GW at the Millennium: Greek life

Marc Kaplan (a.k.a. Brother Costanza) led about 30 Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers in a rendition of the Kenny Rogers’ classic, The Gambler, on their way to the fraternity’s Community Service Day three years ago.

You gotta know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em/know when to walk away/know when to run, the brothers sang as they serenaded an entire Metro car early on a rainy Saturday morning in April 1997.

At about the same time, another GW fraternity member wrote a poem about brotherhood enclosed in the shape of the Greek letters that represent D-T-D for his English 11 class.

These activities hardly sound like the machinations of stereotypical Animal House frat boys – the ones who always appear in the headlines or at student judicial hearings.

Three years ago, when Kappa Sigma was entertaining Metro passengers and a Delt was waxing poetic, fraternities across the country faced criticism for hazing, alcohol violations and misogynistic attitudes. GW was far from immune.

In the last three years, two GW fraternities lost their charter, the Interfraternity Council and administrators feuded with the off-campus fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and everyone re-considered GW alcohol policies – to name a few.

But in the year 2000, GW fraternity men are demanding outsiders see the more positive side of Greek-letter life – the charm and allure of moments like the one back on the Metro car.

Missing the ball

Senior Anthony Paster sat tall on the faded gray couch, sporting flip-flops and shorts amid the heat wave last week.

Paster is a member of Delta Tau Delta and the GW water polo team. He describes his fraternity as laid back and fun-loving.

It’s the things you come to college for, he said of Delta Tau Delta.

Paster knows those moments well. He said he fondly remembers back when his fraternity had permission to throw parties.

I missed a big party freshman year, and I heard stories about it for weeks, Paster said. I was at that party the next two years, but I guess we won’t be having it this year.

Paster said the fraternity is on social probation, which means members are prohibited from holding any parties.

In recent years GW has escalated its adherence to rigid alcohol policies in response to various incidents on campus, including a rash of alcohol poisoning hospitalizations and alcohol-related hazing on campus and around the country.

Though Paster said he understands the University’s need to quell liabilities, he added that sometimes the rules are too strict.

At the drop of a hat, I think GW will put someone on probation and not worry about when they’re going to be in good standing again, Paster said. It rains on everyone’s parade.

The IFC responded to GW’s stricter adherence to policies by adopting a risk management policy and, most recently, finalizing a self-governance proposal that is waiting for official University acceptance. Self-governance will give the IFC more judicial responsibility and asks that fraternity members hold each other accountable for breaking the rules.

Paster, who has been part of a fraternity for almost four years, said he notices the fine tuning of fraternity life.

There’s a lot of risk management, people looking out for people to have a safe, good time, he said.

Paster tilted his head as he recalled three years of those good times in the Delta Tau Delta house – the friends, sitting around watching television with a beer in hand, playing video games.

But he said sleeping was a challenge.

The hardest part was having to deal with night owls who went to sleep at 5 or 6 (a.m.), and I had to be up at 5 or 6 for practice, Paster said.

Overall, Delta Tau Delta complemented Paster’s water polo experience, as well as the rest of his college experience, he said.

I don’t know if I can put it into words, Paster said.

Keeping house

Junior Aram Zamgochian was decked out in a button-down shirt and tie, carrying a bottle of water, somewhat breathless when he arrived from work.

Zamgochian is now the president of Sigma Nu but he said he never expected to join a fraternity when he came to Foggy Bottom.

The people made me change my mind, Zamgochian said. And he added that the media unfairly represents these good people as hoodlums because of the misbehavior of a limited few.

Zamgochian is not alone in this criticism. GW fraternities and sororities formally criticized local media at the Greek Forum in 1998. Members of the Greek-letter community said the press focuses only on the unusual mistakes of some members and that journalists neglect to cover the good deeds of fraternities and sororities.

For Zamgochian, the tension between news outlets and fraternities persists.

(The negative coverage) doesn’t represent the whole Greek community or a whole fraternity house, he said.

Some local fraternities have been embroiled in controversy involving the off-campus fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Sigma Alpha Epsilon lost University recognition in 1993 after a series of violations.

The fraternity and GW administrators dispute whether GW took recognition away or if Sigma Alpha Epsilon members refrained from registering as a student group. The fraternity’s national organization continues to support and recognize its local members.

In 1998, the University’s general counsel threatened to sue Sigma Alpha Epsilon for being a public nuisance. Last year, the IFC wrote a letter asking Sigma Alpha Epsilon members to change their inappropriate behavior.

Zamgochian’s fraternity was represented in the letter. Former Sigma Nu President Mohssen Kabirbaik signed the letter. But Zamgochian disagreed with his decision.

