Fraternity House

The former Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity sits at the entrance to the Oak Lane Community, July 3, 2019.

Greek life on campus has changed recruitment methods as COVID-19 has changed university life.

After the Virginia Tech Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Community made announcements on social media discouraging in-person events, campus fraternities and sororities continue to recruit safely, but not without facing challenges.

“For us, in-person events are simply the best way to gauge a person and get a vibe from him,” said junior accounting and finance student Alex Hilt. “The screen loses a lot of the personality, so finding ways to fill that has been the challenge.”

Hilt, who serves as the Sigma Nu-Theta Xi chapter recruitment chair, believes virtual recruitment is possible, though in-person events like playing sports, going downtown for meals and attending Saturday game day events are staples in the recruitment process. Sigma Nu has had limited in-person contact, and the fraternity adapted to playing cross-platform games online, utilizing its social media platforms and holding Zoom interviews.

“I personally agree with the switch,” Hilt said. “I think allowing college males running organizations that focus on social interaction to continue to recruit more people for their social interaction group is asking for trouble. I think we all would have been fine waiting a semester, if it meant we could go back to normal in the spring, but that’s a sacrifice everyone needs to make.”

Sophomore Mitchell Keaney, a marketing management student who serves as Phi Kappa Tau’s recruitment chair, said this year’s recruitment process was “very different than in the past,” as the previous chairs coordinated events outside on the Prairie Quad and in the Breakzone before the virus hit.

Despite having internet connection issues from their Oak Lane house, Keaney and recruitment co-chair Nick Tamburo adapted by scheduling for the brothers and new potential members to play “Among Us” and participate in a trivia night with Amazon gift card prizes.

“Looking at it from a potential new member’s standpoint, I can’t even imagine how unnatural it was for them to have to sit in a room on their computer screen, wait to talk to the brothers, and try to make a good impression over the computer,” Keaney said.

The only in-person events Phi Kappa Tau scheduled were two-on-one interviews, where Keaney and Tamburo spoke to one potential new member. The three socially distanced, and Keaney and Tamburo routinely took temperature checks and sanitized seating areas during the interview process.

“I wish we were able to do in-person, but I also understand the public health risks, as well as the nature of COVID at this time,” Keaney said. “Hopefully in the spring, stuff will be back to the point where we can do in-person events again. I have full confidence in my recruitment staff and brothers, considering that me and my co-chair have been the only people that have come in contact with a potential new member. I’m confident there won’t be any COVID outbreaks due to a rush event.”

The virtual format this fall helped both fraternities financially as Sigma Nu spent “a record low zero dollars” on events this recruitment cycle. The fraternity plans to make upgrades to its Progress Street house. Phi Kappa Tau, also with unused funds, hopes to maintain the price of dues and add more support to its philanthropic donations to SeriousFun Children’s Network.

“We have heard of other fraternities spending their entire budget as normal, but, honestly, I don’t know where that money could be spent,” Hilt said. “We planned on buying (personal protection equipment) like masks and sanitizing wipes for the events, but now we don't need to.”

After the Interfraternity Council made the September announcement requiring its 24 chapters to coordinate recruitment events virtually, Hilt and Keaney both said the announcement was unexpected, and they had difficulties restructuring events that were already organized from the summer months.

“Our previous plan to hold limited in-person recruitment was based on the expectation that our cases would have started to decline and therefore, with significant precautions, we could safely hold outdoor, socially-distanced recruitment events,” said IFC President Spencer Hamilton. “In our current situation, we can no longer in good conscience support any in-person gatherings and risk exacerbating the recent spike.”

Almost simultaneously, the number of coronavirus cases in Montgomery County peaked between 60 and 70 cases per week in early September.

Hilt, who described the changes as last minute, criticized the timeliness of the decision, but gave credit to the university in unprecedented times. Along with the decision, he had difficulties managing classes as he had to create the new events and guidelines on the fly.

“I think (Virginia Tech) could have done better in a lot of places, but I also think they made a lot of hard decisions and put guidelines in place as fast, and as well, as they could with the situation at hand,” Hilt said.

Keaney mentioned that he and his recruitment committee put in long nights while restructuring virtual events.

“I had to shift our recruitment plans on a dime because (the IFC) dropped it on us about a week before recruitment started,” Keaney said. “We had to find creative ways to recruit over Zoom.”

Meanwhile, Karen Buynak, a senior studying human nutrition, foods and exercise who serves as the Panhellenic Community’s vice president of recruitment, says sororities are monitoring COVID-19 and weighing different options for when their recruitment begins in January.

“Every panhellenic at every school is governed by the National Panhellenic Conference throughout the United States and Canada, so they have guidelines for COVID that we have to follow,” Buynak said. “They would like us to use a virtual option.”

In August, NPC President Carole Jones commented on monitoring COVID-19 saying, “We recognize a return to ‘business as usual’ is not acceptable, and we understand the role fraternities and sororities can play in setting the tone for on-and off-campus social life and helping to maintain healthy campus communities.

“By following local health guidelines and adopting safer behaviors, NPC members and chapters can help reduce the likelihood of outbreaks and help shape the actions of the broader campus community.”

The Panhellenic Community is looking at three different options for recruitment in 2021, according to Buynak: all virtual, the most likely option; a hybrid model; and all in-person, a “very unlikely” option.

“I think everyone’s safety is our priority,” Buynak said. “As much as we want to meet these women in person and have them hang out with our sorority sisters, I don’t think it’s worth (having in-person events).”

Buynak has also met with other recruitment executives at other large universities like Arizona State University, the University of Alabama and the University of Virginia, who all have an agreement to keep a positive image on Greek life in the pandemic.

“I know the chapters will want to have Bid Day in person, but I’m really not okay with that,” Buynak said. “We care about safety.”

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