Make My Mistakes Your Opportunity
I’m telling my story for two reasons. First, I believe that many hazing incidents are similar to my experience. For most organizations, hazing plays a minor role in a much larger association and is not comparable to the extreme cases seen on the news. Yet, although it is difficult to identify at the time, hazing of any kind has the potential to be damaging to everyone involved. My story illustrates some of the risks associated with hazing and particularly aims to highlight the repercussions that you might not expect.
The second reason is personal. I still feel ashamed and embarrassed by the incident and its consequences. Although I am comfortable discussing it in the appropriate environment, I often find myself steering conversations away from instances where it could be brought up. I believe that sharing my story will help me move forward constructively, while hopefully enabling those of you involved in hazing or being hazed to think critically about the larger implications it may have.
I focus mainly on my own experience to display the dangers of being on the other side of hazing, but I do not mean for it to detract from the distress that the victim must have felt. At his request, I have had no contact with him since the incident occurred, but I hope he has been able to put it behind him as well. I regret being involved in something that caused him pain.
I arrived at the University for my freshman year excited about all of the new opportunities that college life had to offer. Along with the academic challenges I experienced that first year, I loved getting to know my new classmates, experimenting with a fresh slate of on-campus roles, and cheering on the wildly popular sports teams. The only disappointment was the highly anticipated social life. Like all unaffiliated freshmen guys, my friends and I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights together in dorm rooms, while all of the girls we recently met attended parties hosted by sports teams or fraternities. After a frustrating first semester, we attended a few rush events and decided to pledge.
Our pledge process was typical of most fraternities throughout the country. We had to be available 24/7 to fulfill unpleasant tasks such as cleaning, giving rides, and picking up food orders, excluding daily study hours and any pressing school requirement such as an exam or paper. It felt similar to having a really bad manager at a really bad job except that we were never off the clock.
We were hazed two to three times a month, usually without advanced notice. The standard hazing session would include some combination of eating foul-tasting food mixtures, taking cold showers, having eggs thrown at us, and calisthenics. Our hazing rarely involved alcohol and never involved sexual or physical abuse. Following a “hell week” of intensive hazing sessions, my fellow pledges and I became members of the fraternity.
After pledging, I didn’t think much more about hazing. I didn’t enjoy hazing other kids so I pretty much stayed away from those activities. Still, from my own experience, I found comfort knowing that my fraternity’s hazing was nothing like the few terrible incidents I had seen on the news. By the time I was a senior, I didn’t believe I was at risk of getting caught up in hazing until two fellow fraternity members asked if they could “mess around” with one of the pledges at the house I shared with a few other friends in the fraternity and we agreed.
That night, I was present as Joe (not his real name) was blindfolded with his hands tied together. Two fraternity members fed him a bowl of mustard, milk, pepper, and hot sauce, yelled at him, threw eggs at him, and pushed him to the ground. Afterwards, Joe was told to wash off with a cold water hose in the backyard and change into fresh clothes. He stayed at the house for about an hour afterwards, shooting some hoops with the rest of us. Although that may seem strange, the pledging process is often compartmentalized and it was not unusual for pledges to stay with fraternity members after being hazed.
The following afternoon, I was told that Joe was thinking about quitting and reporting us to the dean. I was stunned and scared. I had seen Joe less than 24 hours before, joking around with us after being hazed, and didn’t understand what Joe was now feeling and why.
Looking back, all of the hazing our fraternity engaged in was childish and foolish, but two aspects made this incident particularly problematic. First, Joe’s hands were tied together. We didn’t usually restrict a person’s movement, but one of my friends made a bad decision. The second was that he was pushed over, making the incident physical, which was not part of the hazing ritual. Most of the fraternity members present, including myself, thought at the time that pushing Joe was particularly over the line, and that’s when we stopped the hazing. Still, it should never have come to that, and I regret that I didn’t check with Joe to see how he was feeling.
Although Joe never gave any indication that he was uncomfortable, he could have suppressed his feelings for any number of reasons including out of fear that older fraternity members might look down on him. The fact that Joe could hide his unhappiness after being hazed highlights another issue with the process. I’m sure that any of us would have stopped Joe from being hazed if we knew what he was feeling but, for a freshman trying to fit in, it’s hard to tell a group of seniors to stop what they are doing.
The next day, Joe reported us to the University for hazing. I didn’t know how to react at first. It was less than two months until graduation and I had never been in any kind of trouble before. I felt that I had been a strong member of the student community, I studied on multiple scholarships, and my dream job was waiting for me after graduation. Suddenly, it felt like everything could come crashing down.
I remember sitting in my car crying for a long time, trying to decide what to do next. My dad was planning to visit the next day, but I knew I couldn’t face him under these circumstances so I drove home to tell my parents in person. I don’t cry often so when I walked unexpectedly into the house crying, my dad expected the worst. He took my situation seriously, but focused on handling it properly. My mom, however, was not as calm. I have rarely seen my mom that upset and it was distinctly painful to know that I was the cause.
When I returned to school on Monday, my friends and I were called before a campus public safety officer. We gave our accounts of the incident and met with the disciplinary dean to review our violations of the student code of conduct. We were told that we would go in front of a committee to decide if we violated the code and then the disciplinary dean would then determine our punishments. The process felt surreal due to the extreme disconnect between what the school viewed as a complete aberration of behavior on our part and what we knew often occurred at our school’s fraternities and sports teams.
A few weeks before graduation, we met with the dean to learn what we were facing. He had decided on one year suspensions for everyone at the house, and two year suspensions for the two members who had led the hazing session. I felt like I had just been hit by a train. It was difficult to comprehend, but even more difficult to grasp the collateral damage that spread to my extended family, friends, and prospective employer. I never believed the fraternity’s practices would lead to anyone getting hurt, yet now we were all hurt. Still, I recognized that Joe was harmed most of all. He shouldn’t have been placed in that situation, and I am sorry for being a part of his traumatic experience.
I regret not only what happened to Joe, but also that I failed to protect any of the younger students who were hazed throughout my time in the fraternity. I have always tried to mentor younger people, yet through my misguided vision of the fraternity, I became an active member of an organization that put younger students at risk.
The experience has changed my life in a number of ways. I developed deeper empathy for individuals in circumstances different from my own, am careful to remove myself from vulnerable situations, and am better able to put life events in perspective. The last lesson, putting events in perspective, was the result of a trying experience for me immediately after the suspension. I was weeks away from celebrating graduation with friends and family but, instead, my graduation was shamefully postponed and I lost the dream job offer that was waiting for me. Still, I eventually realized that every day people deal with much more difficult situations than a temporary suspension from college, so I focused on moving forward.
I hope my story can help demonstrate the painful repercussions hazing can have for all involved. Attempting to qualify hazing through your own experiences or what you see on the news is not a successful way of mitigating the inherent risks and, most importantly, that a person can be physically or emotionally hurt by actions you may perceive to be harmless.