If a student stops and asks an officer at the tables that pop up around campus with the initials PTK on them, they tend to hear three big things: the academic requirements are a 3.50 GPA to get in and 3.25 to stay in; Phi Theta Kappa is a great way to be involved on campus and really useful for students going on to university; and no, PTK is not a fraternity.
Phi Theta Kappa, or PTK, loves its acronyms nearly as much as it does Greek letters. One acronym gets used a lot, one that is nearly meaningless to most of its members, but will nonetheless elicit a Pavlovian response from a few: HIA, which stands for Honors in Action. Reduced down to its essentials, HIA is an action informed by research centered around a theme which changes biennially.
Or in other words, once every two years, the good folks at PTK headquarters send out a booklet of tantalizing essays so that innocent PTK officers can pick from it their luscious and also trackless jungle in which to trek. The beauty and terror of HIA projects is the possibility of them. Starting from a theme from the aforementioned booklet–of which there are around seven–a group (or the officer in charge) develops a research question and follows it to try and perform an action–that they formulate–which will benefit their community–which they also get to choose. Research done, they then perform the action and keep track of its effects. Finally, they write an essay documenting the entire process, complete with the sources from their research.
If the first few steps sound like a recipe for analysis paralysis just add STEM students and salt to taste.
“We don’t have any advance knowledge of the new themes,” Eric Shows, the HIA project advisor said, “so we are often learning, researching, and discovering along with the students at the beginning of an HIA cycle. Sometimes, I think the themes are described brilliantly and represent so much fertile ground for discovery. And other times I scratch my head and wonder where the topics originated. But the variety is what makes the HIA process really relevant and useful to scores of PTK members each year.”
“At first it was overwhelming,” Jessica Long, Secretary and Social Media Director of the Rho Sigma chapter as well as one of the officers on the 2023 HIA team, said. “We didn’t know where to start or what to do.”
In fact, it took the 2022 HIA team four months to decide on an action. This four months started in Gulfport, where the officer team was introduced to the theme. The introductory conference consisted of many handouts, speeches, a few workshops and not enough breakfast. By the end of it, they’d decided on a community and narrowed down the themes they would consider to three.
“We want to be unique,” Long wrote in the team’s journal, “but are trying to not block ourselves in. Part of our problem is wanting to be original but trying to not base our ideas off of other groups in Mississippi.”
Their journal is headed with a little joke:
Me– I don’t need to write it down. I’ll remember.
Narrator– She would not remember. In fact, she immediately forgot what it even was.
And it documents in little snippets the officer team’s long, unforgotten struggle with their project. Some chapters of PTK have had, for example, their HIA project on recycling oyster shells featured on television; some have produced Instagram videos to inform their community; still others have conducted conferences. The officers read about these projects, and wondered where their research would take them.
Two months after the Gulfport conference, the officers had chosen a single theme and begun researching it. They were looking at the infrastructure of their chosen community of Ellisville and wondering how to address the problems they were sure to find.
“It seemed that EBSCOhost didn’t have any good sources on small towns,” Long said. “Neither did Google, the library or the newspaper. But once we finally decided to ask our peers about what they enjoyed doing in a small town, we found our project. Everyone thought there was nothing to do. That wasn’t the problem though. There’s plenty to do that no one knows about.”
They asked their peers after one chaotic officer’s meeting in which one officer admitted to not knowing a donut shop existed in Ellisville, one wondered if dropping their chosen theme entirely would give them better chances of getting somewhere, and another asked in frustration if their project would end up being a series of Instagram stories promoting local deer hunting opportunities.
One of them didn’t know there was a donut shop; another thought the local deer hunting was the best thing on offer. Even after running the survey and finally deciding on their action component, the officers didn’t quite understand the problem–a problem they were experiencing just as much as the freshmen they were trying to help.
Even before the pandemic, generation Z–or iGen, according Jean Twenge, one author on the subject–was fast becoming one of the loneliest generations in history. In 2016, college students spent an hour less a day socializing in person than students in the late 1980s. This is caused by various factors, but the one the team focused on was a lack of places in which to socialize in person–which brought them to the conclusion that their peers simply didn’t know there were options. In looking at those options and cataloging them, they discovered the little they themselves knew.
“With this project,” said Breanna Penton, Vice President of Leadership and another officer on the HIA team, “I learned how many places I didn’t even know existed.”
Individually, the officers had their own reasons for not knowing what was in their adopted town: getting more of the grades that had landed them on the team in the first place, working various jobs and wrangling the age-appropriate issues of their identities, mental health and what constitutes too much TikTok time.
These issues affected most of their peers, but their entire generation also spent a year indoors due to a worldwide epidemic, locked away from what little teenagers are encouraged to explore. This isolation exacerbated their escalating epidemic of loneliness, and added to the problem the officers hadn’t known they had, that of not knowing their own places.
Their solution, their Honors in Action project’s action, was to create a guidebook to places unique to Ellisville. A few chapter members took pictures and helped collect information, but did not spend quite enough time living and breathing the project to react emotionally to the acronym HIA.
The officers agreed that in the end, the project was worth their time and tears.
“We were able to come together and create something amazing,” Long said, “even though we thought it couldn’t be done. I’m honestly really proud of all of our hard work, and can’t wait to see how it truly affects the community.”
“I have been proud of each HIA project that the PTK officers teams have produced since the start of my time as a PTK advisor,” Shows said. “This year’s guidebook is no exception to that. I really like projects where the end result is sustainable, and I think that’s a distinctive part of the Ellisville guidebook. It is not a static product that we can never use again. It can be continually updated and expanded to reflect what’s going on in our community and the needs of our college population.”
“The project was a struggle at moments, but in the end I can see this being beneficial for years to come,” Penton agreed.
by Lee Mixon