Buying honor: Is joining an honor society really worth it?**
A typical scenario: You have just finished an elegant meal at the Rat, and as you fold your crumpled copy of The Chronicle you comment to yourself that the black bean and rice burrito was particularly scrumptious today.
You head towards your mailbox. With anticipation you place your key in the hole. Has Mom sent you some goodies for the week? Maybe some long-lost secret love has written you, permanently ending your pathetic Duke dating career. Or what if Public Safety has finally written to demand you pay off that stash of unpaid parking tickets that sits in your glove compartment.
You turn the key and pull out two slips of paper and an envelope. Despite your high ambitions, you look disappointingly at your mail.
But wait! What is this envelope? You open it up to see an invitation to join the latest honor society on campus. Because of your high academic achievement, the letter tells you, you are eligible to join an elite group of scholars. A smile comes across your face as you now have written proof that you are not one of Reynolds Price's dreaded anti-intellectuals, and, most importantly, you have three nifty looking greek letters to place in that last line on your resume.
A myriad of honor societies, some of which have existed for more than 70 years, can be found here at the University. Their enrollment lists read in the hundreds, and it is likely half of the people you are friends with are in one.
What exactly is an honor society, anyway? They have names like Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, Phi Eta Sigma, Pi Sigma Alpha, Sigma Gamma Delta and Golden Key, and there are more than 20 of them on campus.
In their statements of purpose they claim to offer recognition to students who have excelled academically. They also purport to provide opportunities for community service. Many sponsor forums on events ranging from AIDS awareness to peer counseling.
Golden Key, a service- and interaction-oriented society, is one of those that has been active on campus. "We provide recognition for students, then give them the opportunity to provide service to the community," said Trinity junior William Birdthistle, Golden Key president.
Entrance into the societies is usually based on a grade-point average requirement. Students are offered an invitation to join the society and, after paying an entrance fee ranging from $14 to $50 depending on the society, they are initiated into the group.
Phi Eta Sigma is an honor society for freshman who have achieved a 3.5 GPA in their first semester or have a 3.5 cumulative GPA after their second semester. Phi Beta Kappa, the most prestigious and nationally recognized honor society, offers membership to juniors and seniors after an extensive review of a student's academic record, and membership is limited to only 10 percent of the graduating class.
Golden Key offers membership to University juniors and seniors with a 3.5 cumulative GPA or better. The political science undergraduate honor society, Pi Sigma Alpha, invites political science majors with a 3.5 GPA in political science and a 3.3 GPA overall to join its ranks.
Society activities range from community service to holding forums. Phi Eta Sigma attempts to hold one or two major service projects a year. In the last year it has held an essay contest at Broyden Middle School in Durham and a speech contest in the Durham community. It also sponsors an annual scholarship contest, offering three scholarships to Duke undergraduates and graduates.
The political science honor society provides opportunities for political science students to interact with faculty such as student/faculty lunches. It also attempts to act as a majors union for a department that does not have one, said Trinity senior Jennifer McCall, president of Pi Sigma Alpha.
"We try to be an open voice so the political science department can hear students' concerns," McCall said.
Golden Key holds numerous service-oriented events. Among other projects, the group sends volunteers to the Lenox Baker Children's Hospital in Durham, sponsors speeches on campus and runs a substance abuse program where members talk at local high schools about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
The society has six committees that work on promoting AIDS awareness, fostering student/faculty interaction and dealing with other campus-related issues. The society also publishes a career-assistance magazine that includes a listing of U.S. companies and corporations that look to hire Golden Key members, Birdthistle said.
Okay, now you know what they are. To continue the scenario: As you amble down the Bryan Center walkway on your way to the challenging intellectual endeavor that is Human Origins, you ponder on honor societies some more. Are they worth it? Are honor societies just resume-fillers or do people actually participate in sponsored events?
Opinions seem to be mixed.
Many have said that despite the amount of activities Golden Key either sponsors or runs, many students and, surprisingly, many members of the society itself know little about the events. Even fewer participate in them.
Trinity sophomore Kathy Brunner, a member of Golden Key who says the service opportunities were one of the main reasons she joined the society, said she has not even heard of any of its events.
