Thoughts Around Being an Alumni Volunteer for Sigma Pi

This is an entry that really only applies to my brothers in Sigma Pi Fraternity and, more specifically, those members who have graduated and gone on to become alumni volunteers for the Fraternity. In this piece, I provide my two golden rules of alumni volunteering as well as some thoughts around each of those rules. The ideas below are not just applicable to Sigma Pi Fraternity, they are also applicable to any organization where there is a mentor/mentee relationship between individuals or groups.

This is my current group of undergraduates at Monmouth and they're awesome!

This is my current group of undergraduates at Monmouth and they’re awesome!

In May 2003, I graduated from Monmouth University (MU) and became an officially recognized alumni member of Sigma Pi Fraternity (the Fraternity). Like most brand new alumni, I didn’t have much thought about involvement in the Fraternity’s actions after my graduation. I knew that I wanted to attend the upcoming leadership training school because it was being held in Vincennes, Indiana – the birthplace of the Fraternity. Other than that half-week trip, though, I had no plans to be involved in Sigma Pi in any future way.

During that visit to the leadership school, I talked with the Executive Director of the national organization and he encouraged me to immediately become my chapter’s local advisor, a position known as the Chapter Director. Back at MU, our Chapter Director was also our Faculty Advisor and he had held both positions since our colony was founded back in 1989. And while our Chapter Director was a phenomenal Faculty Advisor (he would go on to win Sigma Pi’s first-ever Dr. Robert Burns Most Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award and numerous #1 Faculty Advisor Awards on MU’s campus), he never played the role of Chapter Director. After a brief conversation with the Faculty Advisor and at the encouragement of the Executive Director along with the support of the undergraduates (especially the President of the Chapter), I became my local chapter’s new Chapter Director in August 2003.

The August 2003 decision to become an alumni volunteer for the Fraternity has lasted until the present-day and, God-willing, well into the future. Among other volunteer positions for the Fraternity, I’ve served as a Chapter Director at two different campuses (MU and, for a short while, I held the position at William Paterson University), an advisor to my chapter’s alumni club, the Province Archon for New Jersey, a Trustee for the Sigma Pi Educational Foundation, the Treasurer of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and – perhaps most importantly – as a mentor for graduating seniors and young alumni from my chapter. Last February, I was asked to take the various experiences that I’ve gathered as an alumni volunteer and provide a half-day training on alumni volunteering at the Fraternity’s Mid-Year Leadership Conference in St. Louis, Missouri (an invitation which was extended again this year and which I’ve accepted again). I immediately agreed and then began combing through my various experiences, perspectives, and training materials to build the best program that I could for my fellow volunteers from around the nation.

Through that process, I discovered that I’ve operated off of two golden rules during my time as alumni volunteer. Those two rules are:

     1. It isn’t about YOU.

     2. It’s NOT story time.

The first rule that a good alumni volunteer needs to understand is that his position is not about him, his feelings, his wants, or his desires. At its core, this perspective may be counterintuitive to what alumni volunteers believe when they agree to take the position. Most alumni volunteers want to remain involved with the Fraternity because they remember the good times and great relationships that they built as undergraduates. Others want to stay involved because they believe that they can help the chapter improve upon its programs that were operated when he was an undergraduate. The majority of an alumnus’ good, happy experiences with the Fraternity are generated from people and events where they, individually, could be the focus.

That cannot be the case when you are an alumni volunteer. When you agree to become an alumni volunteer, you are agreeing that the focus of your fraternal actions will no longer be about you.

Instead, the focus of your fraternal actions as an alumni volunteer must always be about the undergraduates. Your role – your purpose – is no longer to view the issues that created your love of the Fraternity from a perspective of personal gain or even one of personal involvement. As an alumni volunteer, you have to ensure that those connections are made available and strengthened for the benefit of future generations. This is often a hard pill for new alumni volunteers to swallow, yet adhering to a perspective of providing the most good to the undergraduates is the best way to ensure that you are acting truly as an alumni volunteer and not as someone who wants to hang around campus to exert some personally-identified influence on or even control over the chapter.

