A World of Difference
These days, on most college campuses, it seems there are many problems within fraternity/sorority life communities — from national news-making incidents like hazing deaths and racist chants to localized issues on campuses like bias incidents and unhealthy habits with alcohol. However, in my time working with students and being involved in fraternity/sorority life, I’ve seen a prevailing problem that underlies all of these cases and more. That is college students’ inability to step in and step up, to intervene when it matters most with their brothers, sisters, and friends.
The term bystander intervention seems so simple when we introduce it during a training session or talk about it in a conversation with individuals, councils, or chapters. We see students sigh and give each other knowing glances, wondering why we’re telling them to do something they already know — or think that they do. What they fail to see, however, is bystander intervention isn’t just for times when they see the potential for alcohol poisoning to occur. Additionally, they don’t seem to realize I could walk into a house party, a bar, football game, or other big event and show them countless minor instances when they aren’t stepping in to help their friends in the ways they should be. I hear about these moments from my students far too often, and what they often see as insignificant, I see as a systemic issue. For example, a brother drinks too much and passes out in the middle of the party. The next night he decides he’s superman, drinks again, trips over a stump in the front yard, and dislocates his shoulder. Everyone laughs about it the next day and it becomes a running joke, but none of them see his behavior as an issue — or if they do then they definitely don’t say anything to challenge his decision making or attitude towards drinking.
So, what do we do? How do we best communicate with our students? Is there a way to show them that ignoring the little things can lead to big problems? We’ve already started with programs like GreenDot and Step UP!, but what can we do to show students that bystander intervention isn’t just about alerting someone when you see a substance dropped into a drink or a friend getting into a sketchy hookup situation? Bystander intervention also involves making sure your friend doesn’t have another drink, the girl you know from class doesn’t walk home alone, and your buddy doesn’t skip class for the third week in a row. Fraternity and sorority members have a unique connection, which could be used to empower their brothers and sisters to address and prevent issues that arise every day.
Once students are able to identify harmful situations and recognize the warning signs, they will be able to be proactive and take the necessary steps to create a positive campus community. A fraternity member can speak up when his brothers start talking about hosting a racially insensitive party and steer them in another direction or teach them why this party theme is wrong. A sorority member can talk to her sister about the fact that she never eats around her friends anymore. A student can talk to his or her advisor about witnessing a fight between a couple at a party that escalated to a dangerous level. A member can talk to his or her president about challenges with over commitment and not sleeping enough. There are countless ways that students can step in to help their siblings, friends, and peers, they just need to know when and how to do so.
The conversation can start small, but it is important to remember that as the discussion is happening, we need to set a precedent that being there for others is just the way we do things, whether or not we’re connected by letters. We need to empower members to take charge and create the positive change they want to see. We need to make sure that we’re listening and paying attention to students and friends when they do speak up because a comment that seemed to be made in passing could be the only way they felt comfortable enough to tell you what’s going on with them. Even steps that seem small can end up creating a dramatic change in ways not expected, we just need to be willing to take the first step. Make the phone call, send the email, have that difficult conversation, and be an advocate for those around you because it could mean a world of difference.