At the conclusion of the Fall 2020 Panhellenic recruitment week, each of the young women of the College of Education’s EAGLES program made history as the first group of students with intellectual disabilities at Auburn University to accept a bid and join sororities. They have been welcomed with open hearts and arms, demonstrating another facet of the college’s emphasis on inclusion in action.
“This was truly an exciting time for our program and the young women involved,” said EAGLES program director Betty Patten, Ph.D. “Although it seemed like a whirlwind during recruitment week, the process of actually making this happen was long and complicated.”
In the summer of 2019, a sorority approached Patten about a Homecoming platform that emphasized inclusion in Greek life, and particularly looking into ways that the EAGLES program could become involved. Although that individual campaign did not make it to the final selection, it got the ball rolling and many people and organizations became involved in the effort. Ultimately, EAGLES academic instruction coordinator Jessica Milton became the primary liaison between the program and the various chapters that wanted to help the plan succeed.
“One of the issues that took a great deal of time and effort was gaining approval from the national offices of the various sororities and from the National Panhellenic Council,” Milton explained. “Our EAGLES students are not degree-seeking students, which in many cases is a prerequisite for a student to participate in recruitment. But Auburn recognizes them as students who matriculated through the program so we were able to build many bridges. We worked with the Panhellenic advisors and the chapter presidents. We emphasized that while the EAGLES students would be full chapter members, they would require unique supports, and some of the chapters were unable to commit to these requirements. Also, pandemic and liability issues from some of the national offices kept a few chapters from participating. But all of the sororities supported the idea. So in spite of many obstacles, we wrapped up the year-long process with a great situation.”
Like all of the hundreds of Auburn students who participate in sorority recruitment, the EAGLES submitted applications, created their video profiles, and listed their preferences in order. All six were extended bids. Each of the young women is in a different sorority. This works out well in Patten’s opinion.
“In and of itself, Greek life is considered by many to be exclusionary rather than inclusive,” she said. “But that is not so much the case at Auburn. For one thing, all of the chapter houses are in The Village, which is where all of the EAGLES students live, along with hundreds of other students who are not in sororities. This is the place they have already been creating bonds and friendships outside of EAGLES. And all students at Auburn bond over shared interests. The various philanthropies provide much of that shared interest, and several sororities already focus on populations with disabilities.”
“In our program, we focus on teaching our students independent living and employment skills so they can enrich whatever community they end up living and working in. Panhellenic will offer these students great networking opportunities long after graduation which can lead to employment and life-long friendships. We know that our students will need mentoring and supports, but it is a good and joyful thing for them to enjoy friendships and receive supports in an organic environment outside of the EAGLES program. In the end, these are young adults engaging in opportunities they never thought possible, and being mentored by like-minded women.”
Patten sees the collaboration as a positive move forward.
“This is the beauty of engaging with our larger community, which we have seen ever since launching the program two years ago. In the same way that Anna makes friendships in the AU Singers, these young women will make friendships through their new affiliations. One of our students made a friend in the dorm who asked her to go to the movies. Her mom called and asked me what I thought about that. I asked her what she thought of it. We each need to trust our own judgment. One of our goals is to teach our students how to judge friendships. We do that in our interpersonal skills class. But we also emphasize to them that friendship is a two-way street.”
In a classic display that there may be more similarities than differences involved in this new reality, some of the EAGLES students are now wondering how they will balance their already busy schedules along with their new sorority membership.
“This is typical of freshmen,” Patten said. “Everyone gets homesick, and everyone gets overwhelmed with the newness and fullness of campus life. EAGLES students are no exception. It’s just part of a life of new experiences and new friendships.”
“I am pleased and proud of how this turned out, and I want to thank everyone who worked so hard to make it happen, and to make it even better as we go down the road. Disability touches everyone, and there will be people in these groups who have genuine love and concern for those with unique abilities. I truly believe that each chapter will help these young women create memories and instill values that last a lifetime, just as they will each bring their own unique personalities and perspectives to continue representing EAGLES, Auburn, and the importance of inclusion! I could not be more excited.”