Patrick Kelly admits he was a wallflower when he came to UT Arlington. The “socially awkward, uninvolved” freshman had no idea how to connect with the vibrant campus life unfolding around him. Joining a fraternity was out of the question, because those guys were directionless party animals. At least that’s what Kelly believed—until he met the brothers of Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE). He says he found campus leaders, outstanding scholars, talented athletes, and gentlemen. And he wanted to join them.
Now a senior political science/pre-law major, Kelly is an active PIKE member, 2014-15 vice president of Student Congress, and an Archer Fellow. He has helped organize large-scale philanthropy events and served on the PIKE executive board as sergeant-at-arms.
“To say that PIKE has made me a better leader would be an understatement,” he says. “My fraternity helped me cultivate the confidence and experience necessary to lead by giving me a variety of opportunities to step outside my comfort zone.”
Kelly calls the organization the single biggest influence on his undergraduate career. “Leadership development aside, PIKE has made my college life. I truly believe I’ve had the best possible college experience, and PIKE is the main reason why.”
Compared to many other universities, Greek life at UT Arlington is fairly young. Prior to 1967, it didn’t exist at all. Technically, neither did The University of Texas at Arlington.
Back then the school was Arlington State College and had operated for decades under the Texas A&M umbrella. In 1964, amid growing tension between Arlington State College and the A&M board, the institution petitioned and won the right to transfer to The University of Texas System.
This ushered in numerous changes, and one of the biggest was the opportunity to boost student life. The A&M System didn’t officially recognize Greek-letter organizations, believing they interfered with what a student’s overall identity should be: Aggie.
“Joining Tri Delta connected me with a group of women with similar interests, offered so many activities, and helped me become part of the student community.”
But the foundation for what would become UT Arlington’s nationally affiliated Greek organizations already had been established, many of the groups with a history dating to the 1920s. About half claimed French names, like Sans Souci, Les Choisies, and Avolonte. Others hinted at Greek affiliation, like Karuso Pteros (Greek for “with wings of gold”) and Chi Chi Chi.
With the move to the UT System, the campus opened for Greek colonization. The University’s social clubs could affiliate with national organizations, and national organizations could charter chapters. In 1967, the same year Arlington State College became The University of Texas at Arlington, Greek groups emerged on campus. By 1970 the community had grown to seven sororities, eight fraternities, and 14 honorary fraternities. “It was kind of a strange time because in the late ’60s and early ’70s, student unrest was at its highest all over the nation,” says Kent Gardner, former vice president for student affairs. “But somehow the fraternities and sororities were growing like crazy.”
Kappa Sigma was the first Greek group to charter on campus in spring 1967. Kappa Alpha Fi, the University’s first African-American social club, affiliated with Alpha Phi Alpha to become the first national African-American fraternity in late 1969. Around the same time, Alpha Phi Mu was established as UTA’s first national African-American sorority.
“Phi Gamma Delta helped form my character and developed me as a leader.”
Most traces of the old social clubs disappeared as they affiliated with national Greek organizations. Sans Souci became a chapter of Alpha Chi Omega in 1969. Les Choisies became Delta Delta Delta. Both sororities are still on campus today.
Jackye Brown Clark was an education major in spring 1970 when she pledged Delta Delta Delta. After its first formal recruitment in 1969, the chapter was about 40 strong. Alpha Chi Omega had around 60 members. “When I arrived at UTA, I didn’t see many ways to get involved and develop a social life,” Clark says. “Joining Tri Delta connected me with a group of women with similar interests, offered so many activities, and helped me become a part of the student community.”
By 1970 there were more than 300 men in fraternities and 200 women in sororities. The largest fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, had about 80 members. Orsen Paxton III, one of the 50-plus members of Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) at the time, remembers thinking that FIJIs set the standard for what real men should be.
“These were men you could look up to and be proud to say you were associated with,” says Paxton ’71, a longtime Arlington attorney. “And as I got into it, Phi Gamma Delta helped form my character and developed me as a leader.”
Despite the initial surge, UT Arlington’s fraternity and sorority life declined in the mid-1990s. Kappa Sigma left campus, as did other established chapters. Other institutions experienced similar drops. At UTA the dynamics of the student population played a major role in the downturn.
“UTA students are busy, so it’s a big decision to commit time and resources to being part of a Greek organization,” says Seth Ressl, director of student activities and organizations. “Our student body is also incredibly diverse. For students who come from other cultures or are first-time college students, they may not have a ready frame of reference for what fraternity and sorority life has to offer.” Multicultural Greek groups, first established on campus in the early 2000s, provide a partial solution. They are values-driven, service-based, and united by cultural interests. UTA students can choose from 10 such organizations.
“Greek life has made me a part of something bigger than myself,” says Brianna Santana, president of Latina-based Sigma Lambda Gamma. “My sorority has given me a voice, allowed me to show my strengths, and given my collegiate life a sense of purpose.”
UT Arlington fraternity and sorority groups had no hub on campus until the early ’90s when administrators developed an area for houses. Today, nine fraternities and sororities call Greek Row home. Alpha Chi Omega member Mikayla Bruer says living in her chapter house offers many advantages.
“It’s nice to be surrounded by my sisters when I come home,” she says. “That kind of support can make all the difference when you’ve had a difficult day.”
Ressl believes Greek Row is a crucial piece of the puzzle for fraternity and sorority life.
“It’s an area that has a lot of meaning and connection for the students who have lived there,” he says. “It’s important for us to continue to support that and to take a look at adding and enhancing these living options.”
In addition to shaping leaders, a thriving Greek system positively impacts the community. Last year UT Arlington fraternity and sorority members raised $100,000 for charity and served 15,000 hours at local and national nonprofit organizations. They also held more than 200 leadership positions in student organizations.
“The personal connections you make as a Greek draw you closer to the campus,” says Kent Justin Brown, National Pan-Hellenic Council president and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. “As a leader I’ve created programs and events that will hopefully leave a lasting impression on campus—and that’s enough reason alone to come back and check on my legacy.”
The University’s Greek community is on the upswing. Membership in the 32 organizations is rising as chapters, including Kappa Sigma, have returned to campus.
“The decision was an easy one,” says Leo Brown, Kappa Sigma’s national director of chapter services. “UTA has seen tremendous growth recently, and when the opportunity arose, we were very excited to return.”
Alumni engagement has increased as well, and reunions are a popular draw. At last year’s FIJI event, more than 100 alumni traveled from across the country to the new chapter house on Greek Row. Such engagement shows how Greek life done right enhances the student experience and creates lifelong loyalty.
“At medium- to larger-sized institutions, membership gives students a sense of family that makes these otherwise vast organizations feel smaller, safer, and more like home,” says Timothy Quinnan, vice president for student affairs.
As a member of Phi Kappa Tau and a student affairs administrator, Dr. Quinnan has experienced the benefits of Greek life both personally and professionally.
“Apart from the bonding aspects, Greek-letter organizations excel at providing continual opportunities for leadership training and community service, not to mention higher standards of achievement. These are exactly the kind of co-curricular experiences we want all students engaged in during college.”
Patrick Kelly would agree.