Skip to main content

Building strong community the right way

| Alan Rieck

UW-Eau Claire faculty and academic staff are distinguished scholars, researchers and award-winners — experts in their respective fields. Whether it's asking new questions, spotting big trends, providing perspective on global issues, or innovating and testing new concepts, our faculty are making a difference in and out of the classroom. Their insights, theories and solutions are impacting the world, the nation, and our local communities. As a member of a campus committee aimed at hazing prevention, Dr. Alan Rieck, chair of the music and theatre arts department, has written the following  piece addressing the ways in which hazing actually negates community building and fellowship among group members.

The beginning of every school year starts with an air of optimism and hope —new professors, new classes, new opportunities to get off on the right foot regardless of how last semester ended. Students returning to school after a summer away are excited about reconnecting with their school life and the many activities that go with being a college students in the 21st century. It's not just reconnecting, however. It is finding that new energized member who will make a difference in the club, group, fraternity, sorority or other student organization for the future.
As students join the campus community, they are seeking a place where they can make those lifelong friends. After all, the friendships of a lifetime have been mostly left behind as classmates have ventured off to different schools in a variety of locations. Being away from the confines of home, parents, expectations and the past allows for potential that has never been consciously known until now. The possibilities that exist on a campus such as ours are tremendous —the challenge lies in finding the organization that is the best match.

A basic need for all humans is the sense of belonging. We all want and need to know that our presence makes a difference. This is one reason that change and transition is so difficult for most people;life changes take us from a degree of comfort in knowing that our associations are meaningful in some way to entire uncertainty regarding where we fit. 
Most of us feel anxious when moving into the unknown, and for some, this is a long-term situation as adjustments and acquaintances are made. Many of these individuals would be tremendous assets to organizations if given the chance to find their niche within the group. The last thing that organizations should want to do at this point is to make things difficult for these potential assets through hazing rituals that do not accomplish their intended purpose.

Belonging is not accomplished through shared common experiences, but through meaningful contribution. Stop and think about the group to which you have felt the deepest belonging — you were an important part of that group because you brought something unique that was needed. When we adopted our youngest son at the age of 8, we were advised by adoption specialists to find a special job in the home that only he would do. If he did not do the job, it did not get done. In this way he gained a sense of importance and contribution to the family which allowed him to develop a sense of belonging. 

That is the way the process works. Athletic teams, musical organizations, theater troupes and dance companies often create a deep sense of community because of the nature of those groups which reinforce the importance of every member’s contribution to the success of the whole.

The process of hazing creates a dynamic difference between the haves and the have-nots, between the established and the new and between the safe and the insecure. Emphasizing the nature of being an outsider does not establish any positive connection for those who already feel segregated by inexperience. The reasoning that “everyone had to go through this experience in order to be a member” fails to address the true nature of belonging. While many organizations have appropriate membership criteria that help to retain the focus of the organization, the strength of any organization is the variety of contributions from a diverse set of individuals focused toward a unified end.

Instead of hazing as a means of distinction, strive to discover the unique contributions that are possible for the individuals who are interested in joining your group. Celebrate the different perspectives and experiences of individuals that may potentially serve to strengthen and challenge your organization. Brainstorm ways to include distinct ideas and strengths offered by individuals. Find a way that new members might be affirmed in their identity so they may feel empowered to contribute to your group. Develop the win-win scenario — one in which the organization and the individual both grow as a result of their association.

Resources on campus for issues of hazing include the anonymous Hazing Report Form and the official hazing policy on campus.