T.J. Sullivan

Choosing to become bottom-third after graduation can be a very good thing

uturnMany new graduates struggle.  They love their organization, and they’ve spent countless hours (years!) in leadership roles. They want to stay involved and connected, however they realize that their life is changing rapidly and other priorities are demanding attention.

“If I take a step away, will I ever be able to reconnect?”

“Am I bad person if I take a step back?”

Yes, you will be able to reconnect when the time is right for you, if it’s ever right for you.  And no, you’re not a bad person.

Naturally, these organizations won’t tell you this.  Statistically, tons of highly involved members go away and never look back, and organizations and colleges are naturally doing everything they can to prevent you from detaching.  Just watch the extraordinary efforts that colleges and university foundations employ to keep you connected after graduation.

They will guilt you.  They will tell you that there are a million ways to stay involved.  There are highly involved young alumni reading this right now ready to tell me I’m entirely wrong. You’re needed! You should stay involved in new roles!

I am going to validate the other choice, however. You need to make the decisions that are healthiest for you. Taking some time away might be the smartest decision.

It’s fairly typical for alumni to take a step back during their 20′s.  Yes, some join young alumni boards, attend football games every weekend, and maintain their involvement in their school or organization as a big part of their identities.  That’s fine for them, but it doesn’t mean it has to be the right choice for everyone.

The 20′s are a time when many men and women are launching their careers, getting a financial footing, and starting families.  The demands are high, and the stress is real.  It’s hard to put organizational involvement at the top of the list when you’re planning a wedding, working on an advanced degree, or deciding whether to move cross-country for a job opportunity.

If you’ve had an involvement that could be described as emotional, consuming, defining, or transformative, you might need a break so that you can invest that energy into other, more urgent priorities in your young adult life. Give yourself the room you need.  You’ve been a top third member for a while – sacrificing a great deal for your organization.  You might feel incredibly guilty about moving your attention to other things.  You don’t want to feel disloyal. You’re afraid of losing the political capital that you worked so hard to gain.

However, you need to do what’s right for you.

Personally, my “dark period” (as I call it) from my national fraternity was about six years. After heavy undergraduate involvement, followed by three years on the fraternity’s professional staff, I was ready to reframe things.  I had some negativity about the organization that was making me dysfunctional.  I needed some time away to stop hating some things about the organization.

I took a big step back, and I hardly thought of myself as a fraternity man for those six years.  Down came the fraternity paraphernalia from my walls.  I stopped wearing the tshirts.  I fell off their radar.  There were conferences I attended that asked for my fraternity affiliation, and I left that part blank.

It turned out to be a very good thing for me.  I needed some distance.  I devoted time to my career, my financial well-being, and my romantic life.  I started a family.  I joined organizations that did other things – things relevant to my career, where I lived, and communities with whom I wanted to socialize. I learned how to come home in the evenings and relax.

I missed my fraternity, sometimes.  Other times, I didn’t miss it at all.  Through this period, I started forgetting the things that drove me nuts about it, and I started remembering the good parts.

In that seventh year, someone at the national fraternity reached out to me, invited me to an event, and I began to reconnect.  Slowly, cautiously, and in ways that fit into my new life without disrupting it. The organization looked different to me at 28 than it did at 22.  Three years later, I attended a convention again – not in some demanding leadership capacity, but simply as a participant.  My break allowed me to consider what lifelong involvement meant to me.

Looking back, I wish I had done a few things differently during the time I went “dark.”  I wish I had taken a more active role in maintaining some of my friendships.  I should have continued donating to the Foundation.  I should have expressed less disgust with the organization as part of my mental break –  I levied a lot of criticisms on the organization because I had some hurt feelings and felt devalued.

I thought taking a break needed to be an all-or-nothing thing.  I cut myself off from my group entirely because it seemed the only healthy way to disconnect. That’s not the way it has to be.  You don’t have to be a chapter advisor or take on a national leadership role to stay connected.  You can be a bottom-third member, maintaining some ties, without disappearing altogether.  Most of all, you can be positive about your organization and remain grateful for the opportunities it gave you.

You were a top-third member for so long.  Choosing to detach for a few years while you get your life together doesn’t mean rejecting it.  It means moving from top-third involvement to a more reasonable middle- or even bottom-third framework, and keeping a smile on your face while doing it.

You have to allow yourself the possibility that – at some point, eventually – you might be able to be involved in a meaningful, reasonable way again. Your organization likely will be there when you’re ready.  It will feel weird to go back after some time away, and you might need to spend some time adjusting to new political realities, business practices, and organizational priorities.  People there might not value you like they used to.  You might have that moment when you want to stand and scream, “Don’t you people know who I am?”

No, they don’t.  You took a break.  Now you have to reestablish yourself and your value to the organization, which is a good thing.  Now you can choose involvements that make sense for you, that are fun and meaningful, and that fit nicely with your abilities to contribute.

It might mean going back to the basics of your group.  Help in a small way with an event.  Advise a group in a niche capacity.  Make a few phone calls and catch up on some neglected relationships.

When you do, you’ll find many alumni who are also in that reconnecting phase, and you’ll make new and valuable relationships. Hopefully, through your new lens, you’ll come to appreciate your organization in a whole new way.

You might even find yourself liking the involvement enough to become top-third again.  This time, you will bring a whole new frame of wisdom to that involvement. Perhaps you’ll be able to guide and encourage others finding their way back from their own dark periods.


I believe in fraternities

AtlanticGuest blog by Sam Davidson

The article in this month’s The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan has more bark than bite. The cover headline, “The Fraternity Problem” may have had some guessing that Flanagan would call for the abolishment of all Greek societies and the disbursement of their remaining assets to the nearest charity. But, in her very fair treatment of the current fraternity and sorority system, Flanagan’s chief target isn’t a specific chapter or fraternity; her main beef is with institutionalism.