The second rule is that being an alumni volunteer is not story time. Again, this is a bitter pill for many alumni volunteers to swallow. At the core of this rule is the interactions that you have as a volunteer with your undergraduates. This can be something as simple as an undergraduate asking, “Hey, what should I do about Bob? He hasn’t paid his dues and he won’t return my text messages.” The incorrect answer would start off this way: “Well, when I was the chapter’s Treasurer…” or, “When I was an undergraduate we used to…”

What happened in that response? Not only does the alumni volunteer attempt to “answer” the question by providing a story, but they immediately make their interaction with the undergraduate about themselves and their experiences versus the undergraduate and his current experience. The undergraduate did NOT ask the alumni volunteer about what he did when he was in charge – he asked what he, as the current chapter leader, should do to resolve this situation. The proper response from the alumni volunteer would include different options that are available to the undergraduate given the structure of the national organization and the rules of the local chapter. If an example is a best way to answer the question, then the alumni volunteer might consider providing an example of how another chapter handles this problem – if he is aware of any examples.

There is an important point in the last sentence of the previous paragraph – that is, the alumni volunteer exists to provide answers and guidance. The alumni volunteer doesn’t exist to tell stories about his glory days. The most immediate and lasting way to become irrelevant to an undergraduate is to answer their questions by telling them your own experiences. Not only do you violate both of the golden rules noted above, but the undergraduates no longer see you as a source of relevant information. Rather, they will begin to see interactions with you as a chore that they have to endure every once in a while.

I’m confident that some alumni volunteers are out there reading this and are aware enough to recognize that they engage in story time when they answer their undergraduates’ questions. Most of those folks will think to themselves, “Well, Joe is full of it. My undergraduates enjoy my stories and it helps them build a better chapter.” To those few with that mindset, let me assure you – your undergraduates don’t enjoy your stories. As a national Fraternity, we bring in such a high caliber of young man that they’re too nice and too reverent of our alumni base that most of them won’t be honest with you and tell you that you’re boring the life out of them. Remember, if you’re advising through telling stories, then you’re already irrelevant to your undergraduates so you shouldn’t expect them to be truthful with you about how much your stories bore them.

If you make the focus of your interactions with the undergraduates about them and you provide answers to their questions, a funny (yet logical) thing may happen: the undergraduates will seek your advice more often. You’ll be viewed as a source of solutions. You’ll become the literal answer to their problems. Becoming that source of solutions, the answer to their problems, is what builds the bond between you and your undergraduates over not just a year or two, but over generations. Your current chapter leaders will tell your newly-elected chapter leaders that they should rely on you for guidance. You’ll receive the type of word-of-mouth recommendations that money can’t buy for an alumni volunteer.

And all it takes is to make the undergraduates the focus of your work as a volunteer.

Square-Enix Fails The Most Basic Customer Service Request

Once upon a time (15 – 20 years ago), I used to be a big fan of video games. These days, I just don’t have the time or the desire to sit down and really get into a game. Back then, I loved playing role playing games (RPG) like the Final Fantasy series and its many spinoffs. I remember when Final Fantasy 7 came out for PlayStation and it was groundbreaking at the time. The visuals were amazing and the game play was deep. Everyone wanted to follow the story of Cloud and Sephiroth – it was an intense story for the gaming community!

ff-7-banner

With a history as an engaged RPG gamer you might have predicted that I was really excited when I heard that during last week’s Cyber Monday sale, Square-Enix was offering Final Fantasy 7 for a ridiculously low price. In fact, Square put pretty much their entire collection on sale at prices that were 60% off. It was crazy!

But you might imagine my surprise when I tried to purchase a few downloadable versions of some classic Final Fantasy games only to be met with an error screen on the Square website. I tried to purchase those downloads for about an hour and a half and just couldn’t get past the error screen.

It was the most frustrating experience you could imagine.

Or at least it was the most frustrating experience you could imagine until I contacted Square’s help line to see if they could help me with problem I encountered. And lucky for you folks, I’ve saved the entire back and forth conversation for you to read and most likely be disgusted by as I was disgusted. Here’s how the e-mail conversation started:

I tried to purchase both Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8 PC editions during your Cyber Monday sale, but the order form on the website kept coming up with an error message. Is it possible to still buy those two games and the Cyber Monday prices? I’m a long-time Square fan and I hope that you understand my frustration when I could have gotten these two games at a great price, but your website wouldn’t work for me. Thanks.

