This is Part II of a series exploring what it means to be a part of National Pan-Hellenic Council, the historically African American fraternities and sororities. In Part I, “NPHC: Building on a legacy,” the Hustler explored the importance of the history of NPHC and its declining membership on Vanderbilt’s campus. In this second installment, current students in NPHC talk about what their chapters mean to them as well as their visions for NPHC’s future.
When 17 students in Rand were asked about NPHC, 6 had heard the term “NPHC” before and knew what it meant. A light bulb went off for many students when NPHC was described as the “black frats.”
“NPHC? No… the black frats, yes,” one student said.
Few students were able to say what activities those in NPHC organizations take part in or what they do on a daily basis. While many of the students outside of NPHC and the black community don’t know what it is, those involved form tight-knit groups with memberships that last a lifetime.
“It’s an affiliation that you wear at all times,” Nate Marshall ’12, who is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. said. “In that way it functions differently than IFC and Panhel. It was very common for us to go to Fisk, Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee State, and really travel all over to connect with brothers at other institutions.”
From the chartering of Vanderbilt’s first NPHC organization chapter in 1971 to the founding of its most recent chapter in 2000, Vanderbilt’s NPHC organizations have fostered leaders and provided mentors for many of Vanderbilt’s black students for decades.
Vanderbilt at one time was home to 84 NPHC members and also to eight of the nine NPHC organizations. With 36 current members in six active chapters, the population of NPHC students is on the lower end, but members of the current chapters remain hopeful for the future of NPHC on this campus.
What are the “black frats”?
NPHC chapters are traditionally small, as former Vanderbilt NPHC president Jordaan McGill ‘16 stated last year that the ideal would be for all of Vanderbilt’s NPHC orgs to have anywhere from three to 10 members. As Eta Beta president Makayla Williams ’16 stated, the groups become so tight-knit because of their smaller sizes.
Each NPHC organization has a plot on campus, an area decorated with the letters of a sorority or fraternity, outside the NPHC fraternity house that is dedicated to each of Vanderbilt’s chapters. These plots, erected in 2011, were a way for NPHC organizations to increase visibility on campus, but the conversation to create them was one that spanned years.
Although many of Vanderbilt’s 36 current NPHC members are seniors, many of the organizations are scheduled to bring in new members in the coming weeks, so the numbers will likely rise significantly in the coming weeks.
The current chapters range from two to 14 members, and although many members of Vandy’s NPHC agree that the numbers are lower than ideal, six of the seven active organizations are functioning and functioning well.
“We’ve heard a lot about the state of Greek life, but I think that NPHC is not changing,” Williams stated. “The foundation of it will never change, and I think that it’s up to the current members to continue that energy.”
Jacob Sealand ’16, president of Omega Psi Phi’s Theta Beta chapter, also explained that having small chapters requires the strong involvement of each member as well as the cooperation of not only other NPHC groups on Vanderbilt’s campus, but of brothers or sisters at other universities.
“That’s huge within any NPHC organization,” Sealand said. “You’re supposed to roadtrip to go meet people from other universities within your organization. NPHC stands by itself and it stands unified.”
“Your undergrad chapters are never alone,” Omega Pi president Kiara Rhodes ’17 said. “When we have events you will probably never see less than five of us.”
Rhodes’ chapter currently has two members, but she explained that they work very closely with their chapter at Fisk, Kappa Gamma. In addition, their sister chapter, Mu Sigma at Tennessee Tech, is sponsored by the same graduate chapter as Omega Pi. There are also currently other chapters on Vanderbilt’s campus that have three and four members.
Each organization on campus has certain annual events, many of which are held by chapters across campuses nationwide.
Marshall spoke of Kappa’s annual Halloween party, for example, which was brought to Vanderbilt when he was an undergraduate, and still takes place. Students from around and outside Tennessee attend the event, he said.
“A party functions differently when you’re not a part of the majority of the mainstream culture,” he stated. “It becomes a way that a lot of black students, Greek or not, are able to make social connections with each other.”
Sigmas and Zetas are the only NPHC organizations that are constitutionally bound together in a formal brother and sister bond. Rhodes stated that many times the Sigmas and Zetas on campus function as a joint chapter. They hold events together, such as the Blue and White formal and the Blue and White Fish Fry, which is an event in the beginning of the school year to welcome first-year students to campus. They sometimes stroll together, they support each other, and most visibly, they share each other’s colors and even some letters, being Zeta Phi Beta and Phi Beta Sigma.
