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Service and Sisterhood: Alpha Kappa Alpha Arrives at W&L

At Howard University in 1908, sisters Beulah and Lillie Burke helped to found Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority. At Washington and Lee University 103 years later, sisters Devin Cooper ’11 and Amber Cooper ’12 helped to found a W&L chapter of that Greek organization.

“We tease them and call them the Burke sisters,” said Tamara Y. Futrell, associate dean of students. Futrell, a member of AKA herself, worked with the Coopers to bring the sorority to W&L.  The Tau Zeta Chapter of AKA, which was chartered last March with 12 members, is one of two historically black sororities on campus.

The other is the Tau Omega Chapter of  Delta Sigma Theta, which is a joint chapter with Hollins University and Roanoke College. It is recruiting and has active members on the other campuses, although none is currently enrolled at W&L. Both sororities belong to the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), which oversees the nine traditionally black fraternities and sororities. Except for one that dates to 1963, those Greek organizations were founded between 1906 and 1922. With the arrival of AKA, W&L has eight Panhellenic and National Pan-Hellenic sororities in all.

AKA established a presence on campus in 2005 when three W&L students became general members, meaning they were unaffiliated with a specific chapter. Several obstacles delayed colonization on campus. “It takes 12 people to start a chapter, and I don’t think that they had the numbers early on,” said Futrell. “We underwent international administration changes, and that held up the process, and then we had to wait until we had trained graduate advisors in the supervising graduate chapter, Beta Chi Omega, which is located in Roanoke that could assist us with the chapter.”

Interested students wrote annually to AKA’s mid-Atlantic regional director, requesting permission to begin colonization. During the 2010-2011 school year, Devin Cooper’s senior year, the students finally got the okay. “It was just, I don’t want to say divine providence, but it was the time for it to happen, and everything fell into place,” said Devin Cooper, whose mother, along with several aunts, also belongs to the sorority.

“In terms of recruitment and retention for Washington and Lee, I think it’s very important that people see all sides of Greek life,” said Amber Cooper, AKA’s current president. While the existing Panhellenic and Interfraternity Council (IFC) Greek organizations may be the best choice for some students, said Cooper, a mass communications major, it’s good to have the option of NPHC fraternities and sororities. “I’m hoping that in the coming years there will be more.”

Kahena Joubert ’13, AKA’s treasurer, agreed. The first in her family to join AKA, she was impressed by the sorority’s dedication to public service. “I really wanted to be a member of an NPHC organization, and after doing my research, I realized I really wanted to be a member of AKA because I really liked what they were about, service and sisterhood.” Joubert is majoring in business administration and politics and has worked with the Multicultural Student Association.

Dedication to community service is one of the most notable characteristics of NPHC fraternities and sororities. The sorority is “very service-oriented, very philanthropic. We don’t do a whole lot of partying and things like that. While we do have social activities, that is  not our focus,” said Futrell. Women who join NPHC sororities consider themselves lifetime members and take seriously their commitment to continue philanthropic activities after graduation.

NPHC fraternities and sororities are not part of the IFC or the Panhellenic Council. “Totally separate bodies, but we encourage collaboration,” said Futrell. “We are totally separate because our recruitment and member  intake processes are completely different. We have different rules and different policies that govern us as opposed to the other two bodies.”

Women planning to join AKA, for example, do not go through Panhellenic-style rush,. Instead, AKA hosts a Rush Session in which interested women submit applications for membership and then are voted on. AKA is open to all women, and two non-African-American students became charter members at W&L last spring. One of those, sophomore Sally Platt from Fredericksburg, Texas, said she joined for a variety of reasons.

“As a blond-haired, blue eyed Texan of Irish descent I kind of look a little out of place. But that is the awesome thing about AKA — it is really not about color. The ideals of the sorority stay the same, no matter what,” Platt said. “Our goal is to provide ‘Service to all Mankind,’ and this is something the sorority really stands for.”

AKA’s new members are looking forward to starting their philanthropic projects. Internationally, the sorority focuses on seven signature initiatives: emerging young leaders, health, global poverty, economic security, social justice and human rights, and internal leadership training. The W&L chapter plans to work on breast-cancer awareness and to partner with an Atlanta organization, Living Water for Girls, that aids young victims of sex trafficking. Devin Cooper began her involvement with Living Water while she was a student. A biology major, she is now a member of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in its medical school.

“One that we haven’t started, but that I’m excited to start, is the Emerging Young Leaders Program,” said Joubert. “We partner with girls in middle school to get them excited about going to high school and college, and just being their mentors.”

Amber Cooper and Joubert are glad W&L took an active and supportive role in bringing AKA to campus. “Bringing diversity to campus says a lot about the way W&L is moving,” said Joubert, “and how diverse we’re becoming, and how accepting we’re becoming of just lots of different things.”

— by Amy Balfour  ’89, ’93L