I think I was pretty rational and calm in that query. Here is Square’s first awful response:

Thank you for contacting the Square Enix online store. We apologize for the inconvenience. We show that the Cyber sale already ended. Please attempt a new order. To place a new order, go to: http://store.na.square-enix.com/store/sqenixus/en_US/ResetShoppingCart

Ugh… talk about a useless, non-response. If I owned Square-Enix and I saw that this was the response that one of my customer service people sent back to the question that I posed, I’d fire them for not being able to comprehend basic English or customer intent. Here is my response to Square:

It appears that you didn’t listen to my concern. The items that I wanted to buy were on sale during your Cyber Monday sale. Your website did not work during your Cyber Monday sale. I tried to purchase the items several times during your Cyber Monday sale and your website would not work. This is false advertising and is against the law in America.

I’m asking that you recognize that your website – not me or anything on my end – but your website failed during the period that your sale was active. And as an act of repentance for your website failing during your sale, I’ve asked that you offer me the two games that I was attempting to purchase for the price that they were offered during the failure of your website.

The response you provided doesn’t address any of those points. Please try again.

I mean – I can’t be any clearer in that response, can I? Well, get ready for more useless help from Square. This was their response:

Thank you for contacting the Square Enix online store. We apologize for the inconvenience this issue may have caused you.

Unfortunately, we are no longer able to place an order for the price on the Cyber Monday promotion. You may need to complete the order at the current price that is showing online. However, we can submit a request to match the promotional price once the order has been completed. Please be reminded that this request is not a guarantee the the price will be matched.

If you wanted to place an order, you may do so. Once it is completed, please provide the promotional offer information that details the price you are referring to.

That’s right, folks – Square’s response to my request was to tell me to buy the products at full price and then request that I be offered the promotional price… after I made the purchases! In what world does that make sense? Well, I attempted to explain this to the dopes at Square:

This isn’t an acceptable resolution to the problem. You certainly wouldn’t accept my “conditional” payment and forward me the software with the condition being that I’m only sending you the money if I get the discount that your broken website wouldn’t allow me to get on Cyber Monday. You’d be fools to give away your product on the hope that I was going to pay in full just like I’d be a fool to pay you in full with the hope that you’d live up to meeting the sale price (which, let’s be honest, you absolutely wouldn’t do).

So this has been a useless interaction for me. I look forward to sharing it with my fellow gamers and folks who have generally been disenfranchised by a once-great company.

They haven’t/didn’t respond to my last e-mail, but that’s okay. The steep decline in the popularity of their now-craptastic Final Fantasy series speaks volumes to how far this company has fallen. People used to line up outside of stores to get the latest Final Fantasy games. Now? Well, fan backlash was so strong against Final Fantasy 14 that it forced Square to take the game off of the market and totally recreate the product. When your company has fallen that far, it’s no wonder that your customer “service” team isn’t able to meet the type of simple request that I asked in my question.

Oh how the mighty have fallen…

Quick Thoughts on Voting During Last Week’s Election

This may be a bit of a delayed reaction, but I enjoyed voting in last week’s election. What made last week’s election different for me is that this was my first time voting as a registered voter in Monmouth County. Up until I bought my house last spring, I was registered at my family’s home in Morris County. As you might deduce, this created an annual problem where I had to drive all the way up to Morris County (and near the Sussex County border, no less!) to vote on Election Day. Sure, I could have registered to vote in Monmouth County when I began renting my most recent apartment, but I never had the security of knowing whether or not I would be in that one place for a long period of time so I never made the change.

What I enjoyed about voting last week (besides the 3 minute commute to my polling place) was that I had a chance to vote for candidates that will have some level of impact on me and my immediate community. Again, as a guy who has been voting in Morris County for the last 15 years, the people that I’ve been voting for have largely not been the Mayors, Town Councilors, Board of Education members, State Legislators, and Congressmen who have a direct impact on the community where I actually live. Last Tuesday, the votes that I cast were different in that they have a direct relationship to my daily life.

