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Photographs by
Tom Altany

In the blockbuster motion picture Animal House, actor John Belushi didn’t portray life in a fraternity as the ideal collegiate endeavor. But at Pitt, a rebirth of fraternity and sorority life is under way, and their worthy endeavors aren’t sidetracked by any Animal House persona.

Greek Lives!

Kris B. Mamula

Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers Darryl Peek, David Latimore, Milton Boyd, Delon White, Ricardo Alvarado, Tom Taylor, and Stephen Sengstacke.

For a Saturday morning, there was plenty of hoopla on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Panther fans were getting stoked as a backdrop for ESPN’s College GameDay show: Pitt would take on Virginia Tech that evening. The weather was right out of a football playbook—cool, clear, sunny.

A steady stream of excited students exited shuttle buses near the Great Lawn by Heinz Field, where the show was being broadcast live. The crowd buzzed with talk about winning the Big East championship, about Panther receiver Larry Fitzgerald contending for the Heisman.

Back in Oakland, without all the fanfare, plans for another football game were taking shape. Brothers from Pitt’s Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity had challenged a group of children, ages 6 to 13, to a football game on the lawn of the William Pitt Union. The game was part of the fraternity members becoming Big Brothers to nine youngsters. The program is sponsored by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that matches adult mentors with children. To get to know each other, the student volunteers and children played checkers and talked sports. The day’s finale was the football game.

"It was us against the kids, and they beat us pretty bad," admits Edward Smith Jr., a junior Africana studies and urban studies major from Jonesboro, Ga.

While Smith and his teammates were getting pushed around at the William Pitt Union, Panther fans were enjoying the fine weather, gulping free hot chocolate and cappuccino, and talking about the game scheduled that evening at Heinz Field. Still, Smith says he wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else. Neither would fraternity president Darryl Peek. "The brothers enjoyed themselves beyond expectations," says Peek, a senior who’s from Philadelphia, majoring in computer engineering.

Meet Smith and Peek, the new face of collegiate fraternities and sororities in America.

College fraternities predate the Revolutionary War. What’s more, membership is edging upward around the country, especially for organizations geared to racial and ethnic groups, says Amy Vojta, president of the Indiana-based Association of Fraternity Advisors, a professional group. At Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey, for example, two Asian sororities and one Asian fraternity formed in the past year alone, says Vojta, who is also assistant dean, fraternity and sorority affairs, at Rutgers. Another trend is apparent in historically Black Greek letter societies.

"What we tend to see these days is a rebuilding of our undergraduate chapters," says Virginia LeBlanc, executive director of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the governing body of the national Black fraternities and sororities, with headquarters in Bloomington, Ind.

Kappa Alpha Psi is a good example of the fraternity and sorority rebuilding going on at the University. "It’s certainly a resurgence at Pitt," says Richard Lee Snow, executive director of Philadelphia-based Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., the organization’s international headquarters. "We’re expecting big things from them." Kappa Alpha Psi is among 35 Greek letter organizations, and the biggest of seven historically Black Greek societies at Pitt.

Kappa Alpha Psi was founded in 1911 at Indiana University and formed a chapter at the University of Pittsburgh in 1937. The fraternity was dormant for a couple of years before being reactivated two years ago. Good things may be in store. Greek life has a number of key roles at the University, says Jack L. Daniel, provost for undergraduate studies and dean of students. Daniel, who initiated a yearlong review of the Greek system in October 2002, believes Greek life fosters leadership development, social life, and academic achievement. "My goal is to bring out the very best they can be," says Daniel, who is also a professor in Pitt's Department of Communication.

Students go Greek for any number of reasons—new friends, social events, networking. Joining a fraternal organization can also make it easier to navigate a large institution, especially for students away from home for the first time, Vojta says. Perhaps the earliest reason offered for the attraction of Greek life is contained in Baird’s Manual of College Fraternities, first published in 1879: "College students have always shown a more or less marked tendency to form themselves into societies."

In his role as a “Big Brother,” Darryl Peek mentors a youngster.

