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Good Neighbors

Apgar gives Rensselaer Greeks high marks for community relations—always a challenge when Greek chapters maintain houses in residential neighborhoods. “Most chapters have developed very good relations with their neighbors over the years,” he says. “When misunderstandings arise, it’s usually very few of the chapters that are involved…some have yearly meetings with their neighbors so that they know who the new officers are.” Fraternities have raked lawns, helped manage property, cleaned out basements, assisted with spring cleaning and, especially this past winter, shoveled snow. “Those are the underlying things that they rarely get attention for,” says Apgar.

Community service and philanthropy are central to the mission of Rensselaer’s Greek chapters today. Greeks are some of the largest contributors to local charities.

Photo by Joseph Audino

Rensselaer’s Interfraternity Council took neighborhood involvement a step further in February when its members unanimously approved a resolution to improve the relationship of Rensselaer’s fraternities with the neighborhoods surrounding campus. The Resolution on Community Relations calls for better interaction and communication with neighbors and reaffirms the Greeks’ dedication to community service and philanthropy in the City of Troy. “We want more of a proactive approach on our part,” IFC President Jeff Andritz told the Polytechnic after the vote.

Dean of Students Mark Smith praises the action. “Passing this resolution is definitely a positive move for Rensselaer’s fraternities and for the community as well. “It just reinforces the wish of both groups to peacefully co-exist and make living in Troy a pleasant experience.”

The resolution had a more controversial beginning. A City of Troy noise ordinance passed last August created a buzz among Greek students who were worried that they would be targeted by police. When two fraternity chapter presidents were cited by Troy police in the fall for violations of the ordinance, student unhappiness over the city’s actions led to an unprecedented open dialogue among all the parties involved—local neighborhood associations, Troy City Council, the mayor’s office, the Troy Police, Rensselaer Cabinet, Office of Student Life, student government, the Interfraternity Council, and the Panhellenic Association, among others.

“This open channel of communication did more for communiversity than anything I’ve seen in a while; it extended an olive branch to the neighbors,” says John Muller ’03, who was IFC president at the time. “It said ‘We understand your point of view, and we’e going to change our ways.’” Rensselaer’s Greeks emerged from this process resolved to take responsibility for their actions and create better relations with neighbors and the city. “I am very proud of the direction that our fraternities and sororities are going,” Muller says. “We have been faced with a challenge, and we have risen to meet it.”

Now that the resolution is on the books, Greeks are taking action to put it into practice. In late April, the Interfraternity Council launched the first Greek Community Cleanup Day in neighborhoods surrounding the campus. About 120 Greek students spent a Sunday cleaning up the 12th Street approach to make the stairs more usable and clearing brush and trash from Prospect Park. The council partnered with Rensselaer Public Safety, the Troy Community Police Department, the mayor of Troy, and Sodhexo food service to organize what the council hopes to be an annual event.

While Greeks are taking the initiative to spearhead such projects, thinking of themselves as members of the greater community can be a change, says Roger Grice, Ph.D. ’87, clinical associate professor of technical communication and adviser to Lambda Chi Alpha. “If you compare what happened back when I was an undergraduate in the ’60s, Greeks didn’t really care about the neighbors,” says Grice. “But that’s not the way it is today; we need to give back to where we live.”

Grice encourages Greeks to get involved in “communiversity” events, as well as their own philanthropy initiatives. “Greeks have also worked with members of the community to clean up the local parks, build houses, and work at soup kitchens,” says Grice. “It’s important that [Greeks] know they are part of the neighborhood, too.”

Grice says this strong commitment to community service keeps him involved with the chapter. “I’m always impressed by the level of maturity in the Greek community now,” he says. “We’re not just here to have fun, but we’re here to do good things and have fun. Rensselaer students tend to be very responsible, and that’s apparent in our Greek life.”

Although Rensselaer’s Greek community is working toward the goal of being a “national model of excellence,” challenges remain. Spear believes that while Greeks have worked hard to be better neighbors, they still need to make a significant contribution to their local community.

“In order to thrive in the future, the Greeks at Rensselaer must work with their neighbors to establish a comfortable living situation for both interested parties,” says Spear. “If the neighbors see that Greeks are making an effort to work with them and are actually interested in their concerns, we can actually be one community.”

Rensselaer Greeks Take Part in Alcohol Awareness Programs

Greek life—and college life in general—is often equated with high-risk behavior, including alcohol and drug abuse. Rensselaer is helping students turn the tide by providing them with educational programs that address the dangers of underage and high-risk drinking. Awareness education begins during First-Year Experience Orientation, when students are engaged in a frank discussion about the risk of alcohol-related death among freshmen.

Alcohol comes up again in every context—from weight issues to relationships—during the many health programs delivered by Theresa Kersch, certified health education specialist at Rensselaer’s Gallagher Student Health Center. “I do programs on every aspect of health,” says Kersch, “but I always bring it back to alcohol. It’s calories when we talk about nutrition, and a potential cause of violence in relationships.”

Programs specifically dealing with alcohol and sexual abuse are popular with fraternity and sorority groups. Kersch often goes “on the road” to bring her on-demand courses to the fraternity houses, hitting her Greek audiences right where they live. Defying the usual stereotypes, fraternities actually seek out this preventive education, she says.

Greek members’ participation in these programs is in keeping with their high rate of involvement in campus organizations. “By and large, our frats take part in more community service and education programs than other groups that may have service as their focus,” says Travis Apgar, associate dean of students and former director of Greek life.

Despite their enthusiasm for educational programs, Rensselaer Greeks have not been immune to the consequences of alcohol abuse. Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity was suspended recently for two years following an incident of underage drinking by a campus visitor in October 2002. The suspension bans the fraternity from participating in any campus activities or recruiting new members. A two-year probationary period will follow; at that time, TKE brothers will be required to attend alcohol-abuse educational programs. A violation of the alcohol policy this spring also resulted in a six-month suspension for Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

“We hope that this fraternity will come back to Rensselaer as a success story,” says Apgar. “Our other Greek groups continue to live up to our expectations as well as the high standards of their fraternities and sororities.” —Joely Johnson

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2003
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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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