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A spirit that is not afraid

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | The value and role of Black fraternities in student success and retention

I have always considered myself a reflective person.  That trait has played a significant role in my development as a student, a professional, and most importantly, as a Black man. See, reflection takes great maturity and intentionality because of how it forces you to engage deeply with your own thoughts and actions. 

Sometimes it's difficult and sometimes hard, but I’ve found it to always be a worthwhile endeavor.  With that being said, the time now presents itself for me to, once again, engage in this practice. 

At this time last year, I was a middle school teacher in Georgia on the leadership track, where I was positioned to be promoted.  I had recently graduated with my master’s degree and had begun to take positive and transformative instructional risks within the classroom. 

I loved what I did!  I loved my students, and I believe, they loved or at least respected, me.  Therefore, I made it my duty to equip them with skills they could use that went beyond passing my extremely challenging Colonial Georgia exam.

I remember teaching my students about the power of collaboration and the value associated with respecting the diversity of opinion.  Most importantly, I remember always telling my students to never be afraid of taking risks, trying new things and stepping outside of their comfort zones, where I believe worthwhile learning can truly occur. 

Therefore, the time presented itself for me to take my own advice, and a little over a year ago, I made an extremely hard decision to enroll at Auburn University as a full-time Ph.D. student and graduate assistant.  I always knew I would get my doctorate, but I never envisioned it being this way.     

This wasn’t an easy transition for me nor my family.  Not only is being a Ph.D. demanding intellectually and emotionally, but I believe little is ever mentioned regarding how often this journey is misunderstood by those who don’t know or know extremely little about what it entails. 

To this point, the research is clear regarding the number of Black men who enroll, persist and graduate from graduate programs.  In short, research would suggest numerous factors impeding my ability to matriculate through my graduate program, which is common across the graduate school experience and not specific to any program.

While much literature highlights the factors impeding doctoral obtainment for Black men, little literature highlights factors for persistence, with hardly any highlighting the role of National Panhellenic Sororities and Fraternities.

As I sit and reflect on my first year as a Ph.D. student at Auburn University, I can’t help but to include the role my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., played in my success.  I sought and obtained membership in my fraternity in 2015.  The principles upon which it was founded, Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance and Uplift, were a driving force behind me making this decision. 

Through my fraternal membership, I have been afforded and experienced some amazing opportunities.  I flew for the first time in my life to a conference, I received numerous awards and most importantly, I met some amazing and lifelong friends.  Contrary to popular belief, this became an ongoing experience lasting well beyond my years as an undergraduate student.  

Along with the exposure the fraternity afforded me, it would continue to impact my life during my transition to Auburn, Alabama, and Auburn University.

To add more context, I am the only full-time Ph.D. student currently enrolled in my program.  Therefore, finding community within the program is tough and sometimes nonexistent.  While I don’t seek to place that blame in the hands of anyone, I say that to further emphasize the role of NPHC fraternities and sororities for Black students.  

Upon moving to Auburn, I immediately aligned myself with the local graduate chapter, the chapter serving brothers who have finished their undergraduate degree.  The brothers in the local chapter welcomed me with open arms and invited me to social and community service events.  

Furthermore, brothers from the chapter with specific ties to Auburn University would put me in contact with key movers and shakers on Auburn’s campus.

To add to that, the fraternity and my brothers would serve as role models, counselors and reminders when the demands of the program were becoming too heavy.  They would offer support, words of encouragement, and most importantly, laughs when needed to keep me going.  

The local undergraduate chapter would serve as a reminder of why I needed to push forward. I believed they needed to see a brother in the capacity and position in which I am currently serving, so they would be aware that obtaining a Ph.D. is possible, if they choose to pursue one.

My former advisors were also available to offer their support, even though they were hundreds of miles away. I also, believe it is worthwhile to mention how my connection to my fraternity has provided financial assistance throughout my first year as a Ph.D. student.

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Publishing and presenting are key components to success within academia.  Given that reality, I try to find opportunities to engage in both. Toward the end of April, I traveled to San Diego, California, to attend and present research at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference. 

The cost of attending was not economically responsive to my needs as a graduate student.  Therefore, I began to worry about how I was going to attend.  I am extremely thankful and fortunate that Auburn University took on some of the cost.  However, the bulk of the expenses were paid through my fraternity scholarship commission, The Charles Richard Drew Memorial Scholarship Commission.  My fraternity was eager, willing and ready to lend a helping hand.

I could continuously describe the impact my fraternity has had on me and the greater Auburn community.  However, at a time where the value and role of NPHC sororities and fraternities are consistently being questioned, my story serves as just one example of why they are needed for Black students. 

With that being said, I don’t suggest NPHC sororities and fraternities as being the sole solution to many of the problems Black students face when completing graduate programs.  On the other hand, I do suggest them as being one of the tools to increase the retention of Black students in undergraduate and graduate programs across all disciplines and campuses. 

Still, NPHC sororities and fraternities need the help, support and investment of their universities to engage in high-quality recruitment and retention work.

Terrance Lewis is a Ph.D. student at Auburn University. 

The opinions expressed in columns and letters represent the views and opinions of their individual authors. 

These opinions do not necessarily reflect the Auburn University student body, faculty, administration or Board of Trustees.

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