She goes after national bodies, local chapters, universities, college kids, litigators and media equally. In fact, when reading it, I felt exasperated that in many cases where fraternities are at the center of terrible instances, there is no clear pathway to blame, responsibility, and sadly, prevention.

The article mentions much of the good that fraternities provide to the world, namely leadership training, philanthropy, and community – three great reasons I very much support America’s Greek community as we know it on campuses and as I personally know it as a proud alumnus. But the article also shows how powerful bodies tend to grow more powerful through legal maneuvering and shrewd business strategy.

Most of the undergraduates I know will never see this article. In fact, most of the undergraduates I know don’t come close to exhibiting the behavior that the article details, calling attention to a handful of worst case scenarios that are void of courageous leadership.

And this is why I believe in fraternities.

I don’t only believe in fraternities because I’m a positive product of the system, shaped by friends and brothers to form part of who I am today. I believe in them because in my travels and speeches, I’ve found the willing leadership needed to keep fraternity and sorority life a positive and transformative experience for so many.

I believe in fraternities as an instrumental and transformative social experience for young men and women.

I believe in fraternities as a chance for someone to find his or her passionate cause that they may contribute to over a lifetime.

I believe in fraternities as an excellent arbiter of leadership training and inspiration.

I believe in fraternities as a vital connection between alumni and their school.

I believe in fraternities as a link between a student’s first days at school and his or her final ones, a place to become shaped into who they dream of being with the guidance of peers, tradition, hope, and adults who have come before them.

But I also believe that for fraternities to be all of these things, courageous and committed leadership is needed at every level. For me, Flanagan’s article was a call to a deeper form of leadership as much as it was an analysis of what’s gone wrong over the last 40 years.

I believe that fraternities should make sure houses that bear letters on the outside are up to fire sprinkler and building codes, regardless of in whose name the deed rests.

I believe that fraternity men and sorority women must look after members (initiated and not yet), peers, and guests when they visit a house. This may be seen as a hassle and detract from the convivial atmosphere a party hopes to create, but leadership doesn’t take parties off.

I believe that colleges and institutions must hold chapters and members – and national bodies and alumni – accountable to embodying their deeply held values. And when those values are violated, schools must make sure that all students – not just members – are kept safe, even if it means the loss of valuable financial contributions.

I believe that if fraternities claim to do good, they must be good – for everyone. Initiated members are not the exclusive recipients of the positive effects a fraternity can have.

I believe the time is now for courageous and bold leadership that doesn’t bend to the whims of a strong but uniformed wind. Leadership is needed that sets agendas and doesn’t react to them.

I closed this issue of The Atlantic with the same positive outlook of fraternities and sororities that I had before I read it. But I was left with a nagging question: who will lead?

I believe that fraternities will.

I believe that fraternities can be reformed from within if leadership is willing to live in that tension between what is right and what is popular. I believe that, like other institutions such as churches, governments, and corporations, fraternities can move beyond the careless actions of a few and the negligence of bureaucracy in order to chart a course towards somewhere better.

I believe in fraternities. So do millions of other men and women. But the time for reaction is over. The time for action has come.

And so I pose to you the haunting question that the article inspired in me:

Who will lead?


sam-280x280-1Sam Davidson is a member of Pi Kappa Phi, a CAMPUSPEAK speaker, and founder of Batch, an exciting new company taking Nashville and other cities by storm.

Love one another as you love your phone


You check on it several times an hour.  You have it inches away while you sleep in case it wakes up and needs you.  If you go anywhere without it, you feel out of whack.  A piece of you is missing.  You get tense.

You buy accessories for it.  You load it with new toys to make sure you never lose interest in spending time with it.

When someone on Facebook posts that he or she is looking for a new relationship, you passionately comment about how much you love yours.  How it’s the best.  How others are inferior.  Maybe even how being with yours makes you a certain type of person.

Your fidelity to it is intense.  You can’t imagine loving another.  You enter into a contract promising not to forsake it for another.

You spend a bunch of money on it.  In fact you’d rather live somewhere cheaper than spend less on it.

If you hurt it, you can do almost nothing else until it is made whole again.  You provide it protection.

You love it just a little bit more when people admire it.  Especially when it’s new.  People want to touch it, and know what it can do.  When you find a new way to interact with it, you feel more excited about it.

It makes you feel engaged, and connected, and ready for any challenge.

Let’s face it.  Your phone is your most prized relationship.

It’s a strong relationship. You take care of it.  You allow yourself to be dependent on it. You trust in it.

While some would tell you to ditch the phone in favor of other – you know, human – relationships, I would like to suggest that you learn from it.  Take this intense, beautiful relationship and use it as a model for the others in your life.

Think of an important relationship.  Your significant other, your close friend, your mom.

How often do you check in?  Do you make time to be physically with this person?

Do you demonstrate your affection?  Do you look for fun ways to spend time together?

Do you let others know how important that relationship is to you?  Do you stick up for it?  Are you proud of that person?  Does the value of that relationship show to others?

Are you faithful to this person?  Do you pay attention to his or her needs?  Are you willing to sacrifice some less important things to keep the relationship strong?

If this person was hurt, or in need, would you put aside almost anything else to make him or her whole again?

Does your relationship with this person make you feel engaged, connected and ready for challenges in your own life?

Are you taking care of it?  Are you allowing yourself to depend on it? Do you trust it?

Relationships are life’s most precious assets.  Take care of them.  Take care of the people who invest in you.  Demonstrate their importance with your presence and concern.

« Older Entries