"They have sent me a lot of mail about getting my [membership] certificate framed, but nothing else," Brunner said. "Perhaps if they publicized it more, more people would participate."
"I haven't seen a single Golden Key event," said Trinity junior Rohit Kumar, who worked to bring a chapter of Sigma Gamma Delta honor society to the University. "No one even wants to go to the meetings."
Birdthistle said he recognizes the problem in motivating students to participate and letting them know about the opportunities for service that the society offers.
"Most people at Duke are very involved," he said. "People are so motivated and doing service with other organizations that [Golden Key] is just struggling for a piece of the pie. But as long as we can do anything for the community we are happy."
Engineering senior Todd Prewett, former chapter president of Golden Key, said some of the participation problems have come from the organizational level.
"We haven't held general body meetings," he said. "The people who want to participate have really needed to contact us, rather than us contacting them. I tried to get more information out; unfortunately, the newsletter has had some organizational problems."
Trinity junior Nicole Smith, a chair of Golden Key's major speakers committee last year, said the lack of participation was a fault of both the administration within the society and students who are unwilling to become involved.
"I would go to general body meetings last year that drew maybe 20 to 30 people, 10 or 12 of who were officers," Smith said. "And this is an organization that has something like 400 student memberships."
Carol Lattimore, an assistant dean of Trinity College and the faculty advisor for Golden Key, said most of the society's events are widely publicized. "We always publish a newsletter, announce meetings in The Chronicle, and set up tables in the Bryan Center," she said.
Other honor societies get similar reactions. "I don't quite know what they do, and it might be something good to get involved in," said Trinity sophomore Brian Friedman, a member of Sigma Gamma Delta, "but at least it's something good to put on my resume."
The perception that members of the societies simply buy an extra line to add to their resumes prevails on campus, and it is a problem recognized by many of the societies themselves.
"People get involved [with the societies] for one of two reasons," Prewett said. "One, it gives them the opportunity to give back something to the community, or two, they can put it down on their resume and walk away, and I can't fault them for that."
McCall said she has difficulty getting people to know about the activities sponsored by the political science honor society.
"A lot of people join just to get it on their resume. My biggest frustration [as president of the society] has been how hard it is to get student interest."
Diane Gerler, assistant director of the Pre-Major Advising Center and the faculty advisor for Phi Eta Sigma, sees the role of the societies as more honorary than functional.
"[The society] is not terrifically active," she said. "There are not hundreds of students involved, but the ones who do get involved are very active."
The student inactivity, however, seems to be a problem faced by all of the societies.
"A lot of people think all you do is throw down cash and get [the society] on your resume and walk away," Birdthistle said.
"Anything of this nature is going to be a resume-filler, but if they had interesting events I would do them," said Engineering sophomore and Phi Eta Sigma member Rob Haley. "Whoever is in office has not really organized them."
Another criticism of the societies is the required entrance fee. Many students have questioned the idea that a student has to pay for something that honors them.
"I always thought it was questionable to honor a person based on merit, and then ask them to send in a check," said Trinity sophomore Brett Foster, who has turned down invitations to join honor societies.
Foster, however, was willing to pay the $28 fee to join Sigma Gamma Delta, the newest honor society on campus. "Because it is new and growing," he said, "it has a chance to try and be different from the others."
"I can understand $14 fees, but $50?" said Brunner, a member of Golden Key, whose entrance fee is one of the highest on campus. "It's kind of ridiculous that the fee is so high and I don't even hear from them."
Honor societies, which are not eligible for Duke Student Government funding because they have a selective membership, depend on the entrance fees for their programming, Prewett said.
"The $50 is our only funding," Birdthistle said. "Most of the programs need a significant initial outlay, but for the people who do become involved there are quite a few paybacks."
The $14 fee required to join Phi Eta Sigma is divided between both the national and the local chapters, and the money is used to pay for scholarships and the initiation banquet each spring semester, said Trinity sophomore Eric Dahmer, president of Phi Eta Sigma.
