For Georgetown, A Fraternity of Firsts
By Bailey Heaps
Blank stares. Laughter. Confusion.
That’s what Paul Happel encountered when he first told his freshman floormates back in the winter of 2005 that he was joining a social fraternity.
Georgetown doesn’t have frats. Greek life doesn’t belong here. Do we really need to recreate “Animal House” on the Hilltop?He heard it all.
Undeterred, Happel joined about 30 other Georgetown students — most of whom were freshmen and sophomores — and became a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon in its first year at Georgetown. Two years later, he would become president of Georgetown’s only social fraternity.
Joining Happel in that original group were Luis Pinilla, Brock Hayes, Hunter Sheetz, Alex Bozmoski, Mike Sanky and Vijay Krishnan. Together, the seven friends, all of whom took on leadership positions in the fraternity and are part of the first class of four-year members, worked to carve out a niche for SigEp at Georgetown. Individually, the brothers say that the fraternity offered them a four-year experience unlike anything else that can be found at Georgetown.
Krishnan first heard about Sigma Phi Epsilon at a meeting of the Freshman Class Committee.
Two national recruiters for SigEp, Dennis Kaps and Jason Cherish, presented to the committee, saying they were looking for guys who were scholars, athletes, gentlemen and leaders. Krishnan was intrigued.
Word of the burgeoning fraternity soon spread to Pinella and Sanky and finally reached Hayes.
Before long, they were braving the uncharted territory of a Georgetown fraternity.
“There was a general framework of the ideals of a Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter, but we had to come up with a lot of the stuff on our own,” Hayes says. “A lot of what the chapter is now reflects our own ideals and aspirations and what we wanted the group to be like, how we wanted to live.”
First task: establish bylaws; next, a code of conduct; then finally a seven-member executive board, which was filled by sophomores.
Despite their absence from that first executive board, the Class of 2008 still maintained an integral part of the organization.
“We had to figure out how to recruit, we had to figure out how to put on programming, we had to figure out how to run a budget; and it was mostly freshmen and sophomores, and a lot of these people hadn’t led groups before,” Happel said. “So it was really tough adjusting, because not only did we have to figure out what it meant to be a fraternity, we had to figure out what it meant to be SigEp specifically, and those are two different things.”
Sigma Phi Epsilon focuses on personal development through brotherhood. It uses its unique “Balanced Man” program to foment that development. But what exactly that meant for this particular group of guys was ambiguous at first.
“Early on, it was 35 individuals with very disparate visions,” Krishnan said. “We had visions ranging from SigEp being simply a business networking group to one that resembled a fraternity at a state school, and everything in between.
“It was about finding the proper balance for us where we can still incorporate the qualities of SigEp to which we were attracted, namely the personal development, based on no hazing and no pledging, and — our motto is personal development through brotherhood. We all had different visions of how that would manifest itself.”
Beyond philosophical quandaries, the group was also faced with logistical issues. Whereas at a university that officially sanctions fraternities the group would have a house or central meeting spot, at Georgetown, no such location existed. And with the group comprised of freshmen and sophomores, just about everyone was living in a dorm room rather than an apartment or townhouse.
Over time, though, the brothers began to get acclimated to the roles in this distinct chapter of SigEp. For example, there is no pledging or hazing. Once you’re in, you begin the Balanced Man program.
Balanced Man begins with the Sigma Challenge, which is designed to get new members acclimated to Georgetown and to SigEp. Then, as sophomores, the Phi Challenge “get[s] guys thinking about their professional development, get[s] out into the city, experienc[ing] a lot of the different cultural events out there, again emphasis on staying in shape through each challenge,” Happel explains.
Next, the Epsilon phase challenges brothers to figure out how they’re going to give back to the fraternity, which is continued in the final Brother Mentor challenge.
“That’s sort of the idea behind the personal development,” Happel says. “It’s a very regimented process. People can go about it at their own pace, but there’s set challenges that you go through, and at the end of the challenge you go on to the next one.”
Along the way, the group does community service, plays intramural sports and hosts formals and other date events.
They’ve gone white-water rafting and played paintball. They’ve also taken dance lessons, done yoga and ice skated at the National Sculpture Garden.
