Twice as Nice: Secrets of the 2016 Most Distinguished Chapter

The Alpha Rho Mu Chapter at Lone Star College-Tomball in Texas left NerdNation 2015 in San Antonio on top of the world — the small chapter had been named the 2015 Most Distinguished Chapter.

But much work was ahead. The entire officer team was graduating, and the chapter would have to start from scratch.

New officers were in place, and their training was underway. Plans for the Honors in Action Project and College Project were in initial stages.

It would be a long road to NerdNation 2016 in National Harbor, but they would again leave on top. The Alpha Rho Mu Chapter was named the 2016 Most Distinguished Chapter, a title that has been given to a chapter in back-to-back years only three other times.

“It was thrilling, surprising and humbling,” said chapter advisor Dr. Rebecca Tate. “I don’t think our officers expected it. I never expected it.

“We realize the competition is fierce. Phi Theta Kappans are the best of the best, and there are amazing advisors who are much, much more experienced at coaching than I am. So it was very humbling, and everyone was very grateful.”

Building Excellence

The Alpha Rho Mu Chapter has an acceptance rate of about 10 to 15 percent. They induct about 100 students each semester, and they average between 20 and 40 students per meeting.

Engaging prospective members begins at the first orientation — they hold four each semester. A slideshow of photos from the year’s events plays, and Tate provides a list of all four-year colleges in Texas that offer transfer scholarships to Phi Theta Kappa members.

The induction ceremony itself is a way to introduce new members and their families and friends to the benefits of membership, Phi Theta Kappa programs and the chapter’s service projects. Successful Phi Theta Kappa alumni speak about how the organization changed their lives, reaching students on a level they can relate to.

“We have found that the best way to engage members is to give them a significant role in selecting projects,” chapter president Charles Kivlehen said. “When they feel that projects are important, and those projects resonate with their personal interests, you get a lot of motivated and engaged members eager to contribute.”

Extensive scholarship workshops are held throughout the school year. Service projects are selected based on member feedback, so they’re projects the students are inherently interested in.

“They discover there’s more to being a student than a classroom,” Tate said. “What you do outside the classroom is just as important.”

Communication is key: weekly meetings, bulletin boards on campus, extensive emails, member surveys, a website, social media and videos work together to engage members and the entire campus.

“We also have our Most Distinguished Chapter banners displayed in the common area on campus where other students can see them,” Tate said.

Developing Chapter Leaders

Tate and her co-advisor, Dr. William Simcik, identify potential chapter officers in early spring. Interested students shadow current officers, attend meetings and assist with the induction ceremony rehearsal. Once officers are selected, they meet one-on-one with their predecessors.

“Every member of this year’s officer team started out as a provisional member and embraced the ideals of the Society before we had even been inducted,” Kivlehen said. “Phi Theta Kappa brings out the best in members, and we feel that the sooner any given student becomes invested in the Society and the success of the chapter, the greater the benefit for them and for the chapter.”

Two officers — usually the President and the Vice President of Scholarship — are selected to attend Honors Institute along with Tate.

“To me, bringing students to Honors Institute is one of the most important things an advisor can do,” she said. “I feel the success of both 2015 and 2016 are directly related to Honors Institute.”

Tate and the officers attend all general sessions, seminar group meetings and breakout sessions; and in their free time, they find a quiet spot on campus to compare notes and brainstorm about the Honors Study Topic themes and potential research questions.

“Honors Institute really gets them focused on the academics,” she said. “It’s wonderful inspiration for them.”

The officer team will continue to meet throughout the summer as they research the Honors Study Topic and narrow their focus to one of the themes. And, they will begin studying the Hallmark Award rubrics to ensure their projects align with the Hallmark applications.

“The people at Headquarters who created the programming know that the rubrics, which are lists of elements, skills and outcomes that they’re looking for, create meaningful projects,” Tate said.

The Projects

For its Honors in Action Project, Alpha Rho Mu researched frontiers of cancer treatments, concluding that the most promising frontier was Immune Checkpoint Blockade (ICB), a little-known form of immunotherapy available through clinical trials at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC) in Texas and other National Cancer Institutes around the country.

“There’s a real lack of awareness of immunotherapy — people don’t even know to ask about it,” Tate said. “But when it works, it’s a cure.”

The chapter hosted an awareness seminar focusing on this treatment and targeting cancer patients, their families and friends, medical personnel and the public. Dr. James Allison, the discoverer of ICB and the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award and Dr. Padmanee Sharma, oncologist and Scientific Director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MDACC, spoke to more than 400 people at the event.

Clinical trial packets, which included steps for navigating the MDACC website, a list of National Cancer Institute locations across the country where these trials are available, and a pamphlet describing the stages of clinical trials, were made available to all attendees.

The College Project was designed to extend the G3 (GRIT, Growth and Greatness) campus initiative into the community. The goal was to promote future college enrollment and lifelong success, and the focus was on at-risk high school-aged residents of a local foster care facility called Boys and Girls Country.

“Many of the children come from homes in crisis and have at-risk backgrounds,” Tate said. “Because many of these children have never thought about college, we wanted to get them on the college campus in some way.”

Chapter members started with social interactions like regular pizza parties and talked to the students about their college experiences. Next, the students were brought to campus for a study skills seminar and a tour.

A community service aspect was added, where the teens, chapter members, and faculty and administrators from the college worked together to make fleece blankets for residents of an Alzheimer’s care facility.

The final piece was a nine-week tutoring program, half of which took place at Boys and Girls Country and the other half on campus.

“These students went from thinking they couldn’t go to college to thinking they could be in an honor society,” Tate said.

The Takeaway

In the end, the Alpha Rho Mu Chapter doesn’t focus on awards. They prepare early and prepare well, and they choose projects their members, their campus and their community have a vested interest in.

“Keep your focus on what makes Phi Theta Kappa great: meaningful service,” Kivlehen said. “If you put your efforts into the betterment of your colleges and communities, then you will naturally become competitive in the chapter rankings.”

Bonus: Check out NerdNation 2016 through the eyes of the Alpha Rho Mu Chapter, including the moment they were named Most Distinguished Chapter for the second year in a row. Watch the video.

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