November 22, 2010

Benefits of Honor Societies Questioned

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Cornell offers a large number of honor societies — ranging from organizations that accept students University-wide to societies that focus on a particular field — and students often pine for membership in societies for their networking and employment opportunities. While these organizations perform varied levels of community service and social functions, it is unclear whether they stand up to their stated values or provide any real career advantage.

Rebecca Sparrow, director of Cornell’s Career Services, said she has not heard from employers that they prefer one honor society over another. Rather, employers look for transferable skills and leadership potential that may be gained through membership in different societies, she said.

Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67 questioned honor societies that merely admit students based on grade point average and that fail to have a strong presence on campus.

“In a way they kind of look like a for-profit corporation, and that doesn’t make me to comfortable, actually,” Hubbell said.

A student’s decision of which honor society to join is sometimes simply based on finances, Sparrow said, with some societies asking for dues of more than $80. Students also must decide if membership is actually worthwhile, especially with societies that merely seem to validate academic standing, she said.

“It’s not the membership in the group so much as it’s the accomplishment of a certain level of G.P.A. That’s going to be a positive for the employer whether you’re in a group or not,” Sparrow said.

This skepticism toward honor societies can also be found within the organizations, where students on executive boards and regular members both recognize the need for groups to prove their significance.

“There is a general skepticism between my friends and myself. The burden is on the group to prove it’s a meaningful experience and your money is worth it,” said Rustin Rodewald ‘11, executive vice president of Order of Omega.

Angela Murray ’11 was invited to honor societies at Cornell both her sophomore and junior year, but declined the invitations.

“I wasn’t sure what honor societies would do for me. I didn’t know why people join,” she said. “Is it just something you put on your resume or does it actually do something?”

Honor societies at Cornell can be broken down into four major categories based on admission: all majors, college-specific, field-specific and interest-specific. Societies open to all majors may admit students solely on G.P.A. — such as Golden Key International Honour Society that invites the top 15 percent of each sophomore, junior and senior class — or have a more in-depth selection process, such as Der Hexenkreis Mortar Board Senior Honor Society and Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity.

College-specific honor societies, like Engineering’s Tau Beta Pi and the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Ho-Nun-De-Kah, also admit students based solely on G.P.A., with Arts and Science’s Phi Beta Kappa having the strictest admission requirement. The top three percent of juniors and top seven percent of the senior class –– which equates to G.P.A.’s of about 4.0 and 3.92 respectively — are accepted into Phi Beta Kappa.

Honor societies specific to majors or academic interests introduce even more options, such as sociology’s Alpha Kappa Delta and psychology’s Psi Chi, while interest-specific honor societies recognize, for example, varsity athletes through The Red Key Society or outstanding Greek system members through Order of Omega.

Mike Finn ’11, who is a member of Mortar Board, explained that one of the principal benefits of joining a diverse national organization is the opportunity to meet people whom you would not have necessarily interacted with under other circumstances, which helps build future connections.

“Because we are a real hybrid organization, there are a large number of people I would have never interacted with had I not joined. [Mortar Board has] movers and shakers from all walks of campus that I may not have been really familiar with,” Finn said.

As a whole, the honor societies aim to engage both student members and the outside community through events such as lecture series, partnerships with local organizations, free tutoring and service initiatives.

Der Hexenkreis Mortar Board Senior Honor Society –– founded at Cornell in 1892 –– holds events such as the “Last Lecture,” when notable professors or administrators give a talk as if it were their last at Cornell. The organization also offers scholarships at the local and national level and hold a Benefit Gala to raise money for United Way of Tompkins County.

“A lot of our members have had shared experiences with being leaders in their organizations, in the classroom. Our goal is to bring those people together for the common purpose of working towards a better Cornell while promoting our values,” Mortar Board President Matt Grosshans ’11 said.

Phi Beta Kappa’s Faculty President Prof. Daniel R. Schwarz, English, said that his organization’s main goal is to increase community involvement through colloquiums and scholarships.

Jessica Brockmeyer ’12, Golden Key International Honour Society vice president of community service and president-elect, also elaborated on the organization’s ties with Kaplan, Ithaca Children’s Garden, YMCA and the Red Cross. She said he hopes to provide her membership with leadership opportunities and community involvement.

While honor societies in some capacity give back to the community, some are still criticized as being “resume fillers.”

“The executive board has taken a lot of steps this year to have more social events. [We are] restructuring so people won’t just use it as a resume filler,” said Kaye Kirschner ’11, publicity chair of Ho-Nun-De-Kah.

Rober Brewer ’11, president of Ye Hosts Honorary Society, expressed a similar sentiment, hoping that current initiatives will increase membership activity.

“We hope to increase member involvement by spearheading initiatives more applicable to students and making the organization more social. Furthermore, we hope to become an advocate for a social cause and have events relating to that cause,” Brewer stated in an e-mail.

Many leaders of honor societies said it seems to boil down to how the honor society system on campus provides yet another way for students to meet individuals with similar goals while creating a sense of community, recognizing academic achievement and giving back to the community — putting varied member involvement, campus presence or national involvement aside.

Original Author: Jamie Meyerson