By Justine Parkinson | Photos Supplied
Plattsburgh has been a proud college town since the Plattsburgh State Normal and Training School welcomed its first students more than 130 years ago. City residents often mark time by when “college is gone” and “college is back.” With close to 4,500 students, the occupied campus swells the city population by over twenty percent.
During their college years, many students are drawn to fraternities or sororities, organizations that are as old as higher education itself. (Fun fact: One of the oldest fraternities in North America is Phi Beta Kappa founded in 1775 at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.)
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Allison Swick- Duttine, Director of Fraternity & Sorority Life at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Originally from West Virginia, Swick-Duttine, graduated from Marshall University in her home state. As an undergraduate she majored in Magazine Journalism and joined a sorority. “As a member of Tri Sigma, I grew in leadership,” she offered. “When it came time to graduate; I was torn. Did I really see myself in that profession, or did I want to do something closer to what I thoroughly enjoyed – working in higher ed?”
Swick-Duttine doubled down, went on to graduate school at Marshall to earn a Master’s degree in Student Affairs. Her first professional job was at SUNY Plattsburgh.
In her capacity she advises campus fraternities and sororities, two governance councils and three honor societies. In addition, she coordinates values-driven programming and training; oversees the strategic direction of the fraternal community; maintains organizational records and statistics; publicizes the work of the fraternity and sorority community; works with faculty, staff and alumni advisors and international staff and volunteers; and provides additional support to organizations as needed.
Swick-Duttine is the former national vice president of Tri-Sigma and Director Emeritus for the Hazing Prevention Network and the Northeast Greek Leadership Association. She served two terms as the president of the SUNY Fraternity/ Sorority Advisors Association and as editor for the Association of Fraternity & Sorority Advisors Perspective magazine. She is the recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in the Profession, the Robert H. Schaffer Award and a Sue Kraft Fussell Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Fraternity/ Sorority Advisors. In addition, she was named an Anti- Hazing Hero by HazingPrevention.org.
To say Sewick-Duttine is abundantly qualified would be an understatement. Her expertise inspires the students she works with to find ways to connect to our community. Their efforts include everything from awareness walks, to the campus thrift shop that is run out of Banks Hall. The shop collects, inventories and sells student donations, and is run almost entirely by the sorority and fraternity students.
Swick-Duttine’s passion and leadership are behind the efforts of a variety of community service projects organized through Project HELP, which strive to meet the needs of the community while providing students with opportunities to volunteer in areas of their interest. Students have rewarding experiences, gain insight into societal issues, have fun, and also build strong relationships with community members and other students.
For Swick-Duttine, the driving principles she looks to instill in students are friendship, scholarship, leadership, and service. And if you live, work or visit Plattsburgh, you’ve likely seen the fruits of her labor. Recently students participated with community volunteers in the United Way of the Adirondack Region’s annual Day of Caring. Volunteers donated their time to non-profit organizations; residential areas; street, highway and park clean ups, and food drives.
While Swick-Duttine was quick to explain that Project HELP is open to everyone on campus, the opportunities for community stewardship lend themselves well to the founding principles of fraternity/sorority life.
Maintaining statistics detailing student and organization involvement, takes the concept of abstract value, puts it into concrete benefit to the campus and community, and holds the students accountable. Sewick-Duttine’s optimism isn’t blind. It’s backed up by her numbers and national research. “Our fraternities and sororities did just shy of 11,600 hours of service this academic year and raised a little over $39,000 collectively for charitable organizations.” Fraternity and sorority students also have an academic expectation to carry a full-time course load (at least 12 credits) and earn a GPA of at least 2.5.
The merits of professional networking through participation in fraternal organizations are indisputable, but can be a tough sell to a generation, that in large part through the world wide web, feels connected while being virtually isolated. “We offer students the opportunity to participate as a group in a shared value-based organization and it’s working,” Swick-Duttine emphasized.
Popular culture has long embraced the benefits of community stewardship. Adages of “It takes a village” are more than just a pithy quote. They are meant to empower us to be active in our community and embrace the idea that we are indeed, better together. We have similar professional organizations and networks from Kiwanis to Lions, Knights of Columbus, and Rotary — all groups that share a value, or a charitable cause and come together to serve their communities.
The SUNY Plattsburgh campus is quiet right now, but when the students return in August, they, along with Swick-Duttine who is celebrating her 25th anniversary at the university, will pick up where they left off. While each organization in the Center for Student Involvement has a different mission statement which appeals to a different area of the student population, they all share a commitment to make the campus and the city, a little better than they found it.
Swick-Duttine shared, “My hope is that the service they offer to the community impacts them in such a positive way that they want to continue to do it once they graduate. Not because it’s a requirement of an organization they belong to, but because it has become part of the fabric of who they are.”
The term Greek Life was used for generations to describe campus fraternities and sororities, but the term has fallen out of favor. SB asked Allison Swick-Duttine about the change.
“SUNY Plattsburgh no longer uses the term Greek Life for a couple reasons. Not all fraternal organizations use Greek letters and the core purpose of the organizations really doesn’t have anything to do with Greek culture. We also don’t use it because it is confusing to families and potential members who have never encountered the concept of a fraternity or sorority. During orientation, a lot of people used to think you had to be of Greek descent or had to speak the Greek language to get involved. And so, for those reasons, we switched to the term Fraternity & Sorority Life and use the terms fraternities/sororities, fraternal organizations or the abbreviation “FS Life”.
The Hechinger Report* which published Gallup Poll results in April of 2021 found that students who participate in a fraternal organization “…were more likely to say they formed relationships with mentors & professors, were extremely active in extracurricular activities and were more active in internships. Further, more than half of the alumni reported that they had a job immediately after graduation or within two months of graduating, as opposed to 36% of unaffiliated students. But perhaps most compelling- students who joined fraternities or sororities reported “feeling more engaged with their current job and more satisfied with their lives.”
*The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit newsroom covering issues of inequality and innovation in education from the earliest years through college and career.