Some of these events have even inspired organizations on Vanderbilt’s campus to begin similar traditions. Williams spoke about events on campus that were inspired by the Eta Beta chapter, such as the BSA’s Black Affair and VPB’s Casino Night, which were inspired by the Jade Awards and AKAsino, respectively. She also said that they plan to bring back the All White Affair, hosted in conjunction with Alphas, once Kappa Theta is reestablished.
Each organization on campus also holds and co-sponsors many events throughout the year, and they hold either a full week or two mini-weeks during the year consisting of service, social events, discussions and educational programming.
In this past year the Zetas have had their Straight Outta 1920-themed Finer Womanhood week, the AKAs their Pink Panther-themed “SkeeWeek”, and the Deltas their “Deltagram”-themed mini-week (with Instagram themed event titles). The Kappas’ mini-week, “All Jokes Aside,” is currently underway. In addition to multiple service and educational events, these weeks have social aspects, such as the Zetas’ laser tag event and the AKAs’ “Pie an AKA” philanthropy event on the Rand Wall.
In addition, NPHC members also participate in events together, one of which is Terrace Thursday, hosted in conjunction with the BSA.
“It’s great because it not only brings the Greeks together but it brings all the black community together,” explained Taylor McMahan ’17, AKA and current president of BSA.
This year, NPHC hosted a special Terrace Thursday on the Commons to welcome the prospective students during Mosaic Weekend, which many of Vanderbilt’s NPHC alumni said originated from what used to be “Black Student Weekend.”
When asked about his favorite memory as an undergraduate, Marshall described a step show during his sophomore year when Richard McCarty, the Provost at the time, joined the Kappas on stage. He later joined the fraternity.
“He was a surprise guest and we had him set off a step,” Marshall explained. “That was pretty legendary. People talked about that for years.”
Two of Omega Pi’s founders, Zainab Muzaffar ’01 and Lydia Idem Finkley ’00, described the Blueberry Study Break, an event the Zetas used to hold in the Towers lobby that was open to all students before finals. The dean of students and students representing all parts of campus would attend to mingle and eat waffles in what they described as one of the few events on campus at the time with a diverse group of students.
“We set the bar. We really wanted to come to campus and shake things up and provide programming, not just for our community, but actually for the greater Vanderbilt community,” Muzaffar explained.
“We use adjectives a lot to describe people in NPHC and I think that’s because it’s a testament to all the things they had to go through,” stated Eta Beta president Makayla Williams ‘16. “We are the Elegant Eta Beta chapter and that’s because these women, despite having their backs against the wall, in the way in which they carried themselves, they were very articulate, very respectful, and they had a vision.”
Especially integral to all NPHC organizations are service and community. The members of these organizations are constantly going out into Nashville to help the community. Sealand said that his favorite moments with his brothers were all spent serving. He spoke of a canned food drive for Second Harvest Food Bank and holding fundraisers to raise money for children with pediatric cancer.
“Having a service-oriented community as strong as NPHC here is a really good look for the university and a really good look for the minority part of Vanderbilt,” he said.
Community also means support, a huge component within the sororities and fraternities. Each of the members talked about how much joining their respective organizations expanded their social circles and gave them their best friends. The bonds they have with each other run deep.
“For me, crossing (joining) Kappa was one of the things that really allowed me to understand what it meant to build strong emotional bonds with men…” Marshall said. “And even though my father is not Greek it improved my relationship with him.”
Membership in an NPHC organization is a lifelong commitment in which people are expected to remain active in their sorority or fraternity both through financial support and by participating in what other members of the organization are involved in.
“For IFCs stereotypically when they graduate they’ll say, ‘In college I was this’… I guess that’s cool, but for NPHC organizations it’s a lifetime commitment, and once you’ve made it, there’s no going back,” he said. “The true work starts once you’ve crossed.”
Many of the NPHC traditions, such as the calls, have significant meanings that are shared among the members of the specific organizations. Rhodes explained that “people must earn the right to learn [the traditions].” As far as etiquette for non-Greeks at these events, members had similar comments.
“Don’t try to stroll with us,” Alpha Gamma Alpha president Ahmed El-Sadek ’18 stated, explaining that it is a matter of respect. “Don’t try to step, do our call, use somebody’s emblems.”
In addition to “strolling,” Sigmas also step, which El-Sadek explained consists of more precise movements than strolling, as it can stand on its own without music, and is unique to Sigmas nationally.
