Updated: Sep 20, 2022
At Belmont University, the future of one of its eight nationally recognized Greek life organizations rests in the hands of just one member.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., which falls under the National Pan-Hellenic Council umbrella, otherwise known as the Divine Nine, is a historically Black fraternity founded at Howard University in 1914.
There are over 200,000 lifetime members across the nation, but Belmont’s Gamma Alpha Eta chapter has just one on campus: Muhammad Pickett, who is keeping the organization’s traditions going while looking to raise its profile.
For the graduating senior, misconceptions about who can join Phi Beta Sigma are part of what stands in the way of more membership.
“Sadly, at Belmont, a lot of people think that since it was founded as a predominately Black organization, white people and people of other races can’t join. That’s not true at all. People come to the informational meeting, and we see who they are as a person, not what they look like,” Pickett said.
When Pickett participated in intake, which is the process of joining the organization, there were only two active members on campus. Pickett was initiated in spring 2020, along with one other new member.
“Two of them graduated that semester, so then it came down to two people and then one graduated later,” he said.
“So now it’s just me.”
For Pickett, many responsibilities come with being the only active student in the fraternity.
He is not only the president of Gamma Alpha Eta, but he fills every other officer role in the chapter too, runs the chapter’s BruinLink table alone, organizes events and plans recruitment.
Because Pickett is in his final semester at Belmont, intake of new members is crucial this semester to prevent the chapter from going inactive, and he is working hard to find potential new Sigmas on campus who will be a good fit to carry on Phi Beta Sigma at Belmont.
“I take it really seriously,” said Pickett. “It’s always quality over quantity, meaning if I don’t find any brothers or potential members who are qualified or show that they will be assets to the fraternity, then I would much rather have to go inactive.”
Chapter alumnus Will Smith, the member initiated with Pickett, believes the diversity of the chapter is crucial.
Smith, who is white, put an emphasis on listening and being present for his Black brothers.
“I think to have brothers who are being oppressed, or anything of that sort, knowing they have somebody that they can talk to who wants to hear them and build them up and see them prosper and be successful, I think it’s vital,” said Smith, who graduated from Belmont in 2020 and was a Sigma for his last semester.
One key aspect of the organization that attracted Smith is the chapter’s emphasis on service work and personal accountability.
“It all goes back to God, to be honest. I prayed about it, and he just said this is an opportunity for me to have people who are going to hold me accountable and encourage me,” said Smith. “And that’s what the Bible tells us to do. We’re supposed to be in community with other people.”
NPHC organizations like Phi Beta Sigma focus largely on service work in the community rather than fundraising for philanthropies, and they are typically smaller than other fraternities and sororities.
“Chapter-wise, the structure of Divine Nine chapters look a little different,” said Courtney Heier, the university’s assistant director of student engagement. “Our chapters at Belmont have been anywhere from one person to 10 to 12 people while I have been here.”
“They have a tighter-knit community because it’s a lot smaller and they focus more on service than philanthropy,” she said.
As the only member of his fraternity at Belmont, Pickett conducts chapter meetings with Gamma Alpha Eta chapter adviser Raymond Wade; the two follow the proper chapter procedures and plan events like intake and community service.
For community service and other events, Pickett works with Sigma brothers at Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University and Fisk University, which have larger chapters.
As for growing Phi Beta Sigma at Belmont, the COVID-19 pandemic has also stood in the way of membership in recent months, Pickett said.
When fraternal events are held virtually and there are no opportunities to bring students together outside for chapter events, chances are people are not going to come, said Pickett.
Pickett’s goal for the chapter before he graduates is to pique the interest of the student body and increase the visibility of NPHC organizations at the university.
“Belmont can do as much advocating for us as it wants, but if the culture of the campus doesn’t understand NPHC organizations and does not look for them,” he said. “They believe that if I’m not Black I cannot join — a lot of the men at the university either know nothing about NPHC organizations or are completely uninterested.”
“I’m on the side of trying to pique those interests and increase visibility, but you can only increase visibility so much by being one person on campus.”
Phi Beta Sigma is currently running intake for upperclassmen and will run intake for freshmen in the coming spring.
PHOTO: Muhammad Pickett. Phi Beta Sigma, Gamma Alpha Eta chapter.
This article was written by A.J. Wuest.