And the American in me enjoys the fact that I get to vote in the first place! Unlike most folks out there, I enjoy voting for people from both sides of the aisle – which I did last Tuesday. One of the great things about this country is that we have a choice. Frankly, I wish we had more that two viable choices and I really wish that the Libertarian and Constitutional Parties would grow to become larger players in American politics. But that’s okay – the people are beginning to realize that there are more than two answers to every political question and that it’s not such a bad idea to get people with different ideas involved.

As for the results from last week’s elections, well I didn’t think it was any big surprise. Of course the Republicans were going to run away with the Senate and increase their lead in the House – the majority of the places and states in this country are center-right and every political map proves that point. Yes, the cities and urban areas vote heavily Democratic and that’s where the President has his most ardent supporters, but most of this country isn’t filled with cities and urban areas. Thus the results from last week are no big surprise.

Plus, I’m a big believer in divided government. We have a Democratic President and I think it’s a good idea to have a Republican Congress to check his power. I thought the same thing when President George W. Bush was in charge – a Democratic Congress was good for him to have to collaborate with the other side (which he did very well at the beginning of his first term as well). The biggest “check” that I think will come out of the Republican Congress is their ability to conduct fuller investigations in the Senate. The talking heads on television suggest that there are a variety of scandals brewing from Benghazi to the fast and furious gun running issue to immigration and now to the fact that there were blatant lies told to the American people in order to get the Affordable Care Act passed.

While those are all issues that deserve fuller investigations, what I’m looking forward to knowing more about is the IRS targeting scandal. Folks, if the accusations are true – that the IRS targeted individuals and groups that they disagreed with politically – then that is going to be the biggest scandal in the history of American politics up through our lifetimes, I guaranty it. This is the exact type of issue that the colonists rebelled against back in the late 1700s and it’s the exact type of issue that makes our government ineffective in the 2010s. So… that’s what I’m looking forward to from the new Congress: a true investigation into the IRS targeting scandal.

The Internet As It Exists In 2014… It Kind Of Sucks

Before I began writing this entry, I wanted to reach out to a few of my long-time online friends just to shoot the breeze. I wanted to ask them how work was going, how their side projects were coming along, if there was a project that we could collaborate on, etc. This is what the internet used to exist of when programs like ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger were running wild on everyone’s desktops. In 2014, we don’t have that any more. Sure, we have Facebook Messenger and Gmail Chat, but they’re both extensions of different social media websites. They’re not designed for one-on-one interaction between individuals in a private, friendly setting.

Frankly, the internet in 2014 kind of sucks.

While I don’t think that we need to go back to the days of the Prodigy internet message boards or the original America Online, I do think that as we’ve moved further down the path of “Social Media Life” we’ve actually removed much of the interaction that we used to have with our online friends. Even as close as 10 years ago I could log-on to the internet and have my Yahoo Messenger load up as well as my AOL Instant Messenger and immediately engage in any number of one-on-one conversations with both my “real life” friends and my internet friends. And the conversations weren’t useless or the type of silly drivel that you read on these humor websites. No, we were making connections and having real conversations. It was fun!

Today, everything seems to need to be filtered through a Facebook or other social media-like portal and I don’t like it. I want to be able to log-on and talk to the folks who originally made the internet fun for me. I also want to be able to pick these people’s brains in a more readily available manner than sending a message into a seemingly black social media hole. There’s no connection in that method of communication.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t think that we’re ever going to get back to that level of meaningful one-on-one interaction on the internet. I think we’re stuck in a mess that doesn’t allow people to grow real friendships through shared online interactions. And given the friends that I’ve made through these online interactions, I think that’s a real shame for future generations of internet users.

Suddenly Buying A House Wasn’t Such A Bad Idea

One of the elements of my adult life that has traditionally been unstable is housing. Sure, I’ve always had a place to live and no, I’ve never wanted for a roof over my head. However, having stable housing was always something that evaded me no matter what situation I was in at the moment. I’ve rented a single room in a large boarding house and I’ve rented a room in a house with a group of fellow college graduates who were just out of school. I’ve rented apartments with two other roommates and I’ve rented a townhouse with one other roommate. The one aspect in all of these housing situations is that there was a time limit on how long I’d be living in any of those units because they were rentals. And, frankly, that time limit was exactly what my roommates and I wanted over the years. The limit gave each of us a chance to get out of a lease if we needed to and it also gave us a chance to negotiate better terms on an annual basis. Let me be clear – I have no complaints about my housing situation leading up to my decision to buy a house.