The ink on the Declaration of Independence was still fresh when five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., met at nearby Raleigh Tavern. At the gathering, 18-year-old John Heath led the group in forming Phi Beta Kappa, the first American collegiate society to bear a Greek-letter name. Early fraternities met to debate political issues of the day, present papers, and discuss literature. Nearly a century would pass before the first Greek-letter sorority would form in America.

As for Phi Beta Kappa, it was a secret society with a required oath of secrecy, badge, code of laws, and special handshake. Ritualized initiations and Greek symbols endured. In fact, it was the use of Greek letters that would give rise to the expression "Greek life" to describe membership.

Phi Beta Kappa was forced to suspend its meetings in January 1781 after British General Charles Cornwallis brought the Revolutionary War to Virginia. However, branches had already formed at Yale and Harvard universities, assuring survival of the fraternity. Heath went on to fight in the war, practice law, and serve in Congress, setting a standard for fraternities and sororities: academic achievement and public service.

Public service has come a long way since then. For Kappa Alpha Psi, public service included the discovery that children can be obsessed with winning. This contemporary observation comes from Leonard Marshall, a senior marketing major, who was matched with a 7-year-old boy. "He was busting my chops about winning at checkers," says Marshall, who is from Washington, D.C. "It was like you see on TV—the young guy cracking on the old guy."

But Marshall says something more than teasing was going on. Before the football game, while the mentors and children were getting to know each other inside the Union, the youngster refused to tell Marshall his nickname. Something changed during the football game: He came over to Marshall and whispered his nickname, Sani. It may seem like a small thing, but Marshall says it was the start of a bond between them. The child felt comfortable enough to share a secret.

Creating bonds is what fraternity members will do in their Big Brothers role. "We see the need for Black mentors to help out the children," Peek says. "When you see the children smile or dance or just enjoying themselves, that sends a message: You’re doing something positive."

For years, Peek says he had a piece of paper pinned on his wall that had a saying: "Success is not the position you stand, but the direction in which you look." He says he is guided by these words in his role as president of Kappa Alpha Psi. The fraternity has 11 members at Pitt. Still, success can be gauged in even small ways, he says. "We may not have the biggest voice on campus, but we still want to reach out to the community."

Kappa Alpha Psi is doing just that. Since the chapter was reactivated two years ago, members have collected food for the needy and walked in fundraising benefits for medical research. The fraternity is in good company. Pitt’s annual Greek Week, which involves most of the campus fraternities and sororities, raised $25,000 last semester for the nonprofit Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Fundraising for the Santa Monica, Calif.-based organization continues.

Universities haven’t always had a big role in Greek life. Historically speaking, fraternity and sorority membership nationwide has largely been a matter between students and the organizations. The Greeks were mostly self-policed, with university involvement limited to the most extreme cases. But in recent years, all of this has begun to change.

Educators at Pitt and elsewhere increasingly realize the impact Greek life can have on student leadership opportunities, quality of campus life, and the institution’s image in the community. "We are on a new trajectory as far as Greek life is concerned," says Birney Harrigan, associate dean of Student Affairs at Pitt. Harrigan’s assessment comes almost a year after the University studied ways to improve Greek life. Among changes envisioned is establishment of minimum standards, including grade performance requirements.

Recruitment, housing, and community relations are other areas where the University will take a more active role.

The University also plans to become more involved in recruiting students for Greek life. Roughly 10 percent of students on the Oakland campus are already affiliated. Boosting membership hinges in part on burnishing the public image of fraternity and sorority life, which in recent years has been tarnished by media reports of hazing and even by the 1978 motion picture Animal House.

Creating a new image begins with new expectations. "If you bring in people looking for the Animal House experience," Vojta says, "you will end up with Animal House."

That game at Heinz Field last fall came to an electrifying finish. Pitt scored late in the contest to beat Virginia Tech. The victory kept alive Panther dreams of a bowl game. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports writer Paul Zeise called it Pitt’s biggest win since moving to Heinz Field.

Kappa fraternity brother Smith remembers another game that day—the one at the William Pitt Union with the youngsters from Big Brothers Big Sisters. "Football games will come and go," says Smith, "but playing football with the kids might be something they remember for the rest of their lives."

Kris Mamula is a senior editor of Pitt Magazine.

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