As an Alpha Kappa Alpha, my Greek life has been about help, not harm | Perspective

Evelyn Sample-Oates with a younger member of Alpha Kappa Alpha at Howard University.

When I was young, I couldn’t wait to go to college and join a sorority. My parents, both college graduates, participated in Greek life while in school.  They often talked about the strong bond and lifelong friendships they developed by being members of the Divine Nine,  the nine historically black Greek letter organizations (BGLOs) that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

My mom, a member of Delta Sigma Theta, reminisced about on-campus parties to raise funds for scholarships and weekly service projects to serve those needing a helping hand. My dad’s stories of how Kappa Alpha Psi raised money for local charities made me want to have that same experience.

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As a college freshman at American University, I was chosen to become a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black Greek letter sorority founded for and by college-educated women in the country.  I knew this would be a commitment that would far outlast my undergraduate days in college.

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A community service trip to South Africa with Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded at Howard University in January 1908 by 16 extraordinary women who wanted to cultivate and encourage high scholastic and ethical standards, promote unity and friendship among college women, study and help alleviate problems concerning girls and women in order to improve their social stature, maintain a progressive interest in college life, and be of “Service to All Mankind.”  Through the years this mission has remained unchanged and guides the members as they give of their time, talent, and treasures to promote AKA.  These basic tenets remain true throughout our lives long after graduation, which is why we have committed ourselves to a lifelong journey of sisterhood and service.

As a member of a medium-size chapter, our relationships were often nurtured by our common desire to help the underserved and underrepresented.  Our chapter, Lambda Zeta chapter, volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House, participated in walk-athons, dance-athons, step shows, and other fun activities to raise funds. When I became president of my chapter, I planned service programs, including adopting a school and tutoring children. My sisters and I found our niche in the Northwest section of Washington.  We grew closer in the name of sisterhood because we worked together to improve the quality of lives for others.

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In addition to performing community service, my sisters and I looked out for and protected one another. We may not have all been the best of friends, but we respected one another and cared for one another. That kinship extended to all members of AKA. When we traveled to other college campuses together, we’d seek out other members who proudly wore the salmon pink and apple green colors.

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Alpha Kappa Alpha members perform in their signature colors at Howard University.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched in horror as stories emerged about deaths, injuries, and sexual assaults tied to fraternities. This is not the kind of community that Greek life is supposed to build. The partying culture that exists in some fraternities and sororities is undeniable and tragic, but it was not the experience I had on campus. We enjoyed one another and took part in harmless activities during our membership intake process, but they were all things to help us grow and develop into strong members.  They taught us invaluable lessons that would stay with us for a lifetime.  Our process brought us closer together and taught us the history of the organization and what real sisterhood looked like.

Joining Alpha Kappa Alpha was one of the most gratifying and best decisions I made in my young life.  I developed a connection that would last a lifetime. After college, our members attend business conferences, lectures, and leadership conferences with others who wear the same bold letters of AKA. In the years since I graduated, I have continued my service and connected with extraordinary members of the sisterhood across the globe.

Older members have mentored me,  developed my skills, and made me a better sorority member as well as a better friend, employee, and human being. I have connected with powerful women who became leaders in their field, including fellow AKAs like Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas), Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.),  Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer, Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad, and American poet Sonia Sanchez.  I have relied upon my sorority sisters to take me in, vouch for my credibility. In turn, I have done the same for younger members.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and its 300,000-plus members will continue to be there for me because I am a member for life. No matter where I go in this world, I know I can always find a sister. I can always find an AKA.

Evelyn Sample-Oates is executive director of external affairs for the School District of Philadelphia. She served on the international board of directors for Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. for eight years as the Centennial North Atlantic regional director and the international regional director.