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Exploring Greek Life

TJ Fisher is a member of Washington and Lee’s Class of 2015 and a double major in theater and history, from Potomac, Md. Last August, we blogged about TJ’s unusual job running the Dentzel Carousel at Maryland’s Glen Echo Park. He had written an essay about the experience for the Washington Post.

This summer, TJ traveled to Greece as part of a special program that his social fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, runs to help its members better understand the history and philosophy of fraternal life. He wrote about his experience, what it meant to him as an individual, and what he believes it means about Greek life at a university like Washington and Lee.

Here is TJ’s essay:

My friends and family, and visitors to Washington and Lee, often have questions about Greek life. I know they’re thinking of “Animal House” and the other negative stereotypes of fraternity men and sorority women depicted in the media, or maybe of the real-life misconduct of these men and women reported in the news. They’re well aware that W&L has a significant Greek presence and want to know how this could possibly fit with the values we express and our aspirations to behave as gentlemen or ladies, based on what they think they know about Greek life.

I was fortunate to have a recent amazing experience, which I think makes very clear the ways in which Greek life can contribute positively to the life of the University, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share some reflections about that trip.

In February, at a regional leadership academy in Connecticut, I was extremely honored to be one of 16 undergraduate brothers that my fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, chose from around the country to embark on the Tragos Quest to Greece. It is a 10-day journey through that country in contemplation of the history and philosophy of fraternal life, and is the capstone to the leadership development programs the fraternity offered. It is funded for the chosen undergraduates by SigEp, thanks in large part to its namesake, Bill Tragos, who has been very involved in the fraternity since his graduation in 1956 from Washington University in St. Louis. After a busy Spring Term and start to my summer jobs, I was excited to have a week and a half off to spend with my brothers.

The trip was certainly anything but a rest, however. We were not given an itinerary but merely knew we would be embarking on activities relating to the ideals to which brothers aspire: sound mind and sound body. We 16 undergraduates, five adult mentors and a professor, all brothers, met each other for the first time in Chicago. There we were also introduced to such staples of the trip as our 6 a.m. wakeup call for a group workout; our morning and evening discussions to review the events of the day; our analysis of the two books and several plays and poems we’d been given before the trip; and our conversations about various subjects pertinent to the fraternity. The following day we flew into Athens, and the trip really began.

Each day brought exciting new experiences, many of which I believe are analogous to the ways in which Greek life can add spectacularly to W&L. Our lively discussions of the ancient Greek works we’d read reminded me of the regular dinner lectures I’ve organized for our chapter, in which professors or other important local figures speak to us about a topic of their interest and then engage us in discussion. The exchanges of information between brothers in similar fields reminded me of the potential for useful professional networking between undergraduate and alumni members of Greek organizations. The ability of all 22 of us to bond quickly and deeply despite diverse backgrounds and interests reminded me of the potential to learn from other members of a diverse chapter.

I was reminded most forcefully, however, of the potential of a fraternity or sorority to serve as a motivator and support system for its members. One of my favorite sights of the trip was the Palamidi Fortress, at the top of which was a beautiful view of the sea and the town below. We were separated by that view, however, by more than a thousand steep stone steps. Cardio endurance is not my strongest suit even in the best of conditions, and the midday sun was beating down more and more forcefully as our altitude increased, so I was struggling to keep up the quick pace set by the more active brothers. Had you asked me at the time, I’m sure I would’ve said I was struggling to cling to life itself as I dragged myself up the steps.

I did not want to miss out on sharing the view with the brothers, so I was fortunate that they were there to help me. One brother stayed behind with me for a moment while I caught my breath, and all of them encouraged me to finish strong with them. We all felt accomplished when we reached the top of the fortress and were rewarded by the great view. This is a great deal like my experience with our chapter. We never mock each other but are always there to remind each other to spend more time studying, to edit fellowship applications, to play a good game of racquetball for exercise, and so on. In a community as small as W&L, where everyone knows everyone else at least a bit, it’s a worthwhile proposition to get to know a smaller group of people very well and to be able to count on them.

The quest is just one example of what fraternity membership has added to my W&L education, and it is an excellent one. My time as a Greek has brought me more than parties and means much more to me than empty declarations. Any W&L student looking for the kind of Greek experience I have had can easily find it, and our University will continue to benefit as more students realize the great potential of their fraternities and sororities. I am so grateful to have an experience I will remember for the rest of my life, and I now have something very specific to point to when I am asked questions about the purpose and value of W&L’s Greek system. Our Greek traditions are part of what makes us the unique institution we are today, and I am excited to watch them continue to develop.