By Halle Douglass
There is an anonymous quote that says, “Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” After hearing McKendree Alumna Caitlyn Westfall’s story about her experience in Sigma Sigma Sigma, I could not agree more. I recently met her during formal recruitment, where she shared her story with all members, old and new. I felt incredibly moved and inspired by her story.
Westfall came to McKendree as a freshman in the Fall of 2010, and she had convinced herself that she was not going to join a sorority in college. Shortly after the start of her freshman year, Caitlyn’s best friend asked her to accompany her to the involvement fair because she had been interested in joining a sorority and wanted to visit the tables. Caitlyn was reluctant, of course, but agreed to go anyway for moral support. I remember during recruitment when she was telling her story, she told us exactly what she told her friend that day: “If you put my name on anything, we’re done,” she recalled with a laugh.
Caitlyn talked about her RA being at the Tri Sigma table, who immediately asked her with a big smile if she was interested in joining. Again, she said no.
However, it was not long before her opinion changed. As the semester went on, she started meeting more and more people that began to change her view on Greek Life.
“It was really the women that I met,” she began, thinking back on the things and the people that made her, in a way, see the light. “A lot of the women who were seniors at that time in the extension committee, I really kind of found as role models, especially that first semester navigating college. They had events to try and keep interest, like game nights, and the more events I went to and the more women that I talked to, the more I was like, ‘Oh, wow. They’re not the stereotype that I had in my head, they’re really nice, they’re academically driven and they care about the community and community service.’ So ultimately what made me decide to go through with it [recruitment] was that every stereotype I had in my head was kind of built down at some point in time, and so I thought ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot.’”
It was the second semester of her freshman year when Caitlyn was finally able to go through the recruitment process. Like every girl who goes through recruitment, there was a particular thing that was said/done that made her decide that Tri Sigma was indeed the group she wanted to be a part of. When I asked her what this moment was for her, she said with a smile, “When they finally could start giving out bids, things were starting to get real. It went from ‘Oh, you should join us,’ to ‘We need a woman like you.’ […] I wasn’t just pledge number blah blah blah, I was Caitlyn, and they wanted Caitlyn in this sorority because of what I could bring to it.” She also mentioned that several women talked to her and told her, “I think you could be one of us someday, like, I think you could be the next chapter president,” and this was all based off of the qualities that these women had seen in her. This was the winning moment for her, this is when she knew Tri Sigma was where she belonged.
Come late January of 2011, Caitlyn received her bid from Tri Sigma, but, ended up deciding not to take it. She was worried about the finances, referring to the price of the dues that she would have to pay every semester. She was later talking to her RA, who was also in Tri Sigma and had developed a close friendship with, and she was telling her that they may not get chartered (meaning this particular chapter of Tri Sigma would not become official) because they did not get enough members. This convinced her once again to join this sorority. “I wish there was a better, sexier answer than, I simply did it for a person,” she said with a laugh.
However, there was more to this than simply accepting her bid to make her friend happy. Around this time, she had been struggling with some personal issues. “That was right around the time that I was starting to get out of a relationship. In that moment, it was almost like a do or die because I had Laura (her RA) just telling me ‘It’s not looking good, I don’t think we’re gonna get chartered,’ plus this relationship coming to a head and finally getting out of it and my friends turning their back on me; it was kind of like a perfect mix of both of those things happening that I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do it.’”
Caitlyn’s decision to eventually go through with this and accept her bid ended up giving her so many amazing opportunities that lead her to be where she is today.
“It gave me some of the strongest leadership roles,” she said.
In April of 2011, not long after Caitlyn joined Tri Sigma, the Theta Gamma chapter chartered, meaning it became an official chapter. A few short months after, she was contacted by the chapter president, and was appointed to be the new Membership Recruitment Director after the previous one had stepped down. On top of this, Caitlyn was involved in many other campus organizations. “I was involved in a lot. I was an NSO leader, a student ambassador, debate and speech, like I did so much stuff, but what stands out with Tri Sigma above these other groups is that I feel like if I didn’t have that leadership role in Tri Sigma, I might not have really explored my leadership style and became who I was as a leader,” she said. Later on in the year, she actually went through the election process and ran for MRD and was elected into the position, giving her another year on the job.
Caitlyn was also elected President of IGC (Inter-Greek Council) in 2013. “If I wasn’t Membership Recruitment Director and if I hadn’t taken such a huge responsibility in Tri Sigma, then I would’ve never known about IGC. Then from there, being so involved, I saw that there was a need in the Greek community to bring everybody together and to provide some organization and oversight, so that led me to be IGC President,” she said.
Because of this huge jump in leadership and her involvement in the Greek community, Caitlyn has gained many incredible opportunities outside of McKendree, including conferences and conventions. One of her first experiences of this was when she got the opportunity to go to ASLV (Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values), a large undergraduate Greek leadership conference. “I got to meet a ton of people and network a lot, and I kind of figured out student affairs, and from there, I went to grad school and got a full ride. I did my internship in Greek Life for two years and then got hired as a professional Fraternity and Sorority advisor. It was really all going back to Tri Sigma,” she said.
Today, Caitlyn works as an Assistant Director of Education and Leadership at Sigma Sigma Sigma Headquarters. She and her boss work to split all of the national programs that Tri Sigma has to offer. These programs include Dunham Women of Character Institute, President’s Academy, Labyrinth Leadership Experience, etc. When it comes to these programs, Caitlyn is in charge of finding the hotel, booking it for the conference, booking the room blocks, contacting all the collegiates, registration, basically everything that needs to be done to make the conferences a success and to make them run smoothly.
“My main responsibility is writing leadership and education curriculum. For Dunham specifically, I’ll write the whole program for the weekend, but then I’ll hire three facilitators to come in and do it. During New Member Education on Essential Sigma, my job is to make that module.” she said.
As our interview comes to an end, she smiles and says “It’s a pretty cool job.”
What I learned, and what I hope other people learn from reading Caitlyn’s story is to not let obstacles stand in the way of what you want to do, to overcome them, because you could gain so many opportunities that will help you in the long run.