Hazing Prevention in Culturally Based Fraternities and Sororities

Host: Hello and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators Risk Management Podcast. Today’s podcast, Hazing and Hazing Prevention, is hosted by Justin Kollinger, Senior Risk Management consultant at United Educators. A reminder to listeners that you can find other UE podcasts, as well as UE risk management resources, on our website, Our podcasts are also available on Apple Podcast and Spotify. Now here’s Justin.

Justin Kollinger: Hazing and hazing prevention are not new topics, but they’ve received increased attention in the last few years after several hazing news stories and deaths and the implementation of Collins Law in Ohio, a set of hazing prevention compliance requirements. Hazing is a cultural activity that reflects the customs and shared experiences of an organization and its people.

As a result, the effectiveness of different hazing prevention tactics vary by the type of organization, which is why I’m very happy today to be talking with Michelle Guobadia, an expert in culturally based fraternities and sororities. Michelle Guobadia is the speaker on fraternity and sorority life for the Catalyst Agency and the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she oversees 43 fraternities and sororities. She has delivered talks to fraternities, sororities, and offices of fraternity and sorority life at numerous UE member institutions. Michelle is also an active member of the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors. Michelle, I’m looking forward to our conversation. Thanks for joining us.

Michelle Guobadia: Thanks for having me.

Kollinger: Michelle, we’re going to be talking about culturally based fraternities and sororities. I’d like to make sure that our listeners are on the same page as us. How do you define that phrase, culturally based fraternities and sororities?

Guobadia: Absolutely. All organizations are diverse. The men and women who join the organizations that come from all walks of life, different backgrounds, creeds, and cultures. However, culturally based fraternities and sororities are rooted in a particular culture for their service and their philanthropy and their mission of their organizations. So to say a group doesn’t have culture is a misnomer. What we’re talking about is the service and the philanthropy they do is directly impacting a certain culture. For example, I belong to an African American sorority. All of our philanthropy and service events go towards helping African American women specifically, and first and foremost. Of course, that means we help all parts of society, but our mission is derived directly into helping African American people and women.

Kollinger: In my experience, a lot of campus hazing prevention starts from an assumption that everyone is agreeing that hazing is bad, and if we just keep telling students that it’s bad, hazing will eventually stop. Perhaps there’s some truth to that approach, but it’s insufficient by itself. To truly stop hazing, I like to start from the assumption that from a student’s perspective, hazing is serving a certain role and we won’t have much of an impact until we understand that student perspective. Now, recognizing that the question I’m about to ask you is one you could probably write an entire book about, but I do think that this is critical. Why do students haze in general, and then what similarities or differences exist for the why behind hazing in culturally based fraternities and sororities?

Guobadia: I think in general, there’s definitely a power dynamic, correct? The newbies as opposed to the people who are already here, and they need to prove themselves worthy to be in our organization, whatever that looks like. I think some of it is literally for jokes and laughs and, “Let’s embarrass them a little bit and it’ll bond the group together and they’ll be faithful and honor the organization for life.” I think some other hazing is definitely more of, “Let’s see who can make it, and those are the people we want because those people will be steadfast in their loyalty to the organization.” However, in culturally based fraternities and sororities, what we find is this other element, and this is going to sound a little bit weird, but it’s a little bit about protection, and it’s a little bit about not only protecting the organization, but protecting the person.

Let me elaborate. In a lot of culturally based organizations, being “made” or being “made right” or having gone through some process that is not exactly aligned with the national policies and procedures, lets other people in the organization know that you are worthy to wear the letters, that someone has seen you, someone has laid hands on you, you’ve gone through the gauntlet of becoming a member and you are now a made member or a good member, and you can have all the rights and privileges that come with it, written and unwritten. And that protects you. When you go to other campuses and you meet other chapters, knowing that you’re a good person or a made person in the organization is protection. I have seen it go completely wrong when someone who wasn’t considered “made” or someone who went through a process get assaulted on another campus or ostracized or kept out of fraternity and sorority events and happenings on a campus because people said they weren’t good, they’re not worthy to be here, they’re paper. They just signed paperwork to get into the organization.

So it’s really a way of protection, like, “Let me make sure you go through all these crazy things in this hazing process.” Which they don’t call hazing, of course, but at least it’ll let other people know that you’re worthy to be here. So it’s a way of protection. The other protection is culturally based groups, on average, are not huge, particularly at predominantly white institutions. So they want to know that the people that they bring into our organizations need to be able to literally go through the fire to make sure our organization will stay here. This is not a fly-by-night joining, this is not an organization you join Monday and leave Friday, this is for life.