It was this dissatisfaction with expensive initiation fees and the apparent lack of participation in the societies that led Trinity sophomores Rohit Kumar and Jed Silversmith to form a new honor society on campus.
Working with Gerald Wilson, senior associate dean of Trinity College, the two were able to gain recognition for Sigma Gamma Delta National Honor Society from DSG, and sent out membership invitations to students with a 3.25 cumulative GPA or higher.
"I was basically unsatisfied with the existing societies," Kumar said. "It was essentially that you were just buying something for your transcript."
Kumar sees the role of Sigma Gamma Delta as promoting interaction between honors students.
"There really are no events that do that right now," he said. "I want to see the members interact in the context that they are all honors students."
In order to encourage the interaction, the society plans to hold social as well as intellectual events.
"I hope to have faculty/student lunches and the such," he said, "but I also want to hold picnics for the members, take them all bowling and do socially interactive things."
Despite Kumar's hopes, however, some students said they still do not know what the society will do, and many of the soon-to-be initiated members see the society as just another thing to put on their resumes.
"I honestly don't know what it is it does," said Trinity sophomore Mark Paskar, a member of Sigma Gamma Delta.
"I really haven't heard anything about events," said Haley, another recently invited member.
A second typical scenario: You made it from your mailbox to Human Origins and the complexity of today's crossword puzzle is beginning to wreak havoc with your mind. Your professor is babbling incessantly about australopithecine africanus, and quite frankly the snoring from the person next to you is beginning to grate on your nerves.
You begin to wonder if these honor societies really help all that much on your resume. As you are trying to get a job with a highly reputed law firm on Long Island (or maybe somewhere in New Jersey--this is Duke, after all), you think this honor society might actually be a valuable addition to your already sparkling perfect resume. So who do you go to for help?
John Noble, director of the Career Development Center, said he believes that honor societies can indeed add something to a student's resume, but cautions about putting too much faith in them.
"Frankly, anything that says you did well is going to be important," he said. "However, many employers are not going to know what [the society] is . . . if it says `honor' they will assume it means something, but mostly they will look at a student's GPA."
"You have to wonder," he said, "if you are paying dues, what kind of honor is that? In all honesty, you could have an honor society for people with a GPA of 3.0 or lower."
He said he does believe that some of the societies can be helpful, but in ways other than as a resume filler.
"I wouldn't do it just for the resume," he said. "If I got benefits like a directory of fellow members or employers, something that would help me later on, I would do it. Some of the societies, like Golden Key, do offer benefits. And the fact is if you pay your dues to be Phi Beta Kappa, after you graduateÉyou are still Phi Beta Kappa, no one can take that away from you."
Employers share different opinions about the importance of the societies on a student's resume.
Warner Coffman, the senior professional recruiter for The Principal Financial Group, said the societies are important but that his company still takes the whole picture into account.
"With the supporting information of the transcript," he said, "there really is not a great deal of worry that [honor society members] have just pumped up their resumes."
Bill Dittmore, the director of recruitment and college relations for General Mills, Inc., said that there are certain honor societies his company tries to target.
"If a resume runs across my desk with Golden Key on it, I certainly will look at it," he said. General Mills, along with Coffman's company, is one of 125 companies that targets Golden Key members and is listed in a bulletin sent to members of the society.
Dwayne Johnson, a former recruiter for the Southern Research Institute, whose company is also listed in the bulletin, does not see the societies as playing much of a roll at all.
"It was something that I would take note of but it honestly wasn't that big of a deal," he said. "It is a more of an advantage for [the employer] because many societies publish a book with our name in it--it puts our name out to a select group of employees."
"The truth is," he said, "We look primarily at grades, degrees and job history. If a student has a 3.9 and is in an honor society, he is really no better than a student with a 3.9 elsewhere."
The final typical scenario for the day: Your mind stuffed to its capacity with useless facts about your distant ancestors, you leave the Social Sciences building a new person. Perhaps honor societies matter, or perhaps they are simply a nifty addition to your resume, but hey, at least proconsul major didn't get an invitation to join one.
Matt Frampton is a Trinity sophomore and assistant University editor of The Chronicle.