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A Reason to Smile

Nov 20, 2013
One place you don’t hear a lot of laughter these days is in airports. Between the necessary expectation of no joking in security lines to the increasing number of announcements regarding flight delays and/or cancellations, there’s not much joy in flying anymore. 
Airports are on my mind thanks to my experience last spring as I traveled to campuses to speak at chapter initiations. Not all went as planned. The chapter president at the University of Maine announced to his audience that I would not arrive in time to speak as I had been sequestered; I arrived after the students and their families had left. Ten days earlier a similar announcement had to be made at Michigan State’s initiation luncheon. Thankfully, I was able to arrive in time to speak at three other ceremonies in April. 
My experience is hardly unique. Everyone who travels by air these days has stories, often recounting tales of lost luggage, missed connections, and significant inconvenience. Frequent fliers complain that the seats seem smaller, legroom feels limited, and overhead bins are crowded. But enough of my lament over air travel, because the reason for my travel is what’s important here — the invitation by chapters to speak at the initiation of students offers a wonderful opportunity to meet chapters officers, see their campuses, and congratulate students on their achievement of excellence.
From North Carolina to Southern California, from Maine to Louisiana, the diversity of ceremonies is striking. Each chapter has its own way of celebrating — some in academic regalia, others much less formal, some with a meal, others with cake or cookies and punch. The common denominator among these varied events? The broad smiles and joy on students’ faces as they are recognized for their effort.
Smiles are contagious at Phi Kappa Phi ceremonies. Whether handing out pins as a chapter officer at Marshall University or shaking hands with 400 initiates after speaking at Cal State Long Beach, I am always taken by the very real sense of pride students exude. And their happiness is matched by that of family members in attendance, and of deans and faculty members who helped them reach this moment of accomplishment. 
In many ways Phi Kappa Phi initiations mirror commencement ceremonies. In that regard, we might consider initiation not only a culmination based on past achievements, but also a recognition of the promise each candidate embodies. I always stress their responsibility, indeed, their obligation, to use their abilities to give back, to let their lives speak, as the Quakers say. 
As students receive a diploma at commencement, so every initiate receives a certificate. That has been true since the founding the Society 116 years ago. Headquarters recently received an original certificate dated 1901, awarded to Lydia M. Wilson by the University of Tennessee chapter and signed by both Abram W. Harris and James S. Stevens. Harris and Stevens, as president and dean at the University of Maine, had joined Marcus Urann in founding the Society only four years prior, and were then serving as “president general” and “registrar general,” respectively.
Despite the reference to fraternity on the diploma, Wilson’s certificate bears a strong resemblance to those we currently distribute, an important and tangible reminder that the founding mission of Phi Kappa Phi remains its primary activity these many years later — recognizing academic excellence. Again this year more than 30,000 undergraduates and graduate students have accepted the invitation to join the Society.
Phi Kappa Phi is honored to welcome them. 

First published in the Fall 2013 edition of Phi Kappa Phi Forum.

The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi