Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Woman in a Man's World

I am spending this week completely immersed in a man's world. I am spending the next five days surrounded by frat boys, current and former (although, truthfully, there's no such thing as a "former frat boy"). I am attending the biennial "Grand Chapter Conclave" of my husband's college fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, more commonly referred to affectionately as merely "SigEp." I am a woman in a man's world.

I will freely admit, however, that being a woman here does not make me feel like an outsider. In fact, being a woman makes me feel like I'm being especially welcomed and treated extra graciously. Maybe it's because this year's conclave is being held in Nashville, Tennessee, so I'm surrounded by traditional Southern manners, but I feel like I'm being treated, not as a woman, but as a lady.

I like it.

But what I like most about it is that it represents the respect that these young men are showing, not only to me, as a woman, but also to the older alumni and national fraternity staffers, as SigEp brethren.

Let me back up a bit and confess that when my husband introduced me to SigEp eight years ago, I was not a fan of fraternities. The college I attended didn't have fraternities or sororities, so I didn't have much firsthand experience with them. Most of my knowledge was through news stories (rarely favorable) and movies (never favorable). To me, belonging to a fraternity was an excuse to binge drink without having to get yourself home afterwards. However, once my husband joined the Alumni Volunteer Corporation (AVC) of SigEp New Hampshire Alpha (his alma mater, Dartmouth College, "the fount of knowledge, where young men go to drink"), and later became the AVC President, I got to know some fraternity members (both alumni and undergrads) firsthand, and I changed my tune.

Certainly, there are plenty of young men in SigEp and many other fraternities who spend more time drinking than they should. Which admittedly is not that different than young men NOT in fraternities who spend more time drinking than they should. But the people who changed my opinion on fraternities were not so much the "current frat boys," but rather the "former frat boys," the older men - some just a few years out of college, some a few decades, and some more than a few decades - who had taken on the roles of mentoring their younger brethren. In these men, I could see their youthful fraternity experiences - the non-drinking kind - come to fruition. These were men who had become solid family men, successful businessmen, community activists, philanthropists, and just generally nice people. These men were the kind of men I want my son to grow up to be.

And here at conclave, I can see the younger men also wanting to grow up to be like these older men. I can see the common thread of SigEp brotherhood bridging the generation gap and providing a measure of trust and respect that allows the undergrads to grudgingly admit that maybe these old guys have something valuable to share with them. And I can see that same thread of brotherhood allowing these old guys to see past the youthful wildness and recognize the enormous potential inside every one of these young brothers. The reason it works is that the respect goes both ways. The young men respect the alumni's knowledge and wisdom and experience; the alumni respect the young men's enthusiasm and energy and potential. Being a SigEp automatically creates a peer relationship between two men. My 50-something husband often notices a stranger wearing a SigEp insignia and introduces himself as a friend whether the brother is 20 or 80. The SigEp connection is clearly one that transcends age and social and financial status. If you're a SigEp, you're a brother, and that's all there is to it.

The mentorship of alumni is a crucial part of the fraternity experience and, in my opinion, it is the reason that many SigEps turn out to be the kind of successful adults that they do. SigEp obviously has succeeded mightily with its mission of mentoring undergraduate members.

And so, when a young SigEp brother stands as I enter the room, or politely holds the door for me, it makes me feel good, not just because I enjoy being treated like a lady, but because I know he treats his SigEp brethren with that same respect.

Although I suspect he doesn't call any of them "ma'am."