The Alpha Epsilon Phi Chapter from Bergen Community College in New Jersey has racked up numerous Hallmark Awards over the last several years, but at PTK Catalyst 2019, it took the top prize: Most Distinguished Chapter.
The chapter erupted at the announcement. It was a gratifying moment for the chapter, as its officer team celebrated its year of work.
“There have been many things that I have dedicated my time to over the course of my academic career and never truly saw the results that our Hallmark work has,” said Luis Sanchez, the chapter’s vice president of communications. “It was not so much the award that made the feeling so great, but the process of bringing such great projects to fruition.”
Read more about the chapter’s Honors in Action and College Projects, how the chapter has grown in more ways than one from its work over the last year, and why it all started with turning a group of officers into a true team.
Creating an Atmosphere of Teamwork
The chapter undertook two significant tasks as their Honors in Action and College Projects, so building teamwork was key. About 25 students serve as chapter officers, and they are divided into five teams that comprise Alpha Epsilon Phi’s executive board.
Officers are elected in the spring, and a comprehensive training is held over the summer that includes various workshops and presentations by alumni and faculty. The training varies each year, depending on the group’s needs and interests or skills they want to hone.
The chapter also incorporates countless team-building activities into the officer training, and the executive board includes social activities during the board meetings throughout the year.
“Overall, I think the most important thing we do with the officers, or at least I hope we do, is to instill a strong sense of purpose,” chapter co-advisor Angie Goldszmidt said. “Serving as a PTK leader is such a unique opportunity to make a positive difference, and that is the focus behind our chapter’s programming and leadership development.”
Chapter officers developed an understanding of each other’s abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, which helped them determine how each person could best contribute to the teams’ projects. They communicated through WhatsApp and other group chats to keep everyone on the same page.
By getting to know each other personally and professionally, officers were able to trust that they could delegate responsibilities effectively.
“Working in a team can be both challenging and rewarding, and thankfully, we all thrived from one another,” chapter president Bryant Gomez said. “All the work and tasks you need to complete are not just done by one person. It takes teamwork to get initiatives and projects done, and making sure each officer feels vital and welcomed is essential in being a good leader.”
The Honors in Action Project
Alpha Epsilon Phi’s Honors in Action Project was a double-blind research study analyzing the cognitive effects of sound and music using electroencephalographic (EEG) brainwave monitoring. The students were interested in how art and entertainment transform mental health and focused on autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, a tingling sensation felt in response to certain sounds.
ASMR media is gaining in popularity as people claim the sounds promote relaxation and reduce anxiety — something many college students could use help with. But, there were only 10 peer-reviewed studies on ASMR available, and those were based primarily on self-reported data. So, the students decided to test these claims by developing their own study.
Team members had to learn how to conduct EEG scans, and they each had to complete special training to be certified by the National Institute of Health to conduct studies on human subjects.
Over a two-month period, the team conducted 86 EEG scans, each lasting about an hour. They worked with STEM faculty, local neurologists, and EEG experts to collect and analyze their data, which they shared through a STEM panel and an article in the school newspaper.
Students will also present their research at a regional conference in May.
“I think the key factor for managing the project as a whole was the passion the officers had throughout the process,” Angie said. “They were determined to explore a natural remedy to a mental health condition that many of them deal with personally, and this is what kept them motivated and on track.”
The College Project
For its College Project, Alpha Epsilon Phi developed a new academic program for students who declared an undecided major. The college was previously using an “Associate of Science in Professional Studies, General” program for undeclared students, but that program was originally designed for students seeking careers in health professions and lacked structure.
As a result, students in the program had low retention and graduation rates. Creating a specific curriculum for undecided students was college administrators’ top priority.
“About half of our officers started at Bergen as undecided students, so this topic was very close to their hearts,” Angie said. “This was extremely meaningful work to them, and they were determined to improve the experience for future generations of students at the college.”
Officers met with administrators, faculty, staff, and other students in the summer to research and analyze different degrees offered at the college. They also looked into programs offered at other two- and four-year colleges.
While they thought they would only provide suggestions, the officers ended up developing a new curriculum for undeclared majors. It was approved by college administrators and a special faculty task force and will impact more than 6,000 students annually.
“Our College Project completely transformed our relationship with the college administration and faculty,” Angie said. “It showcased the importance of student engagement in college policy and leadership and helped our administrators gain a deep appreciation for the PTK students on campus.”
Impact on the Chapter
In recent years, the chapter has doubled the number of students it inducts each semester, to about 300. In the 2018-19 academic year, approximately 400 members participated in community service events, workshops, and projects.
“We would say beyond the shadow of a doubt that our chapter is inclusive, intentional, international, and interested,” co-advisor Win Win Kyi said. “There has been an assertive outreach, such as information sessions, information tables, and a more informative website, to name a few winning strategies.”
She is grateful to the supportive faculty and staff who let chapter officers talk about membership in their classroom. Many professors also refer their brightest students to the PTK office so they can learn more about membership, she said.
Angie added the chapter has seen a different kind of growth as well, through the Honors in Action and College Projects. Both projects were different from what the chapter has done in the past, and they resulted in new skills for team members, an expanded network on campus, and increased awareness among faculty, staff, and students.
These new relationships should help the chapter for years to come as it moves on to new projects and initiatives. A new team of officers will begin training this summer, working to form the same bond that took the 2018-19 officers to the top.
“Once you’ve created friendships, it becomes much easier to bounce ideas off one another and to spend hours together working on the projects,” said Jenna Santacroce, director of communications. “Our chapter consists of some of the most hardworking, dedicated students I’ve ever been lucky enough to know, but the root of our success is our bond. We are a family.”