Another article from the UP Forum about Phi Kappa Mu’s service activities as well as other UP fraternities who share the same ideal.

Brothers as keepers: Fraternities as service organizations
Alicor L. Panao

When not doing the rounds in the hospital, members of a medical fraternity in UP Manila spend their free time building wheelchairs for poor people with disabilities. Somewhere in UP Diliman, a business fraternity teaches basic stock market analysis and gives free entrepreneurship seminars to students. Meanwhile, in one of Gawad Kalinga’s adopted sites, more than a hundred fraternity members from around twelve different fraternities join hands together to build houses for the poor.

These rarely find their way into the newspaper pages. But these young men are out to show that the negative image in the public is not all there is to fraternities.

“It’s quite unfortunate that people seem to always equate fraternities with violence when in fact some of these organizations have been doing a lot of good things for a long time,” says Roland Joseph Tan, a senior at the UP College of Medicine and superior exemplar of the Phi Kappa Mu fraternity. Phi is one of the two recognized medical fraternities in the UP College of Medicine (the other is Mu Sigma Phi). Tan and his brothers at Phi spend their time putting together hundreds of wheelchairs that they distribute for free to persons with disabilities. The program started soon after US-based Phi alumni forged a partnership with the Free Wheelchair Mission, a US non-profit Christian organization that gives out free wheelchairs to poor people in various countries. Phi receives the wheelchair parts in bulk, coordinates with the customs bureau to facilitate their shipment, assembles them, then distributes them to beneficiaries through social service institutions such as the Manila City government, the Philippine National Red Cross, the Philippine College of Surgeons, non-government organizations, hospitals and charity houses. “If everything turns out fine, we plan to do this as a continuing project,” Tan says.

But wheelchair distribution is only one of the activities that have been keeping these future physicians busy. Through its service arm, Pagkalinga sa Kalusugan ng Mamamayan (Pagkalma), the frat members and alumni volunteer time, effort and resources in medical missions and community assistance projects in far flung communities all over the country. They have also been doing volunteer service to programs like the annual “Operation Gift of Smile” in Palawan. Volunteer doctors do free surgery to children with cleft lip and palate problems, as well as in a number of livelihood and community projects in other provinces. At the PGH where Phi residents do internships, they sponsor the Operating Room Assistance (Opera) program which provides antibiotics and other surgical materials to social service patients who cannot afford the fixed P1,500 pre-operation expense that even indigent patients must pay.

Service organizations
But Phi is not the only fraternity getting its hands dirty, so to speak.

A few months ago, about a hundred members from eleven UP-based fraternities picked shovels and built homes for the poor beneficiaries of the Gawad Kalinga (GK) Iskolar ng Bayan Village in Quezon City.

Gawad Kalinga (GK), a community development foundation originally started by members of a Catholic lay community (Couples for Christ), helps the poor regain not only their faith in God but their self-worth by encouraging them to literally rebuild their houses as the first step in becoming self-sufficient. GK, however, is not a charity organization and does not do dole-outs. Beneficiaries must agree to undergo a 13-week values formation course, provide sweat-equity by building their own homes and the homes of their neighbors, and abide by the rules of the “kapitbahayan” or community association that they establish in their GK village. As a community association, the beneficiaries are responsible for the cleanliness, peace, order and upkeep of their GK village. Currently, GK is a growing multi-sectoral partnership of various international and national sponsors.

“We brought fraternities to the GK site as teams but not after agreeing in a memorandum that hostile acts shall be avoided before, during, and after the project,” explains Upsilon Sigma Phi senior resident Eric Pasion. “Fortunately, no untoward incident occurred and for the first time I witnessed frat members actually working together.”

Upsilon Sigma Phi is the country’s oldest fraternity and the first to venture into a partnership with the GK. The partnership involves the identification of possible sites for its housing projects, the selection of beneficiaries, and resource generation schemes for the construction of houses, funding for livelihood programs, and support for capacity building.

The fraternity was also instrumental in institutionalizing GK’s partnership with the University of the Philippines. A Memorandum of Agreement between the Upsilon and GK was signed on August 23, 2005 witnessed by UP President Emerlinda R. Roman. In a September 2005 UP Newsletter article, Roman applauded the fraternity’s initiative to go “beyond UP and [reach] out to help alleviate problems that plague most Filipinos”. Currently, more than 30 organizations and fraternities have signed MOAs with GK.

“But it wasn’t always this smooth,” says Pasion, who coordinates the GK project for his fraternity. People were apprehensive at first and it did not help that a fraternity was taking the initiative. The negative preconceptions people had about Greek-letter societies already defeated the noble intention. Pasion, then a member of the University Student Council, had to rely on personal contacts and acquaintances from fraternities and organizations with which there were existing tie-ups. Membership surged almost expectedly when the Upsilon-GK partnership was renamed into “UP Gawad Kalinga.” At present, the UPGK stands as a separate organization accredited by the Office of Student Affairs.

Nevertheless, Upsilon never ceased to work actively in the background. “It is enough for us to be able to contribute silently by funding some of the projects, and occasionally providing manpower and moral guidance,” Pasion says. In the beginning, most UPGK officers were from the fraternity. But now, almost half are Youth For Christ (YFC) members. Pasion believes the change was good because it “toned down” UPGK’s image as a frat initiative and encouraged more partners who might have been biased against frats to participate.