This isn't the actual "sold" sign from my townhouse, but you get the point

This isn’t the actual “sold” sign from my new townhouse, but you get the point

The common theme, though, was the unstable relationship between my finances and my housing situation. What I mean by this is that by not owning the different locations where I’ve lived over the years I was at the mercy of externalities that could (and did) have a direct impact on both my housing stability and my personal finances. For example, if one of my roommates decided to (or had to) leave in the middle of a lease, then their leaving would increase my monthly expenses by a factor based on how many other roommates I had at the time. In other words, an expense that should have been “fixed” in my personal budget was always at risk of increasing based on externalities that were outside of my control.

As a guy who works in finance and who is a maniacal manager of my personal finances, I don’t like it when I’m not in control of my long-term fixed costs and, by consequence, other financial stability-related issues.

At the end of February 2014, my now-former roommate told me that he was finally hired by a group that he had been hoping to get a job with for the past few years. This was a tremendous success for him and a really good, positive moment. This was also a good moment for me because I had been searching the “for sale” listings for a few months at the time that this news came around. In a different scenario, I would have been at my wits’ end trying to find a way to piece together a new living situation. However, after paying off my student loans and feeling financially free since August 2013, I was ready to purchase a home.

The stability that I received in my personal finances from paying off those student loans was great. Yet, it also made it abundantly apparent that I needed to stop renting and buy a home sooner rather than later. Given the high cost of owning a home in New Jersey (if you’re reading this from a state other than New Jersey, you don’t want me to start going into our property taxes), it was always a smarter move for me to live with at least one roommate instead of buying a home of my own. Over the years, though, certain things change. One example of the things that changed is that I’ve gotten older over the years and with that age has come a certain rigidness in what I want in my home. I like what I like and don’t want to be bothered with whatever annoys me! When you live with a roommate, you have to share space and sometimes you can get annoyed by what your roommate does without even thinking about it. Maybe you don’t want to watch the same show on the television or maybe you don’t want to wait for your roommate to finish making breakfast/lunch/dinner so you can get into the kitchen to fix yourself some food. Perhaps you’re not a fan of the state that your roommate leaves the kitchen in when they’re done making their food. The list can go on and on.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t had a wonderful group of roommates over the years. Rather, this is all to reiterate the point that as you get older you change. And as I got older I slowly segregated myself from the entire townhouse that I lived in to just living out of my bedroom. Imagine a very dorm-like situation – I would wake up, shower, and prepare for work all in the same room. When I got home from work, I grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and then headed to my room to catch up on the day’s news, do some work for my small businesses, and then eventually go to bed… just to perform a very similar routine the next day.

I won’t get too deep into the process of buying a house here, but suffice to say that I found a place nearby where I live now that I felt was priced right. I struck a deal with the owner for a few thousand less than the townhouse was on the market for and we’ve were out of attorney review quickly. The home inspection was done and came back stellar, the appraisal was completed and the value is right where I thought it would be and my mortgage company was lined up and ready to fund me. In the space of about a month, I was able to go through the entire searching and closing process. Not too bad.

For the few weeks that I worked through this process, I had a chance to consider how I want to arrange the 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath townhouse that I bought. I had a chance to consider what I want to do with the garage that is attached to it, what I want to do with the living room, dining room, and eat-in kitchen. I also had a chance to think about which family events I want to host on an annual basis and which events I want to host for my friends in the area. Another aspect that I considered is how I wanted to furnish the place and that’s another aspect of the townhouse that I thought about during the closing process. Luckily, my sister-in-law’s twin sister is an interior designer and she came in to help me choose colors, textures, furniture, and more!

Buying a house was a fun time and not such a bad idea. Plus, I now get to write these blog entries from the comfort of my personal home office – which is fully separate and apart from my bedroom and living space!