There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic altered the campus experience for students worldwide, including members of fraternities and sororities. Spring 2020 required fraternal organizations to swiftly reposition a membership experience characterized by in-person engagement and social support to a meaningful digital and distanced membership experience. For higher education and organization leaders alike, this transition felt much like flying a plane while building it.
In addition to keeping operations afloat while members were away from campus, Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) was also thinking about what the transition back to campus would be like in a new era of student life. Chapters eventually returning to campus would be confronted with normal operational responsibilities and also be expected to manage new health and safety practices related to COVID-19. Like many similar organizations, PIKE was wondering what the return to campus would be like in Fall 2021, which was poised to be the most customary semester experience since Spring 2020. Recognizing the need to support chapter leaders facing new challenges in the COVID era, PIKE opted to provide the Campus Reconnect program to all members. Campus Reconnect is an online program designed to prepare members to engage in safe practices and decision-making in social settings.
To date, over 13,000 PIKE brothers have completed the Campus Reconnect program, an online student safety training designed to help students make values-oriented and safe decisions. This article features a conversation between Plaid, Kimberly Novak, the Director of Health and Safety for PIKE Headquarters, and Dylan LeBoeuf, chapter president at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Plaid: Dylan–As a chapter leader, what were you most concerned about when returning back to campus this Fall for what was poised to be a more “normal” experience?
Dylan: “I was most concerned about the mental health of my brothers returning back to campus. If quarantine had taught me anything, it brought to light the importance of mental health, especially amongst college students. Another fear was that our “new norm,” still looked different, in the aspect of mask and social distancing.”
Plaid: Kim–What about you? As an educator, what were you and your team concerned about with students heading back to campus in Fall 2020?
Kim: “My primary concern was the experience of the men in the chapter. We did some number running and we had an assembly of presidents this summer where our presidents came to Memphis. The assembly was only presidents, which we don’t normally do. It wasn’t us [Headquarters] talking to them. It was us letting them talk to us. And they affirmed that there were, on average, 30 to 40% of the chapter that had joined during the pandemic so they had no idea what it meant to live in the house and take care of the house, take care of one another, be conscientious about safety factors and all of that….I think that the biggest concern was their capacity to be a fraternity and its holistic nature. The brotherhood was something that we thought got stronger during the pandemic for, not all but, a lot of our chapters because they did that interpersonal connecting. And then I think the other was the relationship with the institution.”
Plaid: Kim–Can you walk me through what motivated your team to sign on and provide Campus Reconnect to the PIKE members?
Kim: “There was this question of “how are we going to get risk education, health, and safety education into our chapters?” Management is a piece of that. Pre-pandemic, we were right on the cusp of a capacity issue, where anything that I or the other staff was talking about for health & safety and risk was captured in a way that a student could have the same conversation with all of his brothers in the chapter. They would say, “Oh, I wish you could come and do that talk for our chapter.” I can’t come to every chapter but here is a version with a facilitator guide that you can lead. We were in this big, ‘let’s increase their capacity to lead their own education and conversations’ mindset. And then the pandemic hit. When Favor & Company introduced the program as a service to its clients, I took a look at the curriculum and was like ‘This is perfect.’ It was the right topics, the right information, and very quality information. All of it was well done–the content and the philosophy behind it. And, this is specifically designed for members to reemerge into the day-to-day operations of the fraternity. It was also not just for new members. It would speak to every member of our chapter whether they were a senior or junior, a sophomore freshman, the content was just so easy to be relatable no matter where you were at.”
Plaid: Thank you for those kind words. In those content planning meetings, when we were asking ‘How do we pull this together?’, that was something we really wanted to be mindful of.
Plaid: Dylan–What content has resonated most with you and your fellow chapter members?
Dylan: “All of the content was beneficial throughout the program. I think the content that has resonated most with the chapter has been the portion on mental health and alcohol and drug use. I think it was more of an eye-opener and conversation starter, which in today’s day and age, it is hard to start that conversation.”