Small ripples
Some fraternities, however, like to keep a low profile. Pan Xenia, based in the UP College of Business Administration, for instance, prefers small but client-focused programs. “Right now we concentrate mostly on giving seminars, lectures and training conducted by industry experts and alumni members on such topics as investment, business ethics, and entrepreneurship,” says Gabriel Limson, the governor of Pan Xenia. Sometimes the fraternity also sponsors university-wide fora on relevant national issues. But the much-anticipated Stock Wars remains the most popular of Pan Xenia’s annual events. A stock market simulation game, Stock Wars is pretty much like a simplified version of what traders actually do at the fund market. Contestants invest a hypothetical amount in stocks and mutual funds and compete for the best portfolio. “The point is for the ideals and good intentions to remain, even if they are usually too small to attract notice,” says Limson.

Pan Xenia is Latin for “all embracing.” Members dedicate themselves “to the promotion of interest in foreign trade, and the establishment of higher standards and ideals of business ethics.” It counts among its most notable alumni House speaker Manuel Villar and former UP President Francisco Nemenzo.

However, as it is a business fraternity, Pan Xenia’s recruitment is very exclusive. “While non-business majors do get admitted, the majority have to be CBA students.” Limson himself took math as an undergraduate degree and now teaches at the UP Department of Mathematics.

But Limson does not deny their limited membership sometimes prevents them from embarking on large-scale activities that require larger manpower. There are only about twenty Pan Xenia residents every year and recruitment remains very selective. “Nevertheless, we still prefer quality over quantity,” he maintains. “The fact that we are small is in itself an assurance that we will never engage in hostile behavior against other fraternities or in violent initiation activities that would scare away potential recruits.”

Pan Xenia has never been known to engage in rumbles or fatal hazings. “I am sure though that there are other fraternities with records that are just as clean,” Limson points out. “But as far as we are concerned, all I can say is that we do not violate any laws and try to keep a low profile.”

Limson is silent on whether or not the fraternity has totally abandoned hazing. He says there is hardly any organization that does not have certain rites of passage for new members. Even indigenous societies have initiation rites—sometimes accompanied by excruciating ordeals—to officially mark the entrance of an individual into active adult life. In UP, on the other hand, the application process for an aspirant typically culminates in initiation activites that range from tests of mental and physical endurance to public humiliation.

“But frankly, when you invite potential members, the first thing they want to be assured of is that they will not get hurt,” Limson points out. And with Pan Xenia’s reputation, recruitment should not be a problem. “However, we want people to join not because of what they hear, but because they believe in our alumni and they believe that the fraternity and its network will be beneficial for them in the long run.”

Peaceful alternative
Fraternities are prestigious organizations but students who want to get in are also motivated by post-graduation benefits, such as alumni connections in business and industry. It is also for this reason that they are willing to endure an admission process rooted in long-held traditions, many of which have become obsolete.

According to Pasion, the need to introduce gradual reforms is the reason why Upsilon was so keen about partnering with GK. Upsilon’s former alumni president Danny Gozo felt the need to redefine the initiation rituals that fraternities have become notorious for. “His idea was for residents to have an alternative to the traditional initiation process and to inculcate to members what brotherhood and service really mean.” GK’s concept of leadership, Pasion explains, is quite different. “At GK, the community head will be the last person to get a house. Now that is really selfless service.”

This does not mean, of course, that neophytes will no longer have to endure the hardship of initiation. “Only this time, they will experience it by rendering selfless service to the community,” he says.

This is part of current efforts within the fraternity to do away with the traditional concept of initiation which may have lost its true purpose with the changes taking place in the larger society. The paddle for instance, according to Pasion, originally represented the staff or cane which signified the status of those in authority. Long ago, a neophyte was hit with this staff as a ceremonial gesture of driving away evil spirits and cleansing him prior to his entry into the brotherhood. Through the years, however, it has become a test of strength, endurance, and determination, completely missing out on its original intention.

“The alumni saw this transformation through the years and felt guilty about not being able to do something about it,” says Pasion. “When I become a parent, I don’t think I would want my son to undergo the same ordeal I went through.”

Upsilon even encourages recruits to inform their parents and explain to them what the fraternity is, what it does, and how initiation is conducted.

Paradigm shift
Tan could not agree more. “Since parents tend to be the first to discourage students from joining, it is important to be transparent early on.” And even though parents may not be convinced at first, some eventually have a change of heart after hearing or reading in the news about the fraternity’s community projects.

But more importantly, adds Limson, students themselves should exercise prudence for they alone can tell whether or not a fraternity will be able to provide the ends they seek. “Some people tend to look down on those who join fraternities just because they want to take advantage of the alumni connections. But what is wrong with that? That is reality,” he says. The important thing is for the student to be aware of what he is getting himself into.

Nevertheless, members need not wait till they graduate to take advantage of what their fraternities—or organizations, for that matter—have to offer. All UP students are expected to come to the University to study and earn their degrees. But these narrow criteria are hardly enough to define an educated person. Organizations allow a student to associate, interact with others, find role models and guidance from alumni, deal firsthand with ambition and apathy, and learn from the experiences, values and abilities of peers.

“Come to think of it, once we become full-fledged doctors, we will not be confined to practicing medicine alone. Fortunately, the fraternity has taught me what it is like to handle events, manage people, deal with the media and government officials, and even work in partnership with other fraternities,” says Tan. More importantly, he says, the fraternity has opened his eyes to the socio-economic realities ailing the country’s health system.

For Pasion, being in the fraternity itself is a lesson in leadership. “They say that to become an effective leader, one must understand humility. But what could be more humbling than being face to face with poverty?”