Navigating a pandemic: Success despite COVID-19

By Drew Hopson, Triangle Review

Spring and Fall 2020 were a challenge for all Triangle chapters. COVID-19 changed many aspects of the fraternity, from chapter meetings to Homecoming, and presented obstacles that would stymie even the best of our efforts. However, several Triangle chapters managed to adapt to these new circumstances, and in some cases, even recruit more men this Fall than they had in previous Fall semesters. Among these exceptional stories are those of the Utah, Rose Tech, and Wisconsin chapters.

Spring 2020

For each of these three chapters, COVID-19 brought an early end to the semester (or quarter, in Rose Tech’s case). As Alex Shipe wis19 summarized, the second half of the Spring “had a lot of promises that we just weren’t able to fulfill.” For Wisconsin, those unfulfilled promises included community service and philanthropy events. Utah was forced to extend new member education. Rose Tech, whose quarter was cut short during Spring Break when campus closed, was unable to initiate their new member class. Not only were these traditions postponed, but simple activities such as chapter meetings and Brotherhood events were thrown into confusion as campuses closed and members moved back home.

Preparing for the Fall

Unsurprisingly, Triangles got to work to ensure that their chapters were prepared for the Fall. Rose Tech worked hard to maintain relationships between the members through regular events and informal check-ins. Austin Matuszewski rose19, recruitment chairman, worked to plan recruitment events through the ever-changing information coming from the university. Wisconsin established a Discord to stay in touch over the summer and continue new member education online, but mostly focused their energy planning for Fall recruitment, working with the university to determine what kind of events they could host.

Utah took it a step further. As early as the Spring semester, the chapter realized that their digital approach was inadequate. Zoom and Slack were effective online venues for meetings and information-sharing, but as Spencer Elkington utah18 told me, “You can’t run a social organization entirely off of online meetings.” They revamped their Discord server with a unique underlying philosophy: constructing a “digital fraternity house.” With this in mind, the chapter built a server with public study and discussion rooms, while still maintaining private rooms for chapter business and other member-only needs.

“The philosophy there is, if you were in a fraternity house,” Spencer explained, “you would be able to go into the study hall, the study room, and you’d be able to pop your head in and see what’s up, and just chat with people and study silently…so it’s now become a pretty big part of our culture that, if you’re working on stuff and you want to engage with people, just pop into a room.
Utah’s “fraternity house” has brought together more than just chapter members. Over 300 verified students have participated, logging over 60 days’ worth of time studying, gaming, and hanging out in the public study rooms. They’ve shared over 8,000 messages, and attended three workshops including an alumni panel, professional development pro-gram, and online social. Utah even managed to raise $270 for FIRST Robotics and Reading is Fundamental through a Quiplash tournament! Community continued despite the campus’ closure.

Fall Recruitment

Fall 2020 recruitment did not look promising for many chapters. Conflicting messages from university administrators and waning member engagement made budgeting and planning a gamble at best. As Austin Matuszewski rose19 put it, “That was prob-ably the biggest challenge that I’ve ever taken on in my life. It was a lot of lack of communication from the school…two days before classes started, we got an email that freshmen weren’t allowed over at the house.” Rose’s traditional recruitment events – paintballing, a Top Golf outing – had to be cancelled in the face of university restrictions. They were allowed only one in-person recruitment event apart from a house tour that couldn’t exceed 30 minutes in length, and had to move from an event-based schedule to more individual outreach: one-on-one lunches, grabbing coffee, etc. Matuszewski came to see this as a beneficial shift.

“It almost helped Triangle in a way, because we’ve always tried to have a more personal rush. I was organizing, probably three times a week, what ac-tive should take out different freshmen, and trying to pair up personalities. It was a lot of one-on-one stuff, so you had to make sure the personalities matched.”

Rose’s numbers speak for themselves: the chapter had 21 bids signed this past semester, which would be exceptional even for a regular Fall class.

Wisconsin also entered the Fall semester dispirited, with many members disappointed at being unable to showcase the chapter house and what the group is like when gathered in person. Despite the members’ low spirits, chapter leadership made an effort over the summer that reaped benefits in the Fall, namely, obtaining a more than 3,000-name list of all eligible men from the university, and then following up with those men individually. As Alex noted, “…the Summer in many ways was the demo version of what we ended up doing in the Fall. I don’t know if there is a single person who ended up rushing or getting a bid who we contacted initially during the summer, and I think that was in part because we were still figuring out the system. But once the Fall came around, we definitely knew what we were doing, and were able to follow through on recruitment.”

Lessons Learned

Overcoming the challenges COVID-19 continues to present us has been a massive learning experience. Andrew Falkowski utah18 found that the increasing restrictions made interactions with his Brothers more intentional.

“If you expect to see everyone on a Monday meeting in person, you don’t put forth an effort to try to go out of your way to connect with them, or make sure they’re doing okay, right, because you’re just going to see them on Monday,” he said. “Now, when it’s just sort of an online meeting where someone checks in and you see that their name is in the voice channel. There’s a new step of intentionality that has to be there.”

Wisconsin had similar experiences. Connor Grossnickle wis19 shared, “Not being able to see the guys from out of the house over the last two semes-ters has been tough, but it’s definitely woven even more connected between a lot of the guys… and I think it did help form kind of a new vision for where we want the [chapter] to go.” Alex Shipe agreed.
“The Brothers are realizing that, ‘Hey, we can do this yearly.’ And if we can [recruit this many men] during a COVID semester, imagine what our numbers will be like a year from now…”

Advice to Other Chapters

Spencer Elkington utah18: “…Triangle is, in my opinion, the most uniquely suited organization to succeed right now because the ability to construct and to develop solutions in the face of big issues is at the core of our organization…you need to have a constructive mindset because it is important to going into this thinking ‘this is an opportunity for me to build something fantastic at a time where people really need something fantastic.”

Brevin Lacy rose18: “There are freshmen out there that would like to join Triangle if they knew what it was like, if they knew the family atmosphere. And those guys we’d probably want to join. There’s a lot of good guys that have that F, S, and C, that are willing to join, and would be great additions to the Fraternity. It’s all about just putting in the effort to get them out there. You can’t just put a calendar throughout campus saying ‘Oh, we’re going to have a barbecue on this day, show up if you can’. It’s about texting people. It’s about making those individual connections – it takes more effort, but it’s definitely worth it.”

Austin Matuszewski rose19: “It’s just about having all your members be able to adapt. This is not how many of us wanted it to go, but it was actually one of our most successful rushes we’ve had, even though numbers were down by 30% of kids that went Greek this fall. It’s just about being able to have everyone adapt, that was the most important thing.”

Alex Shipe wis19: “For other chapters I’d say the first thing is proper planning. The second is knowing yourself. Those are probably the two keys to recruitment success. We had plans for if everything was to-tally online and our house was barred up by the CDC, and we had plans for if a miracle vaccine was developed and everything could go back in person super suddenly. We knew it would fall somewhere in be-tween those, so we planned appropriately. The second thing I’d say is know yourself. Obviously there’s a lot of different types of Triangle chapters…I’d say you really, really, really have to show off the best of who you are. But you can’t quit. That’s the one thing you cannot do.”

Connor Grossnickle wis19: “Embrace everything that’s going on. I think that a lot of the problems that we started off with was denying that, you know, this was going to happen. Throughout the summer we adjusted our goals. We knew what to expect, kind of, going into it, what the university’s policies would be…obviously it still changed…but you got to embrace it and kind of move along with it…Heck, I know if we are in person next September we’re probably going to get 20 pledges.”