by Kendall Coffman, MS, Marriage and Family Therapist*
First-Year Experience for Traditional College Students
When college students first arrive on campus, they are wide-eyed and excited to take the first steps in their new journey. While many have an idea of what to expect (or at least believe they do), many more do not; either way, this is a new experience for all. The first-year experience is instrumental for college student success. According to Upcraft, Gardner, and Barefoot (2004), “[T]he first year of college, particularly in the first semester, is critical for establishing academic and social behaviors that safeguard retention” (p. 87). Universities and colleges acknowledged the importance of this transition by designing opportunities to support student success through various engagement opportunities and initiatives. Commonly seen first-year programming includes pre/orientation, academic advising, seminars, learning communities, and a wide variety of welcoming programs such as student organization fairs, concerts, wellness events, retreats, and speakers.
Although there are many common initiatives and programs designed for first-year students across institutional settings, there is no set way of doing any one of them. No single effort is universally implemented to support first-year student success across the nation. Additionally, the following years are often overlooked, which is why institutions often see the “sophomore slump,” a phenomenon that has been described similar to “senioritis” due to the lack of attention and programming geared towards second-year students (Sterling, 2018). However, one powerful first-year experience that continues to impact student success beyond their first year and is often overlooked in metrics relating to persistence is membership in a fraternity or sorority.
Known Effects of Fraternity and Sorority Membership on Mental Health and Community
A student’s need to belong and adjust to the college community can reinforce their relationship with the university—or, if unmet, damage it. Studies indicate that student involvement in campus clubs and organizations positively impacts retention and academic success. (Astin, 1993). Student success is directly impacted by the “sense of belonging, defined as membership, feelings of acceptance, being cared about or part of a group” (Osterman, 2000). Present literature supports participation and membership in fraternal organizations to increase social integration, academic achievement, student development, and retention. Moreover, fraternities and sororities can be viewed as a “high-impact practice” (Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 2016).
Research shows a positive correlation between fraternal organizations and student retention and persistence for those who join fraternal organizations in their first year (Debard & Sacks, 2010). One study published by the National Panhellenic Conference (Biddix, 2014) reported that when comparing nonmembers to sorority members, sorority members had higher retention and graduation rates (both on time and within six years). Similar reports have shown that both fraternity and sorority members nationwide demonstrate higher levels of social involvement and academic achievement (Pike, 2003). There is also evidence showcasing that students in fraternal organizations have a positive influence on their nonmember peers and the ability to foster student development. The majority of fraternal organizations have academic policies and programming that help first-year college students with goal setting, time management, and developing study habits. They also tend to create an environment and culture that motivates students to achieve their goals (Sasso, 2012). Belonging to a Greek organization has definite benefits extending beyond the social realm.
Clinical Relevance for Practice
Clinicians working with emerging adults and current college students can use the therapeutic space to explore the key community-building experiences their clients are taking part in. Early adulthood has been shown to be key in fostering continued growth and personal development. For many, that time period takes place during their time at college.
If you are a clinician working with a college student considering joining an organization or struggling to make connections in college, here are a few considerations for practice:
- Explore the concept of community.
- Explore the diversity of student-run organizations offered on the client’s college campus.
- Does the client have a felt sense of belonging on campus?
- Does the client have a social network on or off campus?
- Does the client have any pre-held beliefs about organizations housed on college campuses?
If Your Student Is Considering Going Greek
If you are a parent/guardian or family member with a student who is considering joining a student group on a college campus, here are a few considerations:
- Research the national organization that the student is considering joining.
- Learn the history, core values, founding location, and founding date of their organization of interest.
- Encourage your student to seek leadership opportunities with the organization.
- Research the organization’s educational programming.
- Explore the organization’s philanthropic or community services events.
Impacts on Belonging in the Age of Covid-19
The past year has presented unique challenges for college students. It is much more difficult to find community, to feel that sense of belonging due to the largely virtual structure that most universities have adopted. Students have fewer opportunities to engage with their peers in the ways they normally would have in the past, arguably leaving many of them feeling disconnected from their peers and universities. However, fraternities and sororities continue to foster a virtual space through innovative recruitment tactics and educational programming.
Educational and Psychosocial Conversations to Consider Due to Covid-19:
- How have we as a family/friend group been able to stay connected with one another?
- How can we as a community/organization/family engage with one another while socially distanced?
- How can a fraternal organization continue to foster personal development and connection for college students during a pandemic?
- Is our community/family/organization making intentional efforts to connect with members and to check-in on wellbeing regularly?
*with Taylor Zeigler, MA
Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. (2016). High Impact Practices. Perspectives: Journal for the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, Summer 2016. Retrieved from: https://issuu.com/afa1976/docs/perspectives_summer_r4p
Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass.
Biddix, J., Singer, K., & Aslinger, E. (2016). First-Year Retention and National Panhellenic Conference Sorority Membership: A Multi-Institutional Study. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 20(2), 236-252.
Debard, R. & Sacks, C. (2010). Fraternity/Sorority membership: Good news about first-year impact. Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 5(1), 12-23.
Kanter, M., Ochoa, E., Nassif, R., & Chong, F. (2011). Meeting President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/meeting-president-obamas-2020-college-completion-goal.
Osterman, Karen. (2000). Students’ Need for Belonging in the School Community. Review of Educational Research – REV EDUC RES. 70. 323-367. 10.3102/00346543070003323.
Pike, G. R. (2003). Membership in a Fraternity or Sorority, Student Engagement, and Educational Outcomes at AAU Public Research Universities. Journal of College Student Development, 44(3), 369–382. doi: 10.1353/csd.2003.0031
Sasso, P. A. (2012) Towards a Typology of Fraternity/Sorority Programs. Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 7(1), 22-42.
Sterling, A.J. (2018), Student Experiences in the Second Year: Advancing Strategies for Success Beyond the First Year of College. Strategic Enrollment Mgmt Quarterly, 5: 136-149. doi:10.1002/sem3.20113
Upcraft, M., Gardner, J., & Barefoot, B. (Eds.). (2004). Challenge and support: Creating climates for first-year student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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