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Life is all Greek to these alumni

Four CMU graduates turn fraternity and sorority experience into careers


By Terri Finch Hamilton

Republished from Centralight Fall 2017

Some Central Michigan University students love Greek life on campus so much, they turn their passion into careers.

Four CMU alumni profiled below have become national leaders of fraternities or sororities.

"It's kind of special," Steve Latour said of the path he took with fellow alumni Michelle Snyder Ardern, Katie Lampinen Gaffin and Basil Lyberg. "There's something about being engaged and wanting to give back that makes you want to keep on doing it. So, you make a career of it."

More than 30 fraternity and sororities have a presence at CMU, and nine percent of the student population belongs to a Greek organization, says Katrina Crawford, former assistant director of fraternity and sorority life for CMU.

Greek life on campus has as much purpose today as ever, Crawford said.

"These are values-based organizations," she said. "We're asking a new generation to uphold these traditional values that are hundreds of years old. A lot of students get really excited about that. They say, 'This is how I grew up.' "


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It all started with 22 Slurpees

Steve Latour didn't waste any time getting famous on campus: He didn't think Greek life was necessary — and said so in a quote on the front page of Central Michigan Life.

Latour very quickly had the entire Alpha Chi Omega sorority working to change his mind.

"They met me outside classes to talk to me about how great Greek life could be. It was sort of spooky," Latour recalls with a laugh. "They invited me to watch 'The Grinch' with them at Christmas and asked me to bring 22 Slurpees."

As he sipped a Coke Slurpee at the Alpha Chi house, Latour was persuaded he was wrong — then he stepped up to help re-establish an Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity chapter on campus. After graduation in 2003, he worked in the Alpha Sigma Phi national office for 10 years before becoming CEO of Sigma Tau Gamma in 2014.

He'll never forget where it all started.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about my experiences at Central," Latour said from his office in Warrensburg, Missouri. "Greek life was a learning laboratory, where I had conversations about politics and religion and money — all the things people say you shouldn't talk about — on my way to figuring out who I really was and who I wanted to be.

"You can be in charge of balancing a chapter's budget of $60,000 at age 21," he said. "You have experiences that give you every advantage to be successful later in life."

While at CMU, he set a goal to be the CEO of an organization by age 35. He did that.

Latour is thrilled Greek life is stronger than ever. Membership nationally is up 30 percent since 2009, he says.

"We're all creatures who want to be connected," Latour said. "Even with all the technology, cellphones and social media, there's something about sitting across from someone and talking to them, learning about their life. It helps you learn about your own."


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A journey of hope and pride

Basil Lyberg joined Pi Kappa Phi as a CMU freshman. He became one of those guys in yellow shirts holding buckets at Mission Street traffic lights collecting money from drivers.

Today, Lyberg is CEO of the Ability Experience, the nonprofit philanthropic arm of Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity. Its mission: Use shared experiences to support people with disabilities while developing the men of Pi Kappa Phi into leaders.

Lyberg says a highlight of his fraternity days was the annual Journey of Hope bike ride, where Pi Kappa Phi members collectively raise more than $650,000 and then ride across the country in a two-month summer journey. They visit 140 organizations serving people with disabilities, awarding money along the way. Lyberg did it in 1998 and 1999, his graduation year.

He now loves helping run the national event from the fraternity headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, and feels enormous pride.

"When the guys recently left from the Golden Gate Bridge, scared as all get out, I remember standing there feeling the same way," Lyberg said. 

"Now, I know what they'll learn — about the good in this country, about people with disabilities, 
and about themselves and what they're capable of," he said. "In college, we don't yet realize that. It's fun to be part of this legacy."


120x120 Katie Gaffin.jpgComing home to Alpha Chi

It was one of those epic moments that live on: Katie Lampinen Gaffin and two sorority sisters lip syncing to Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman" at Mock Rock during Greek Week.

"We made it into the top three that evening," said Gaffin, 1992 graduate and now CEO of Alpha Chi Omega. "Some of my best memories are of living in the Alpha Chi Omega house."

After a brief stint in the sorority's national headquarters in Indianapolis, Gaffin spent the next 19 years in high tech professional services and human resources leadership.

When a friend told her the CEO position at Alpha Chi Omega was open, she jumped at the chance. Gaffin was hired in August 2016.

She calls it "coming back home to Alpha Chi." It was homier than she knew: Five other CMU alumni are on her staff in Indianapolis. 

"The most rewarding thing has been looking back at the impact it made on my life and knowing I'm helping to provide that for other young women at a critical time in their development," Gaffin said. 

That sisterly support is more important than ever as the pressure on today's young people grows, Gaffin said.

"Students are seeking out safe places for community, fellowship and fun even more than they were 
25 years ago," she said.


120x120 Michelle Ardern.jpgThe giant rolling running shoe

Phi Sigma Sigma didn't want to let go of Michelle Snyder Ardern. 

After graduation in 1991, she worked as a field representative for the sorority she loved so much at CMU, traveling to college campuses nationwide to offer advice.

"I thought that would be a good job for a year, then I'd go to grad school," she said.

That was 26 years ago. She never left. 

Ardern moved up from job to job in the organization, and today she is the executive director, leading a staff of 25 and 106 collegiate chapters from the headquarters in Elkridge, Maryland.

She and Katie Lampinen Gaffin were resident assistants together in Barnard Hall. They lost touch after graduation, but last year, when Gaffin became the CEO of Alpha Chi Omega, they reconnected.

Ardern laughed as she recalled building a giant Nike running shoe for a Greek Week bed race: "It went fast, looked great, but it wouldn't turn." But what she learned doing it — the power of teamwork and conversation — stuck with her.

"Everybody brings their own unique skills," she said. "Suddenly, you're at your first job, you have a big presentation, and it all comes back to you."

Sororities are relevant today, Ardern said.

"The world moves so fast," she said. "Authentic friendships are hard for a young woman to find.

"Having this support system throughout your life is so valuable. You can pick up the phone, hear a voice, and you're right back there again.


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