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Going for Gold

May 20, 2016

Each year I am invited by a few chapters to speak at their initiation ceremonies. I always learn something on these campus visits — the diversity of higher education institutions assures great variety in the venues of the events, the formality (or informality) of campus cultures finds some chapter officers in academic regalia while others dress more casually, and the obligatory food options range from cookies or a sheet cake to hot hors d’oeuvres or even sit-down banquets.

No matter the differences from campus to campus, what they have in common is the language of the official ritual of initiation, a script that imparts the history and symbolism of Phi Kappa Phi to its newest members along with the recognition they have earned by their academic achievements. The overarching theme is celebration of excellence.

I believe strongly that public recognition of academic excellence is not only important but essential. I don’t think we do it nearly often enough. We certainly don’t need to wait for an elaborate event to celebrate academic excellence — it can be a daily practice. The faculty member in the classroom who affirms a student’s contribution to class discussion, the student who high-fives a classmate after a strong presentation, the tutor who delights in seeing a breakthrough in a struggling student with whom she’s been working — the message in each case is positive, whether the words are “well done!” or “good work” or simply a grin, thumbs up, or the letter A.

Public events celebrate the academic achievements of a college’s best students; the initiation script reminds us that once inducted into Phi Kappa Phi, you remain a member the rest of your life. Membership provides a ready-made network of equally talented peers, a résumé boost, career connections, and resources to support you in the lifelong learning that higher education promotes.

The theme of this issue of the Forum is sport. This summer, the Games of the XXXI Olympiad will be hosted by Rio de Janeiro. Some people will watch for the entertainment of the opening ceremony. Others watch to cheer on their national team. I watch more to learn the personal stories of the athletes than to follow the athletic contests. That’s why I’m glad the TV coverage includes the medal ceremonies at the conclusion of a competition. Whether winning gold, silver, or bronze, the best athletes always seem so very much in awe of their accomplishments and so very, very proud, especially the gold medalists who hear the national anthem of the country they represent played as its flag is raised.

The medallions (or honor cords or stoles) of The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi are the Olympic medals of higher education. Like Olympic champions, I expect some of our newest members are in awe of their accomplishments. You only have to read their Tweets and Facebook posts to know how proud they are of the honor Phi Kappa Phi membership bestows.

Nearly four years ago, in my first column in these pages, I wrote these words: I believe we have not only the opportunity, but an obligation, to call for a revaluing of the notion of honor — what does it mean in today’s world to be an honor society? John Gardner’s small book, first published in 1961, simply titled Excellence, might offer a starting point. Gardner believed that while everyone has a potential for excellence, “Some people have greatness thrust upon them. Very few have excellence thrust upon them. They achieve it.”

Those people are the academic champions we call Phi Kappa Phi members.

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The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi