By Annie Carlson
When I tell people I’m a fraternity and sorority advisor, I receive several reactions. Whether that’s a look of shock and horror or comments like, “That’s a full time job?” I’ve pretty much heard it all. My least favorite response is, “So you help fraternities plan parties?” I respond simply with,
“No, I don’t have time for that.”
In 2006 I was a senior at the University of Illinois attempting to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I loved being a history and anthropology major and thought a museum might be the place for me. However, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I needed to do something that would make a difference in the world. Cue the entrance of my Greek advisors. I remember sitting with them, asking why fraternity and sorority members say they believe in something when our actions are far different. And they simply said, “Have you thought about advising?” My world changed, and I never looked back.
I didn’t become an advisor because Greek Week was awesome or because my sorority made cool shirts or because I wanted to help fraternities plan parties. I don’t have time for that. I became a fraternity and sorority advisor because we have work to do. A lot of it.
Fast forward five years, and you’ll find me at the University of Oregon where I have the privilege of working with a community that is willing to think. There are a couple key parts to this statement. First, my job is a privilege. I get to spend my days supporting and challenging students in their growth, and I’m lucky enough for those students to be members of an experience I deeply believe in. Second, the ability to think is crucial and often seems rare to locate. In lower levels of the college environments, students are taught to memorize facts. Hopefully by junior and senior year students have moved into the realm of contemplating and engaging their coursework. Often this is leading to shifts in beliefs or attitudes. The ability to think, ponder, wonder, dive deep into possibilities – that is what we often lack in the fraternity and sorority world. In so many unfortunate ways, our membership has taught us to respect tradition so highly that we’ve lost our ability to question it.
Now this is why I am a fraternity and sorority advisor! I have endless amounts of time to work with students, collegiate chapters, inter/national organizations, alumni and colleagues across the country who are ready and willing to engage in critical thinking about the fraternal experience. I would venture to guess most fraternity and sorority advisors feel this way. Survey advisors across the country about their daily activities. What you’ll find is most spend their time acting like emergency room doctors. Major injuries come in, the doctor stops the bleeding, fixes as much as possible and moves on to the next patient. The problem is that no one goes to the emergency room because they’re healthy. So if the majority of an advisor’s time is consumed in the emergency room, they are rarely able to leave the hospital and encourage people to stay healthy. What I’m saying is that if the dysfunction in our fraternity and sorority communities takes nearly all of an advisor’s time to deal with, there’s nothing preventing the high performing chapters from falling among the rest. We need to spend more time among the healthy encouraging them to prosper than fixing the wounds of chapters that live high risk lifestyles. We simply don’t have the time for that.
Earlier I said I became an advisor because we have work to do. So let’s get working! As undergraduates, alumni, headquarters staff and campus-based professionals, it’s time for us to start asking some tough questions. What do we want this experience to be? What purpose can we serve? How can we change the world? It’s not always about how we were founded – it’s hard to make a personal connection to our founders when some of them lived over 200 years ago. It’s about exploring what fraternity could be in light of tomorrow’s student. Easier said than done, and I don’t have a solution. What I do know though, is we have an opportunity to engage undergraduates in a critical conversation about what they’re experiencing. I don’t think we give enough credit to the abilities and brilliance of today’s student to move mountains when given the chance. We also have the opportunity to engage an incredibly optimistic population in the world of possibility. What if fraternities and sororities could ____? Let’s let our undergraduates fill in the blank and then help them realize the potential. It’s time to “live with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”
We don’t have time to talk about parties anymore. And we certainly don’t have time to “do things as they’ve always been done.” But we have endless amounts of time to create something new and like a phoenix, to rise from the ashes a reborn and meaningful experience. I became a fraternity and sorority advisor to engage in the conversation, so let’s do work!
Annie Carlson serves as the Fraternity and Sorority Advisor at the University of Oregon. A 2007 graduate of the University of Illinois, Annie went on to receive her master’s degree in higher education from Florida State University in 2009. Annie volunteers for the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, Oregon Women in Higher Education, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends, traveling (A LOT!) and hunting down the perfect glass of red wine.