He said the University and the IFC took the wrong measures to solve a non-existent problem with Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

I have never had a problem with SAE, he said. Instead of trying to alienate SAE, try to bring them back.

Sigma Nu has a house on G Street next door to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house. Their block is the closest GW comes to having a fraternity row, and recently administrators expressed interest in purchasing the Greek-letter property.

Local alumni who form housing corporations own the homes. According to the most recent version of the campus plan, the University intends to replace the fraternity houses with academic buildings.

Fraternity members criticized the administration for failing to communicate these construction ideas with them before the campus plan was released.

Zamgochian said his fraternity has no plans to sell its house to the University and that administrators went about these plans in a sneaky manner.

It’s presumptuous to devise a plan on our block, where our house should be, he said.

The hardest, yet rewarding, part of being in Sigma Nu is tending to the house, Zamgochian said. He added that he has learned how to plaster walls and make repairs during his tenure as a fraternity house dweller.

But fraternity life is more than playing Mr. Fix It or dealing with GW bureaucracy. For Zamgochian, being in a fraternity and living in a house with brothers means putting faith in people, he said.

There are no two people in our house who are the same, and that’s what makes it work, Zamgochian said.

Eyes on the bigger picture

Senior Michael Mandelberg slouched in his seat wearing a bright blue button-down and slacks, patiently awaiting the chance to get his photo taken.

Mandelberg was promoted, almost two weeks ago, from vice president of his chapter to president after Jay Levin stepped down to assume his role as IFC president-elect.

Mandelberg joined Beta Theta Pi the first semester of his freshman year when many of his floor-mates in Thurston Hall expressed interest in the fraternity. He said the small, intimate fraternity enticed him as a way to enhance his college career.

He knows what motivated him to join Beta Theta Pi, he said.

In one word, it’s friendship, Mandelberg said. Not only do you get friends for four years or so – you’re friends for life.

Mandelberg envision
s these Beta Theta Pi men at his wedding and other life celebrations. He said those moments do not end when college does.

He, along with about 10 other members of Beta Theta Pi, stood in the back of the IFC meeting about two weeks ago, sporting their letters. The men silently waited – some with their arms folded, others leaning on a long table – listening as Levin described his goals for next year’s IFC.

Levin ran unopposed and will be officially installed as president next week. Like his brother Mandelberg, Levin sees the bigger picture, the one that might get forgotten.

In any university I go to, if I’m wearing my letters, someone is going to stop me, Levin said. And I’ll probably go to lunch with him afterward.

He said joining Beta Theta Pi is more than merely joining a campus student group.

I didn’t just join a fraternity at the George Washington University, he said.

The greatest challenge for Levin is overcoming the stereotypes perpetuated in Hollywood movies and news stories, he said. But Levin has advice for fraternity members seeking to undo stereotypes. He said fraternity men must do positive things for the community and make themselves visible to disprove the prevailing negative thoughts.

Beta Theta Pi’s motto, making good men better, struck a chord with Levin.

It’s a way of conducting yourself, he said.

Levin aspires to continue his struggle to make himself better as he assumes the position of IFC president. He knows his biggest accomplishment will be actually utilizing the self-governance policy that was created this year.

Our responsibility is to implement it – have it up and running by the spring, Levin said.

Whatever pitfalls Levin may stumble on, Mandelberg said his brothers will be behind him.

I look forward to next year’s (IFC) president, he said. You can quote me on that one.

Overcoming growing pains

Joe DePaola talked with a New York accent and expressed disappointment in the negative stereotypes of Italian Americans perpetuated by the hit HBO series The Sopranos.

Early in his college career, DePaola himself maintained stereotypical ideas about another group – fraternity men. But now he is a member of GW’s newest fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon.

He was decidedly anti-Greek when he arrived at GW more than a year and a half ago, he said.

I would not even walk into any of the houses, DePaola said.

Again, friends made all the difference. DePaola began to change his mind after he got to know fraternity members on a personal level, he said.

When he returned to school last summer, he was unsure of what he would do. Then, he interviewed with Sigma Phi Epsilon when they were beginning to colonize this new chapter. Later that night, he discovered his roommate did the same.

It’s about friends – the people you are going to spend a good part of the rest of your life with, he said.

For now, Sigma Phi Epsilon is experiencing normal growing pains. Like other fraternities, DePaola and his brothers are trying to maintain communication with busy college students, a daunting task. But DePaola said GW students are so dedicated to getting internships and participating in off-campus activities that the job is even harder on this campus.

The men here have a lot of other things on their plate, he said. You can’t make intense demands on their time.

