BLACKSBURG, Va. – A Virginia Tech fraternity has reclaimed its house on campus, four years after being suspended for repeated alcohol violations.
Sigma Phi Epsilon had moved into a $5 million house on Oak Lane for just three weeks when the fraternity was suspended in 2013 and the house became Virginia Tech property. The local chapter of the fraternity's national office made the decision to shut down the fraternity after a reported five-year history of alcoholism and hazing.
When the chapter was disbanded in 2013, all of the members were put on the fraternity's alumni status. After two years of rebuilding relationships with the Blacksburg community, the national chapter and local alumni began the process to reestablish the fraternity on campus. The fraternity is now being restarted with all new members as a new fraternity on campus.
Since the rechartering process began, members have been working to fight an imperfect reputation. The new members of Sigma Phi Epsilon, known as Sig Ep, are working to prove they are able to move forward with a more mature mindset.
"They came in as truly being very different. It's something that people have recognized," says Byron Hughes, the director of fraternity and sorority life. "It's not that they're necessarily different than who was here before, but that they're in a position of thinking about excellence and standards that are much higher for themselves and much higher for what they want to be."
Hughes says the student body undergoes a complete change in students every few years and that change has made a big difference as Sig Ep returns to campus.
"When Sig Ep returned in 2015, there was a significant number of people that had no sense of what was here previously," he says.
Current members of the fraternity, like President Matthew Rowe, say it's a chance to reestablish their own legacy.
"The best part is the reconstruction of values and building a strong foundation from there," says Rowe.
As part of that reconstruction, the fraternity has done away with the traditional pledge model and now focuses on continuous development of members throughout their time at Virginia Tech. Known as the Balanced Man Program, the system focuses on a different challenge for each year in college.
The first challenge, called the Sigma Challenge, is an introduction to college life and what it means to be a part of the Sig Ep fraternity. The Phi Challenge is a chance for members to develop socially and focus on their leadership skills. Brothers in the fraternity find ways to get more involved on campus and in the Blacksburg community through the Epsilon Challenge. As the Brother Mentor Challenge, members start to focus on their legacy of success in the fraternity and preparing for life after college.
Hughes says leaders at Virginia Tech continue to work on how hazing is addressed at the university. With a zero-tolerance policy, Hughes says the focus is avoiding a top down approach to hazing. Instead, he tries to work with students to address the issues they're seeing.
"It's not asking them to just think about it in terms of, 'Do you know policy?' I think if you asked any student out there, 'Do you know what hazing is?' They know exactly what hazing is, that's the reason they choose to do it in private," says Hughes.
Hughes says he often talks with Greek organizations about their values and why bringing in new members and forcing them to do things that could hurt or embarrass them would keep friendships from forming. He says it's important to have conversations about how hazing is counter-productive to the goals that many fraternities and sororities stand for, like excellence and responsibility.
It's a conversation that members of Sig Ep are having as well, as new members continue their journey to be rechartered on campus.
"It's about being a leader in the Greek system and challenging the process," says Rowe. "We see true value in fraternity and sorority life and we want to keep our doors open for all. With that, we've changed and evolved over these years."
Part of that growth includes holding the highest GPA of any Virginia Tech fraternity for four straight semesters, since the fraternity began the rechartering process. Row says they hope to make it a fifth semester this fall.
As the fraternity continues to grow, the university has allowed it to move back into its former house on Oak Lane. Oak Lane is an area of on-campus housing where other fraternity and sorority members live as well. This fall semester marks the first time Sig Ep members have lived in the $5 million house since just weeks after it was built.