Each NPHC organization performs both chapter-specific and universal strolls in which they generally dance in a line to certain popular songs. For example, imaginary mirrors are used by the ladies of AKA, shimmies are a staple of Kappas, Sigmas have crazy-legs, and Omegas incorporate their hops into their strolls.
Some reasons members gave for choosing their organizations were their inspirations and mentors when coming to campus, being a legacy of the organization, or having NPHC-affiliated teachers or coaches before coming to Vanderbilt who helped them realize that joining an NPHC organization was right for them. Although many members came into college knowing what org they wanted to join, other current members have a variety of reasons for joining.
“It’s a norm for people in Mississippi to stay in Mississippi, so coming to Vanderbilt I knew no one,” explained El-Sadek, who wasn’t exposed to NPHC before Vanderbilt. “They took me in as a brother,” he said of the Sigmas on campus.
The process of becoming a member of an NPHC organization is an educational one that is specific to each fraternity or sorority. Each organization is non-pledging and non-hazing, and the membership selection process culminates in a New Member Presentation, which is commonly referred to as a probate.
“When the buzz starts going around about probates, people are really interested because NPHC has such a ‘behind the scenes’ [component]. ‘Who’s going to be there, how many people,’” Sealand explained. “If you’ve ever played a sport it’s the same feeling. It’s your moment. It’s your coming out party.”
Because of this “behind the scenes” aspect of NPHC, Sealand advised that for anyone interested in joining, discretion is key.
“For those interested or [who] want to learn more it’s definitely a personal conversation to have,” he said.
A Presence on Campus
Moving forward, members would like to see even more Greek unity in the future, within both the NPHC community and Vanderbilt’s greater Greek community.
“The overall campus suffers in the absence of a strong NPHC,” sociology lecturer Rosevelt Noble stated. “A lot of the issues that we have had come up recently, we’ve always had that… but when I come to a campus where the black community is not as strong and I’m not as welcomed in the white community, then I start to complain a lot more.”
“When you look at the national trends on college campuses today, NPHC can easily serve as the leader in those dialogues, because most of those members are involved and have a front line opportunity to educate others,” James Crawford, Vanderbilt’s coordinator of Greek life, explained, citing the recent events at the University of Missouri as an example.
Many members expressed some disappointment in the way NPHC is treated within the Vanderbilt community. For example, the Faculty Senate Greek Life Task Force released its report in October of 2015 and some felt its focus seemed to mainly be on IFC and Panhellenic Organizations.
“Whenever NPHC sat down to read it, we felt like it was constructed for IFC and Panhel,” El-Sadek stated.
“They made eight amendments [from the original report] and only two of them had a possibility of applying to NPHC,” Sealand said. “They didn’t acknowledge us. They didn’t do any type of research. They didn’t talk to any of us. There’s a lot of frustration there.”
In addition to the report, many NPHC members spoke about how many people on campus who don’t know about NPHC hold on to their preconceived notions about the organizations.
“We’re viewed as aggressive, outspoken, loud,” Sealand explained. “But there’s a whole different side of us. We also sit in the classroom. We handle our business.”
These grievances, however, are in no way new to Vanderbilt’s NPHC community. Some founders of Vanderbilt’s Omega Pi chapter of Zeta explained some of the challenges of being part of the NPHC community in the early 2000s, including distinguishing the identities of the organizations and finding girls who were committed to the sorority and not just interested for the opportunity to be a charter member.
“They didn’t hire someone to manage NPHC organizations, and I think it started to grow after we said we wanted to come on campus,” said Muzaffar. “We had a relationship with the dean of students and I think that kind of carried through.”
Although all part of NPHC, each organization is significant and unique in its own way. They have the general goal of enriching the community and promoting the importance of education.
“I encourage people who are not NPHC to always come and talk to us about it. Come to our events,” El-Sadek suggested, “see what we’re all about.”
Members made suggestions such as doing research, going to events, and making an effort to meet the sisters or brothers of the organizations for those who wanted to learn more.
“We’re here, and we’re going to stay so you might as well be comfortable. Ask questions. We’re not shy, we don’t bite,” Sealand joked.
There are numerous reasons why the “Divine 9” were founded and have survived as the collective National Pan-Hellenic Council, Inc. since the council’s national founding in 1930. Whether it’s because of the support, the focus on education or the importance of serving the community, the values that are at the heart of these organizations have time and time again attracted devoted strong, valuable members. The men and women involved are building on legacies of resilient, hard-working and passionate innovators and will continue to do so.
“Those who are called on in the end have a duty to uphold,” Williams said. “And I believe that NPHC will stand the test of time.”
Photos courtesy of the individual chapters