Reveal ceremonies, paddles, nicknames, and pairings: Those are the things people most often search for when they type any combination of "fraternity" and "big brother" into a Google search. The placement of big and little brothers (or "dads" and "sons" in some chapters) is common in the fraternity world. But no inter/national fraternity I worked with or for offered a legitimate role or function for big-little relationships. We accept that big-little relationships exist, but spend most of our effort making sure that they do not involve hazing. That's a mistake.
Fraternity leaders and fraternity/sorority professionals appear to prefer standardized "New Member Education" (NME) curriculums lead by elected or appointed "New Member Educators." Many require that chapters submit those curriculums for review and offer training to new member educators. My fraternity is among those which emphasize lesson plans and learning outcomes among other best practices. That leaves chapter big brother programs as largely ceremonial, irrelevant elements of the new member process, even though they can more.
What if we revised our approach to New Member Education in fraternity organizations? What if we move away from lecture-style meetings and make big brothers our educators and mentors? Can we learn from the Montessori education philosophy - where students from higher grade levels teach and mentor younger students?
Listed below are some ideas to make big brother programs the centerpiece of a more personal, friendship-driven new member education/orientation experience.
Think "orientation," not "education"
Undergraduate members have 4-5 years to get the most out of their fraternity experience. Initiation should indicate that one is ready to participate fully in the fraternity experience, not that they memorized the most stuff. Don't separate your new members from your initiated members for 8 weeks and tell them how things work. Involve them in everything the chapter does, even if it means you must plan a few ritual-free chapter meetings. The Big Brother has to accompany his little brother, to explain what is happening, and help him find his fit within the group.
If you want your new members to contribute to the success of your chapter, then teach them what is essential to the operations of the chapter first. Focus on history and rituals after they are initiated - it will make more sense once they have seen the ceremonies first-hand.
The New Member Educator is an orientation manager. The "education" comes from the Big Brothers.
In most cases, chapters elect or appoint a New Member Educator (or "Pledge Master" for the less politically current groups). These educators often pair big brothers with little brothers and lead weekly meetings modeled after a classroom lecture. Sometimes they meet more often than weekly. Many NME officers select a committee or appoint assistants to help with the classes and the curriculum.
Instead, require that Big Brothers meet with their little brothers throughout the week to teach them whatever lessons are meant to be learned. Then, have Big Brothers attend new member meetings where the entire group of bigs and littles can discuss the lessons as a group.
This change sets two important standards compared to the teacher/classroom setup of most NME programs:
New members see initiated members in their orientation meetings, which sets the standard that initiation is not an achievement, but a long-term commitment to learning and growing.
Initiated members understand that a little brother is not a trophy or a badge of honor. New members and initiated members understand that serving as a Big Brother is a commitment of time, effort, and compassion.
This may limit the number of brothers who can serve as Big Brothers. Executive board members, for example, may not have the time. But the positives outweigh the negatives. Big Brothers will take their role more seriously. New members will receive a better, more personal orientation. Furthermore, Big Brothers can mentor several little brothers at once. Those who cannot commit to the expectations in any given year can still establish a strong "family tree" if they can participate another time.
Focus your traditions on families
After the orientation is complete, and once the new members are initiated, introduce them to the other members of their "family tree." This treats initiation as the celebration of permanent additions to the chapter and its various family groups.
Read this article on how to make functional use of family groups. They offer great potential for recruitment, chapter programming, and member accountability. Focusing on family units immediately after initiation also creates a natural way for a new initiate to connect with a manageable group of members who may not have been part of the orientation process.
By treating NME as an orientation and more deeply involving big brothers as mentors, your chapter can set create a more meaningful and personalized new member experience. A system such as the one mentioned in this article will also better prepare new members to take an active role in your chapter immediately after initiation.
We should not waste one year of a four-year member experience learning trivia. . . particularly when so many senior members slack off during their 4th or 5th year.
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