The unclear future of Sigma Nu, Lambda Chapter

The fraternity is struggling to maintain numbers needed to fill their house

Kristen Xu

Due to consistently dwindling numbers in recent years, the Lambda Chapter of the Sigma Nu fraternity may soon cease to exist. The chapter first started at Washington and Lee more than 100 years ago.

“All that has been discussed [is] closing the chapter,” Chapter President Javier Peralta, ‘21, said.

Peralta said the chapter may vote on that option but authorities in Sigma Nu nationals determine what “closing” a chapter actually means.

“It’s mostly going to be our housing corp, speaking with the school, and seeing what the conditions are of when we leave, how long we leave for and when an appropriate time to come back would be,” Peralta said.

Timothy Braddick, director of fraternal operations for Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc., said that the Lambda Chapter is a “chartered chapter in good standing.”

“Discussions regarding current membership levels and plans for the chapter’s future are ongoing between collegiate members, alumni leaders, W&L leaders, and our staff,” Braddick wrote in an email. “Sigma Nu Fraternity is appreciative of, and will maintain, its historic partnership with Washington and Lee University.”

Last year, three freshmen accepted bids to Sigma Nu. Two remain in the sophomore class. This winter, no new members pledged the fraternity. Although the fraternity did give out bids during recruitment, they also warned the freshmen of the current numbers and indicated that the Lambda Chapter may not exist much longer. 

“We gave bids to the guys who came to us [that] we felt appropriate giving bids to,” Peralta said. “But when they asked us what the condition of this pledge class was, we told them it’s probably not going to be very large. We were just being honest with them.”

He said he guessed that made the freshmen turn away. “I don’t think we did anything wrong,” Peralta said. “I think our recruitment plan was spectacular compared to last year.”

When Alex Wilkerson, ‘22, rushed, there were few brothers in his class. But that didn’t stop him from remaining in the fraternity, even as others dropped due to low numbers.

“It’s understandably difficult to join an organization with an uncertain future,” Wilkerson said. “I didn’t leave, because I was already a part of it and I really liked the people that were still there. If you’re from the outside, it’s a different story.”

Both current and past members attribute past struggles with rushing to disorganization and conflict within the fraternity. Disaffiliated member Balen Essak, ‘20, said “exhausting” disagreements started occurring frequently last year, leading to a loss of the community that was there when he originally joined the fraternity.

“I did find what I was looking for for a long time in Sigma Nu,” Essak said. “It was a really awesome place for me to be supported.”

But things started to change after his sophomore year.

“The people that started joining Sigma Nu were different than the people that were in the class above me,” Essak said. “And then they had different views on what the fraternity should look like, how exclusive the fraternity should be, what kind of parties we should throw, and so it slowly changed.”

For various reasons, five brothers in Essak’s pledge class decided to drop the summer before this academic year. Essak said he decided to stay in order to not overcomplicate housing plans and to support the member he primarily rushed into the fraternity, while expecting the fraternity to return to the “open and welcoming” community he had his freshman and sophomore year.

Essak said the “breaking point” was a party thrown earlier this academic year: “Big Fiesta.”

During Essak’s first two years in Sigma Nu, the fraternity threw a party called “Sigma Nuevo.”

At the beginning of his sophomore year, current Ring-tum Phi editor-in-chief Hannah Denham, ‘20, then an arts and life reporter, wrote an opinion piece critical of the party for The Odyssey Online and later published in campus thought magazine The Vigil. The piece was entitled, “You Can Party Without Appropriating a Culture.”

“I thought they [Denham] made very valid points, other people disagreed, but that didn’t really matter,” Essak said. “A couple of the guys in the fraternity, some of whom dropped over the summer after our junior year, some of whom were a year above me, and myself were talking and we brought it up to the chapter that we shouldn’t have Sigma Nuevo — that’s an appropriative party, it’s a racist party.”

He said some said it’s celebrating Mexican culture, but he thinks that’s “ridiculous.”

“We as a majority white organization don’t get to choose how Mexican culture is celebrated,” Essak said.

After that conversation, the fraternity no longer hosted Sigma Nuevo. But this past fall, while Essak was abroad, the fraternity hosted “Big Fiesta.”

Wilkerson said “Big Fiesta” was a cultural celebration and the “brainchild” of a fraternity member of Mexican heritage, who led planning for the party.

“It wasn’t a fraternity deciding, ‘Oh, let’s throw a party of this theme,’ it was him personally that wanted to do that,” Wilkerson said. “As far as cultural references, I saw blown-up cactuses, like plastic cactuses. Which I don’t think are particularly offensive. And the name is in Spanish.”

Wilkerson added that he went to an international school in Japan with an “incredibly diverse” population, and that the school would often do lots of cultural celebrations. “And frankly, I don’t really see a difference between what we’ve done there and what we’re doing here,” he said.

But Essak said when he saw Snapchats for the party while he was abroad, which he said featured white fraternity members in sombreros and playing beer pong while listening to Spanish music, he felt the fraternity he’d joined freshman year was “dead.”

“There were people in the organization that knew that we had this fight before and they knew what my position was, they knew what other people’s position was,” Essak said. “And they decided that after Mourad [Berrached] and Tim [Pierce] and Zach [Christian] dropped the fraternity and while I was abroad, they could go back to throwing a racist party, which I find to be disgusting.”

Despite leaving, Essak said he still cares very deeply about a lot of the Sigma Nu members. And he thinks he “probably would have caused more conflict in the fraternity” had he stayed.

Essak added that there were always differences of opinion within the fraternity. But eventually, the people in charge of the fraternity no longer held Essak’s beliefs, creating an “unhealthy and unproductive” situation.

“I think that a group of people with different ethical and political beliefs than myself are now in charge of the fraternity. And because of that, they’re making decisions that I do not agree with,” Essak said. “I don’t want to be a part of an organization [where] all of my time is spent fighting with people that are making decisions and fighting about what I think the fraternity should look like, because it’s exhausting. And that’s not what it should be about.”

Wilkerson said that the fraternity is now “a much more cohesive unit” and that he doesn’t believe his relationships with previous members have changed in any negative way.

“When people get along, people have more fun,” Wilkerson said. “Both the people that stayed and the people that left made the right decision insofar as they’re now getting a better social experience, because they’re able to interact with people that don’t aggravate them as much. I think it was perfectly legitimate that everyone went about it the way that they did.”

It’s unclear whether Sigma Nu will lose their house and chapter at Washington and Lee. But Peralta and Wilkerson both said that if they do, members won’t lose the relationships they’ve developed with their brothers throughout their time on campus.

“[Sigma Nu] gave me a sense of identity on campus,” Peralta said. “Having a group of 40 to 50 guys just instantly be my friends was incredible. I could say wholeheartedly I trust my life with any of those guys in there… We’re going to be together next year, regardless of the stance of the fraternity. It is ultimately eternal brotherhood.”

To keep their on-campus house on 4 Henry Street, the fraternity must initiate at least six new members by the end of the year.

Editor’s Note: Due to a conflict of interest, Hannah Denham did not participate in the editing process for this article.