By Tonya Graser Smith
My sorority prepared me to run my own law firm. Yes, seriously. It’s the truth, and I’m thankful.
If you think about it, college is an immersive learning experience. You’re getting ready for your not-so-distant-future career not just in lecture halls, but everywhere. There are all of the on-campus experiences: student government, student newspaper, Greek life, clubs, work-study programs, athletics and more. Plus, there are summer jobs and internships that offer lessons – and hopefully a little cash. There’s even the learning that comes from consequences of less-than-ideal choices like procrastination or partying too hard or too much.
Here are five ways that joining Delta Gamma at West Virginia University and later working for the organization internationally made me a better family law attorney and business owner.
Going through sorority recruitment (rush) – first as a prospective member and then as a Delta Gamma sister – is a lot like making a case. I learned how to present myself as well as represent my organization and communicate our values to others in a compelling, convincing and confident way. Greek life offered a crash course in presentation skills and the art of the elevator pitch. I learned how to put myself out there, turn small talk into sustained conversations, really get to know people and forge deep connections.
These are life skills that have helped me navigate more than just the courtroom. Dating, job interviewing (both as the prospective employee and the boss), networking, meeting and serving clients, and even parenting. Communication is everything.
In my senior year, I ran for president of my Delta Gamma chapter. Honestly, I figured I was a shoo-in. After all, I was an officer in my chapter, a representative on WVU’s Panhellenic Council and a student government representative. I bet you can see where this is going. Yep, I didn’t win.
The other candidate for the job came very well prepared. She presented a case for what her year as chapter president would look like. She came with goals and objectives. She outworked me. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. I haven’t rested on my laurels ever since and never will. Whether it’s a client meeting, trial or negotiation, I’m coming prepared or over-prepared. I’m coming to win.
After college and before law school, I worked for Delta Gamma on an international level. As a development consultant, I advised chapters across the U.S. and Canada. I learned when to delegate and when to push up my shirtsleeves to get to work alongside my peers. I learned how to lead by example. I learned how to be diplomatic and understand and empathize with all sides of an issue.
I later realized the professional benefit of being a trusted counselor and skilled negotiator along with having to also have frank conversations with local sorority leaders about financial budgets, vendor contracts, interpersonal communication, risk management and more. All of it equipped me to have difficult but necessary conversations with my family law clients and opposing counsel.
I’ll never forget flying across country to visit a Delta Gamma chapter in Nevada. Straight from the airport, I stood before nearly 100 young women and told them I was excited to be in Nevada, which I pronounced Nev-odd-ah. I was met with silence and stares. Nobody wanted to tell me – the leader in the room – that I got it wrong, so I did. “I got that wrong, didn’t I?” And then one of them said, “Yes, it’s Nev-add-a.”
This experienced humbled me. I remember it every time I get something wrong. I am quick to admit a goof or say that I simply don’t know the answer (yet). Sometimes the best strategy is saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but let me use my resources to find out and get back to you.”
In my involvement in my sorority, both during and after college, I learned a lot about running a business – and that turned out to be invaluable once I opened my law firm. Each event, like rush, a social or a community engagement, was like a small business project, complete with a budget, vendor agreements, financial goals and more.
I sure as heck didn’t learn how to balance a budget in any of my political science classes. Thank you, Delta Gamma!
Bottom line: When you think about how you got to where you are, consider and appreciate all of your experiences, including all of your college experiences. And if and when you have children in college, support their learning inside the classroom and out.