DePaola said the fraternity is also struggling with having to pay IFC dues. The members said they feel they should refrain from paying dues until they get a vote and the chance to run for representation on the IFC executive board, he said. But for now, IFC rules require that the men pay dues regardless of their status.

Gaining a charter also will be a long journey for Sigma Phi Epsilon. The members must become the third- or fourth-largest fraternity on campus, implement a scholarship program and fulfill other requirements before their national organization will grant a charter.

It’s 1,000 times harder than I imagined, DePaola said. But he said he knows the effort is well worth it.

Now that I look back, I can’t imagine my college experience without (a fraternity), DePaola said.

Honeymoon memories

Doug Miller had his sleeves rolled up and his shirt tucked into his dark blue jeans.

He sheepishly smiled as he took a seat and began recounting the night he decided to become a Phi Kappa Psi.

He was walking home from a crew party that took place near what is now the Hall on Virginia Avenue. Some of the Phi Kappa Psi brothers were outside a nearby house talking to freshmen as part of Rush Week. Miller floated into the conversation and ended up staying until two or three in the morning. Now, he is president of the chapter.

I think I’m a better person for it, Miller said.

But the honeymoon period – that first semester as a brother – still brings nostalgia. Miller remembers some of the brothers living in the green house, a house GW managed to buy. After the sale, the brothers threw a huge two-day party the last weekend of school, he said.

Every single brother came, Miller said.

Though Miller was enamored with the party, he said the fraternity’s creed drew him into the chapter.

The Phi Kappa Psi Creed is a testament to each member’s willingness to pledge himself to the fraternity, according to the national Phi Kappa Psi Web site. The creed, first written in 1858, asks that each member pledge to strengthen his character and deepen his integrity.

In addition to making pledges, maintaining a chapter requires some work. Miller said the most frustrating part of his presidency is motivating brothers when they are apathetic to certain Greek-letter events.

But sometimes staying out of an IFC event makes more of a statement than getting involved. Phi Kappa Psi was one of the few fraternities to decline to sign the IFC letter sent to Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Miller said the brothers discussed the letter and voted against it, so then Phi Kappa Psi President Pat McLaughlin refrained from signing.

Miller had some praise for GW. The University is wise to have an Office of Greek Affairs, he said. But Miller added that sometimes tension exists between GW and fraternities.

We’ve had run-ins with (Student Judicial Services), and you think it’s personal, he said. I wouldn’t say the University is completely against us. Some of their policies are not Greek-friendly.

Old-fashioned ideals

Second-year junior Joseph Ura wore glasses and spoke of the good ol’ days when boys grew to be gentlemen – back when young men looked forward to being called sir or mister.

He hails from Nashville, Tenn., and he also swore he never would join a fraternity, he said.

But now, like the others, Ura is president of his fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha.

He refrains from blaming the media for the negative perceptions he had about fraternity life. Ura said the fraternities in Nashville were the impetus for his initial decision.

I have very little respect for the fraternities that behave like Animal House and then complain when that’s the label that gets put on them, he said.

Ura was lured into Lambda Chi Alpha after his friends on the mock trial team joined. Soon he caught the bug.

I enjoy being around people who challenge me, really challenge me by their own example, Ura said. It’s humbling when you walk in a room and the things you’ve done, which would be special in any other room, is nothing compared to what the people in this room have done.

Now, in his second year on campus, Ura said he got the feeling that greeks were trying to dig themselves out of a hole. He hailed IFC President Seth Greenberg and former Lambda Chi Alpha President Pat Ledesma as leaders trying to improve GW.

Ura said he is particularly interested in self-governance because other universities have benefited from similar policies. Though he said he was encouraged by the first step toward a self-governance policy, he has his doubts.

I don’t want self-governance to become just another set of hoops to jump through, Ura said.

Like the others, Ura has a more philosophical out
look on his fraternity experiences, one beyond the policies and politics of the system.

Lambda Chi Alpha attracted him with a saying – every man, a man

He said today’s society values things like a quick buck, informality and laziness. This society cannot compare to the higher ideals of his grandfather’s generation, Ura said. For him, fraternity life depicts an old-fashioned picture.

The fraternity experience is one of the few things I’ve encountered that encourages you to become good men, good leaders, good husbands and good fathers down the road, he said.

When observers boil down the reasons people devote themselves to a fraternity, they find simple answers.

Like the Kappa Sigma brothers three years ago, the men are searching for those moments, moments people feel secure and free enough to do things like sing The Gambler for D.C. Metro riders. For some men, a fraternity offers that freedom.

(The fraternity) finally felt like I was in my element or home, Ura said.

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