, this shouldn’t be a surprise: the kind of intense, shared experience that she had with others during study abroad could be likened to the intense shared experience she had during the new member education process.
It is natural for college students to develop over time; this is likely the most intense period of cognitive and affective growth you will experience. Priorities will change and to some extent disengagement shouldn’t be a surprise. However, there are ways to keep the fraternity/sorority experience meaningful for students even as other priorities emerge.
- Develop shared expectations early and continually revisit over time. Members enter with an impression of what is necessary for them to have the experience they want. The chapter has certain standards it wants to uphold. Reconciling changing perceptions of individual and chapter expectations is vital to keeping members engaged at any time. It is pivotal to engage students BEFORE the senior year in a discussion about what it means to stay engaged at this point in their lives.
- Shift the perspective of “all in” to “as much in as able.” Many fraternities and sororities, regardless of their size, expect members to be equally engaged in all aspects of the experience. It’s just not possible. T.J. Sullivan writes of “the middle” in his book and explains that sometimes “good enough” is all we can expect. For seniors, requiring fewer meetings, providing different educational experiences, and offering opportunities to connect with alumni/ae may be ways to keep them engaged.
- Keep the mission and purpose of the organization forefront and center. The relevance of fraternities and sororities can be powerful: we’re organizations grounded in common values and a shared commitment to something. If seniors understand the importance of their contributions to these shared goals and can find ways to infuse the chapter into their lives at this important stage, then maybe they’ll maintain involvement.
- Create rites of passage that respect seniors’ developmental needs. Maria has experienced a different culture. Coming back to talking about with whom you’re doing socials is not of importance. She wants to have conversations about her new interests. Host an event for those who study abroad, letting them tell their story and having other members share what it is about them that they missed while they were away. This rite of passage will help someone like Maria remember the friendships she had and help others understand how her perspective has changed.
Seniors disengage for a range of reasons; some within the control of the chapter and some are just a natural part of human development. This in mind, it’s important to recognize the reasons behind disengagement and what you can do to connect them to the organization in a way that meets their needs at this critical juncture in their lives
Written by guest author, Dan Bureau, Ph.D. Bureau has worked with fraternities and sororities for 16 years in a range of roles including campus professional, national volunteer and with CAMPUSPEAK and RISE Partnerships.