“The activities break down into brotherhood development and programming,” Krishnan said. “The idea of programming is simply to build brotherhood by being together, so that’s something white-water rafting is geared toward, whereas brotherhood development activities are directly designed to impact you personally.”
To achieve that brotherhood development, SigEp has held lectures by professors, had a personal trainer lead workouts and invited a representative from Joseph A. Banks to give a tutorial on how to dress. They’ve even taken an etiquette lesson.
It is the semesterly retreat, however, that they say is the fraternity’s most formative experience. Twice a year, the group heads out to a secluded spot in Virginia or Maryland, to leave alcohol, homework and stress behind, allowing for an opportunity to reflect.
“People who are sometimes on the fence abut why they joined, they don’t quite understand what we’re doing, they go to those and it reaffirms the idea of building lasting bonds of friendship with people,” Happel said.
It is on these retreats where the brothers claim they learn most about each other.
“I’ll tell somebody I’m going on a retreat for the weekend with my fraternity and it’s, ‘Oh you’re going to get so drunk.’ No, that’s not what we do. It’s completely dry. We try to just go out there and get to know each other better and develop,” Pinilla said.
Sigma Phi Epsilon’s program was not for everyone. About half the initial members left after the first year.
“Our first recruiting class was really great, but they didn’t quite get it. A lot of the people joined for the wrong reasons, so a lot of people left,” Happel said. “The people you see here understand what it is supposed to be.”
Throughout the past four years, Sigma Phi Epsilon has strived to convince the university community that a school that “doesn’t have fraternities” can have a fraternity.
According to Happel, public perception is divided into three camps. The first just doesn’t know the organization exists.
Then there are the people who aren’t in the fraternity but have a favorable impression of it.
And finally, there are the people who just don’t get it.
“We can sometimes come off as sort of an exclusive group, because we are always with each other,” Happel said. “This is our primary social group. And it’s tough sometimes to overcome the stereotype of being the really fratty organization. But as soon as you sit down with those people and you look them face-to-face and say, ‘This is what we do,’ they understand.”
Happel stresses that SigEp isn’t trying to overhaul the university. Their goal is not to create a Greek system or force the Balanced Man program on everyone else. Rather, their focus is on the individual members of the fraternity.
“We’re not trying to change Georgetown. We’re just trying to change lives,” he says. “We’re trying to say, ‘Let’s not blow away these four years. Let’s grab them and make the most of them.’ People get that.”
“We just need to make it the best it can be for the people who want that part of life with something that is not geared toward just one thing; it’s a very broad idea of what we should be doing,” Hayes adds.
Now, as the Class of 2008 prepares for graduation, the SigEp members stress that they are different men because of the four years they spent in the fraternity.
“I can say for sure that all of us have changed for the better over our four years, so we’ll take that with us,” Hayes says. “I definitely know I’ve learned a lot from everybody in this chapter, and I’ve tried to integrate the pieces that I’ve felt worked for me, and I’ll take that with me for the rest of my life.”
Sanky added that Sig Ep has helped to turn the unstructured atmosphere of college into a formative environment.
“[College is] probably the first time where it’s on you to shape what you want out of your life and to have other people who excel in all these areas of life around you to help you make these habits, to form the way you live your life, is so important in college,” he says.
But getting something out of SigEp was up to each individual.
“Most organizations have some kind of objective to try to accomplish something,” Pinilla said. “Here, we have to create the objective and get people to follow it.”
“It’s really easy to tell people something like, ‘Oh we joined the Corp to make money, and then give back to Georgetown,’ but with SigEp, it’s very broad and not easy to pick out,” Sheetz said.
They also stress that their commitment to the fraternity will remain strong.
“It’s not something we’re walking away from and I truly mean that,” Sheetz said. “It is a lifetime commitment. It’s not something you do four years of personal development and then enjoy the networking of it all. Personal development is a mantra throughout your whole life. … I know I’ll hang out with these guys for the next 30 to 40 years. I’ll see them at my wedding.”
And the fraternity? It will be better because of the Class of 2008.
“I think that they just kind of set the standard,” current President Zack Bluestone (SFS ’09) said, “for the type of guys we want to recruit in the future and who we’re aiming to emulate.