Plaid: It is great to hear that the Campus Reconnect program content has resonated and been helpful for members. PIKE set a pretty aggressive goal of having all 13,000+ undergraduate members complete the course in one semester. What strategies did you use to achieve this?
Dylan: “With a chapter of over 80 men, we had to get creative to get all of the brothers started on the program. The first strategy we used was to ask all of the new members during a study hall to start the program together. We bought all of them pizza and had a conversation with them throughout the program and we had great dialogue throughout the course. We then split up the rest of the chapter with a designated Executive Board member who was their campus reconnect buddy to help them through the process of starting the program. For my “buddies,” I asked for their email and I created their account for them, making it easier for them to start the program!”
Kim: “We had a strategy that wasn’t just rolling out the course. It was rolling out the course with the philosophy that is part of our health and safety initiatives. This comes from public health. To make the desired behavior easier, there’s this framework we use: Making your expectations clear makes the desired behavior easier. Recognize desired behavior and reward the desired behavior. Make the undesired behavior harder and shift change in the environment to make it more difficult to not do the right thing. It was also the execution of the communication. We thought strategically about who we told about the program. We messaged out the launch to every officer in the chapter, every member of the Alumni Advisory Board, our regional volunteers, and our International Council, so that they all knew what was going on. In that initial launch, we were very inclusive of why we were doing this program and we had language around how it will help new members and the general membership. We told them ‘Here’s how this will be helpful to you and here’s are ways to make it happen.’ We also had our whole team take the course so we could talk about it with students. For our consultants, it was built into the conversations they were having in their meetings and check-ins…We set a deadline for 100% completion….We weren’t going to let just one guy not do it, that’s not 100% and that’s not rewarding desired behavior.”
Plaid: It seems like at both the national and local levels, encouraging participation among members was very relationally driven, but also that the program’s content and philosophy align with PIKE’s overall health and safety mindset. How do you see Campus Reconnect, or similar safety programs, playing a part in Pi Kappa Alpha and the fraternal industry’s training initiatives?
Kim: “Our initiatives have been focused on helping students be healthy and safe, and it will capture all components of risk management. The skills development piece was a very loud message from our presidents. This model gave them skills and allows us to deep dive into it. It meshes really well. It is in the e-learning space, which was our vision to provide learning for different decision-making frameworks…As they [students] age in the fraternity, they have different experiences. But at the end of the day, whether you’ve been a PIKE for four years or six months, you’re a PIKE. There is nothing in our history or ritual or values that say the longer you’re a member, the more of a PIKE you are. So that doesn’t mean the juniors and seniors can’t have skills around hazing, but that could look different. Or the message to them can be different.”
Plaid: Dylan–Any final or additional thoughts about Campus Reconnect?
Dylan: “Overall, I really enjoyed the Campus Reconnect program and thought the conversations it sparked needed to occur. The program felt catered to Greek Life and it was more focused on education vs. stressing for a final test at the end. I enjoyed this program and hope to see it again in the Fall. One of the reasons I joined PIKE was because of the ingenuity and problem-solving mindset I saw in the brothers, and I now know that these traits are systematically spread! The Campus Reconnect program is an up-to-date and intriguing way to spark the uncomfortable conversations that need to take place in every fraternity. As the Chapter President, I am grateful for my chapter to have taken part in this program.”
With any educational initiative, like Campus Reconnect, implementation and inspiring the desired behaviors requires an all-hands-on approach. Where PIKE found success is by making the chapter health and safety experience a responsibility of every member regardless of tenure in the chapter or formal leadership role. PIKE also utilized the built-in relationships and support systems, such as volunteers and Headquarters staff, within the chapter experience to encourage participation and program completion. PIKE achieved their goal, not only by having all undergraduate members participate in the program, but encouraging the desired behavior of preparing to engage in social environments in a safe and healthy manner.
The Plaid team is thankful for the opportunity to connect with Kim and Dylan about their experiences implementing the Campus Reconnect program with their members. We are also grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with Favor & Company to design and deliver the Campus Reconnect program to students in fraternal organizations across the country. To learn more about Campus Reconnect and Plaid’s other student safety programs, connect with a member of our team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.