So they really want to test the people that are coming in and know that they will be, not only loyal, but they will have the organization so ingrained in who they are and what they went through to get here that they’ll see that nothing happens to the organization, which is a really crazy way of looking at membership, but I can see as that is the way that, particularly smaller organizations, are looking for only the strongest to be in the organization to make sure the organization actually lasts.

Kollinger: I think that that’s a really interesting difference from other types of student organization. There’s that external pressure there, which I think can be unique, and I think that that’s a really important thing to recognize. Now, for better or worse, I think most people picture white fraternities and sororities when they’re thinking about hazing. And as a result, hazing prevention programming will often speak to the kinds of hazing that is common in those cultural settings, which can be to the detriment or exclusion of other culturally based groups. What does hazing look like in culturally based fraternities and sororities?

Guobadia: You make a really valid point with that. It does look different and it’s also presented really different and speakers or workshops that come to institutions, being culturally competent is really huge when talking to the entire community or you miss out on what half of the audience’s experience actually is. I think in culturally based organizations, you’re going to see more of that physical hazing, calisthenics, and conditioning. You’re going to see that type of conditioning as a punishment for not knowing information, knowing the history of the organization, knowing the history and lineage of everyone who’s come through that chapter, knowing obscure information that national organizations don’t necessarily teach anymore about the organization, which is also a sign that you’ve been made the right way because you know stuff that we don’t necessarily teach anymore. So lots of repetition, lots of memorization, and lots of showing honor and respect to people who are older in the organization, the term of deference and having deference to older members, of “prophytes” and alumni, knowing their information.

So you’re seeing a lot of memorization, you’re seeing a lot of physical work that they’re doing, and you’re seeing a lot of intimidation, mind games, particularly with sororities where older members of the organization, alumni threatening like, “Hey, this alumni is going to come see you tonight. You better know all of their information.” So a lot of holding of info that is literally passed down to the organizations in hopes of bonding them, the pledge class, the line, as a lot of culturally based groups call it, and those are the techniques that you’re going to see more. You’re not going to see alcohol, you’re not going to see drugs. In fact, those things are usually banned from the process. You’re not to partake in alcohol, in drugs, in anything that makes even a sandwich taste good, I’ve seen that, that you live a more clean life. You can’t take elevators, you can’t take vehicles if it’s not yours, things that make you have to walk more or physically are a little bit more draining to you or things that you’re going to see as well.

You’re also going to see this veil of secrecy. That’s why a lot of times, hazing cases don’t necessarily come to light in the culturally based organizations until someone gets seriously hurt and then law enforcement or the police or hospitals are involved. This veil of secrecy is thick, and no one is trying to violate it because people really want to be in these organizations, so they’re going to keep their mouth shut, they’re not going to tell on each other until it becomes so extreme, or someone literally walks away and decides to tell someone. So that veil of secrecy is really hard to permeate in culturally based groups.

Kollinger: It’s fascinating to hear you mention these different types of hazing because there is that spectrum of hazing that ranges from intimidation and harassment all the way up to violence, but they’re manifesting. All of these different stages are manifesting in culturally based fraternities and sororities, but perhaps in different ways than other types of fraternities and sororities. Is that fair to say?

Guobadia: I would absolutely say that is fair. For instance, paddling. We’ve seen paddling in movies like Old School and Animal House, and that was usually for fun and joking and we got hit, but in culturally based groups, you’re going to see that as really a test of manhood, you’re going to see that as a test of people’s strength, you’re going to see that as a form of punishment when people don’t know information. No one’s laughing when that’s going on, and it’s not something that they swing around, no pun intended, just because. I think you’re going to see that manifestation look very, very different in the way they’re using those punishments to get the results that they think that they actually get in the end.

Kollinger: So we’ve talked about the why and the what of hazing for culturally based fraternities and sororities. Now I’d like to turn toward prevention. What do colleges and universities need to do differently or in addition to campus-wide hazing prevention programming to better reach their culturally based fraternities and sororities?

Guobadia: I think first and foremost, you have to speak the language. Many times when I go on campuses and I speak to students, particularly students who have gotten investigated for hazing or have come up on hazing cases, they say to me, “I didn’t know what we were doing was hazing.” Right? “They weren’t making me drink, they weren’t making me do the other things that you see in stereotypical hazing.” Right? “I didn’t know it was hazing. They wanted me to learn about the history of the organization. I wanted to learn about the history of the organization. They said it was important that I knew every person who came into our organization for the last 50 years. I thought that was important. I thought being able to memorize that and spit that at a drop of a dime was OK. The sleep deprivation because we were practicing it, we were practicing for our show. I didn’t think that was hazing.”

