Professor Hans Ostrom on poetry, hosted by Phi Eta Sigma

English and African-American Studies Professor Hans Ostrom is well-known and well-liked on campus. His talk on Thursday, February 23, 2012 entitled “Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Poetry” filled the Rotunda with an engaged and appreciative crowd. Perhaps less well known, though, was the sponsor of the talk: Phi Eta Sigma.

Phi Eta Sigma is an academic honors society here at Puget Sound. However, if you aren’t in the class of 2016 or if you slacked off a bit during that first semester, you’re out of luck– the society is only open to freshmen who receive a 3.5 or above after their first semester of college. After this initial barrier to entry, obligations are slim: pay a one-time $25 fee, and you’re in for life.  The society is a nationwide organization, and has inducted over 975,000 members into 365 chartered chapters across the U.S. since it was founded at the University of Illinois in 1923.  The organization’s website claims that, “Phi Eta Sigma is the nation’s oldest and largest honor society for first-year college and university students in all disciplines.”

Ostrom’s talk was part of a spring lecture sponsored by the society, part of a wide variety of ways in which the group tries to get involved with campus and the local community.  Although the main function of the society seems to be to recognize academic excellence in freshmen, Phi Eta Sigma strives to offer something more substantial than a cord at graduation.

“…Every spring we hold a faculty lecture, so the club votes on who they’d like to see give a talk,” Phi Eta Sigma activities coordinator Siri Erickson said.

Erickson also talked about the club’s other service work, saying, “…We’re in charge of the blood drive, we go to the Tacoma Rescue Mission weekly, and we also do adopt-a-spot, where we are basically responsible for keeping a particular section of the street clean.”

Along with these community service activities, the society also awards scholarships to members nominated by their local chapters.  These scholarships are partially subsidized by the membership fee, a portion of which goes to the so-called “Founder’s Fund.” The Fund hands out over thirty scholarships to graduates and undergraduates of up to $7,500 each, and thirty-five or greater “national undergraduate awards” of $1,000. One additional $10,000 Scholar-Leader-of-the-Year scholarship is also disbursed each year.

While the Phi Eta Sigma membership might look good on a résumé, talks like Ostrom’s help the student body understand the tangible benefits for the campus community that such organizations have. Regardless of how altruistic the motivations of individual members are for joining, the society does give back to their peers and community members as a whole. While those students currently at Puget Sound have either seized or missed their chance at membership, next year’s crop of freshmen will offer another group eligible to aid in these efforts. In the interests of continued lively lectures and community service work, hopefully a few of them will decide to get involved.