So this whole concept of time, place, and manner and speaking that language has to be very clear what is appropriate, being very clear on what is sanctioned by the national and local organization and what is actually appropriate, what is actually folklore and what is actually passed down, what makes you a financial and active member in the organization, understanding the roles of advisors, who is allowed to be there at new member education, at what time, who is certified to be in that space, in that room. A lot of new members don’t even know that there are caveats to that, that you have to be trained to be an advisor, that you have to be trained to be at new member education, and they just thought, “Hey, we were just seeing alumni from five, 10, 15 years ago.” And knowing that the alumni have a lot of influence on that.

So changing the language on how we speak to potential new members about what hazing looks like regardless of what organization you join is really important. I think secondly, we need to talk about certain things shouldn’t be secrets. Yes, the ritual of our organization is a secret, yes, there’s esoteric information, but you having to do errands for everyone in the chapter all hours of the day and night is not a secret, that is inappropriate, and knowing the difference between that and knowing when to report that. I think more and more, we find members in the organization who don’t want to go along with what the chapter deems as a tradition, but they don’t really know where the outlet is to let someone know that. They don’t want to see their chapter close, but they want to see the behavior stopped before somebody gets hurt. So I think a lot of that language change is a big part of it and educating members before they’re even thinking about joining our organizations across the board.

Kollinger: So you just mentioned training for students and training for advisors who are involved with culturally based fraternities and sororities. One of the things you’ve also mentioned is the language from alumni and how alumni are influencing students who are currently active in the organizations. Is there a role for colleges and universities to also be communicating to alumni about the expectations for what it is to be a student in one of these organizations today?

Guobadia: I don’t know if the universities have a responsibility to educate alumni, particularly fraternity and sorority members. I would say if you do it for one council, you’re doing it for all. So whatever information that you’re sending out to your alumni about, “Hey, please interact with our students in meaningful and appropriate ways,” I think that’s a good message. I don’t think we need to isolate any council or different groups out, but I think that ongoing communication of, “Here’s what’s going on on campus, here’s the training that students are getting, here’s how you can be a part of it, here’s how you can give back to our office so we continue to do trainings like this,” I think that is all appropriate.

I like to communicate through my advisors. Those are the people who are sanctioned by the organization to be in charge of the chapter from a national or local standpoint. I like to communicate through them as the university and tell them, “Hey, it’s really important that you have appropriate alumni who come and engage with the organization. Please make sure all certifications are in place, particularly around membership intake and new member education that your organization deems appropriate. And if you need our help in communicating that or being a part of that, please let us know." I think that is our vehicle in which we can really communicate with alumni who still want to be involved in this way, make sure that’s appropriate and meaningful.

Kollinger: And then the other thing that you mentioned, you’ve talked a lot about language and speaking the language of the students who are in these organizations. I recall a story about a Latin American international student group that was found to have hazed some of their students in the organization, but when they were presented with the student disciplinary procedures, they were unaware that they were hazing because back where they had grown up, that wasn’t a part of the language. So when you’re talking about language, how can language vary between different cultures in different culturally based student organizations?

Guobadia: Absolutely. I think that’s also a really great point. I’ll use corporal punishment. Those of us who are children of immigrants, I, myself, both of my parents are immigrants, corporal punishment was something my parents used growing up, for better or for worse. So I’ll use my own experience as someone who experienced hazing. When that physical component of hazing came around, I didn’t really mind. I mean, it wasn’t fun and I wasn’t enjoying myself, but my parents used to strike me when I misbehaved growing up, so that wasn’t a foreign concept to me, and I didn’t necessarily put that in the category of hazing because I had grown up with some of that, and my parents are both from other countries, and that was the norm of how you rear children, so I can see that. So what is paddling? What is servitude, right? Servitude, in some areas, can just be showing honor and respect, bringing people food, bringing people drink, getting up for someone else to sit down who’s older than you, and showing that.

But that also can be hazing if put in the right face where all of a sudden you’re in a place of servitude. So being able to use the language like, “New members or potential new members should not be acting in a way where they’re catering to being servants, to having to give all due respect to people they’ve just met who are engaged in the process that’s not part of the national protocol of the organization.” I think we have to be really clear about that, recognize that culture does play a role in some of those things. Some it may be calisthenics and working out, and some people come where working out is really important. So knowing that working out is part of the process, someone might not even bat an eye on that, but are we working out at two o’clock in the morning? Are we doing pushups until people pass out? Are people throwing up? Is that appropriate? Is this even aligned with the national organization or mission? So that language and really understanding the nuances in culture.

Also in respect. Respect, when we look at what does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a woman, and how you show that respect, how you earn that respect, going through certain gauntlet and having that part of the culture, that could be very real for people as just rites of passage that they are familiar with in their own culture. But again, rites of passage can take a very wrong turn when it is no longer in the prescription of the organization, and people are just making stuff up just to see if people can make it.

Kollinger: I really love that phrase, rites of passage can take a wrong turn. I think that that’s so applicable here. At many colleges and universities, hazing prevention is managed by either student affairs or the office of fraternity and sorority life, or perhaps even athletics. Our Prevention and Protection podcast listeners are often from the risk management or business office teams. So from your perspective, how can colleagues across campus, including risk management, help with hazing prevention in culturally based fraternities and sororities?

Guobadia: Specifically to your audience, I would say learn as much as possible. Go engage with your Fraternity and Sorority Life colleagues, your athletic colleagues, your marching band colleagues, and understand what the culture is like today. I became a member 23 years ago. The culture is different. While there’s still some things, unfortunately, that prevail in our culture, students are very different, and what they will do or not do or what they will tolerate and not tolerate is very different. So going and engaging with your colleagues and just learning about today’s students, what their wants and needs are, what are the kind of cases that they’re seeing on campus, how have they changed, what has been the evolution of those types of cases in the last couple of years will be very eye-opening. Also reading materials, either from your company or articles on what that looks like in society, what is the appetite for that?

We still see hazing in military, we’ll still see it in professional sports, and it’s interesting when parts of society are still OK with that and then wonder why students will engage in similar behavior. So I think it’s really important to look at how society is viewing those things. I had a parent call me a couple of weeks ago and he said something to me and he’s like, “Well, I don’t understand how this is hazing, because when I was in school, that was nothing.” And I had to explain to him like, “Sir, there’s been an evolution. There’s been an evolution in definition, in students and what the university will or will not allow on their campuses.” So again, getting familiar with that. I think lastly, seeing themselves as a partner. When there’s National Hazing Prevention Week or hazing prevention or workshops, offering services from the office, how can we be most helpful? How can we collaborate?

There’s not an office on any campus who’s going to deny any money. So if the risk office has some money for education and workshops, we’re always going to take that. But being a partner in it, I don’t want anyone in a risk management office or position to just wait for risks to come to them. How can they be proactive in partnering with their colleagues across campus in knowing, in education and in doing what needs to be done to really keep the campus and our students safe?

Kollinger: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you wanted to make sure that we mentioned?

Guobadia: I think it’s important for all of to recognize that many culturally based groups, not all but many, are relatively new. So a lot of our culturally based groups, especially emerging ones in the last 20 years, are literally flying the plane while they’re building it. So they don’t have all the answers and they don’t have their hands wrapped around all the issues of our organizations just yet. And even those of our organizations who’ve been around 100 years, we’ve ignored a lot of things for a lot of years due to liability concerns and things of that nature, and we’re playing catch up with some of our risk management policies and how we go about training students and advisors and alumni. So we’re always looking for patience, but know that you may be dealing with groups that are very young, where leadership is really young, where this was acceptable in their organization two or three years ago, and now it’s not, and they’re having a hard time changing culture.

And you could also be dealing with organizations that, again, are over a hundred years old, but their members can’t let go of what they deem as tradition. And that’s something really different. I tell people many times, culturally based groups are inverted where the largest population is the undergraduates, not the alumni. So they’re literally being ran by younger people. And then there are other organizations where the largest population is the alumni, and there’s very little education and time and resources put into the undergrads. So depending on the type of culturally based group you’re working with, that can look vastly different in education and how the organization approaches really working with the students and working with the universities and making sure prevention happens.

Kollinger: Michelle, this has been a great conversation so far. If our listeners would like to learn more about your work, where can they find you?

Guobadia: We are always happy to talk to anyone who wants to hang out with me because I don’t like to hang out with myself all the time, but I work for the Catalyst Agency, and you can find us at, and then my day job is here at UNC Charlotte. I’m happy to engage with any of my colleagues across the country if they just have questions, comments, concerns, or want to bounce some ideas off of each other.

Kollinger: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it, Michelle.

Guobadia: Thanks for having me. You guys have a great day.

Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection Podcast. For additional episodes and other risk management resources, please visit our website at


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