By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
An “outlaw” chapter of a national service fraternity celebrated its 25th anniversary at The University of Texas at El Paso with several activities including a campus tree planting ceremony to symbolize the group’s growth and stability.
About 30 members, families and friends of Omega Delta Phi (ODPhi) attended the chilly April 5 ceremony on the front lawn of Benedict Hall. About half a dozen fraternity brothers past and present offered heartfelt testimonials about how their membership shaped their lives and the lives of approximately 700 brothers throughout the years.
Nick Fernandez, an El Paso Community College psychology instructor, said the fraternity attracts students who want to be great. He said the group’s core values of unity, honesty, integrity and leadership have helped develop UTEP graduates into doctors, lawyers, educators, administrators and entrepreneurs.
“I’m grateful this fraternity was here for me,” said Fernandez, who earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from UTEP in 2003 and was ODPhi president from 2002-03. “It taught us about diversity and conflict resolution. It taught us not to be shy or scared. It helped us to do our jobs.”
Jaime Mendez, director of UTEP’s Student Support Services Center and one of the fraternity’s founding members, used the planting of the Chinese pistache tree as an allegory for the chapter. He said what started as a seed has blossomed into a strong tree through the care of its members. Each branch could be a year and each leaf a member, and the tree as a whole will serve The University of Texas at El Paso with its shade and beauty.
Mendez, who served as chapter president twice in its early years, reflected on the group’s unorthodox beginnings. He and several high school friends met during Christmas break in 1988 and one discussed pledging with Texas Tech University’s “ODPhi,” which had formed in 1987. The group wanted to become the nation’s premiere multicultural fraternity. The others liked what they heard and took steps to start the fraternity’s second chapter at UTEP.
The freshman foursome filled out the necessary paperwork and were then invited to a student organization council that included former Dean of Students Joe Avila. Mendez attended alone because the other three had work obligations. When he arrived, he found out he was expected to make a formal presentation. He said he fell back on his theater arts background and the “hearing” scene from the 1978 film Animal House to make an impromptu case for Omega Delta Phi.
“I was supposed to defend our presence on campus,” Mendez said. “I used (voice) inflections and was passionate. I was convincing myself at the same time.”
Then the problems started that earned them their “outlaw” reputation.
It turns out the UTEP group did not request permission from the alpha chapter at Texas Tech, which sternly requested the UTEP chapter disband. Not only did the UTEP group refuse, but Mendez contacted a friend at the University of Arizona requesting he start another ODPhi chapter as a retaliatory strike to take the heat off them. The Tech chapter called for a truce after Texas A&M University started its chapter in 1991. Today the fraternity has around 40 chapters and more than a dozen “colonies,” or new probationary chapters, around the country.
“That was the best moment of my early college life,” Mendez said. “We were young and wanted to do something crazy.”
Aside from the tree planting, the group’s other weekend activities were a picnic, golf tournament, dinner and dance, and a Sunday brunch. About 200 people, including approximately 90 alumni, participated. Some traveled from as far away as Colorado and California. Proceeds from the weekend celebrations will be used to help start a fraternity scholarship fund.
Since its inception, UTEP’s ODPhi has been active in community service. They have adopted a portion of Americas Avenue near Zaragoza Road, assisted at Project Celebration (overnight parties for high school graduates), and participated in canned food drives. Each undergraduate member pledges 30 community service hours per semester.
“Their strong emphasis on service has benefitted the campus and the surrounding community,” said Gary Edens, Ed.D., vice president for student affairs. He lauded the ODPhi brothers for being quick to volunteer for UTEP spirit events such as Homecoming and service events such as Project MOVE, which stands for Miner Opportunities for Volunteer Experiences.
“They, like so many of our student organizations, understand the value of involvement and have continuously worked hard to improve UTEP and the student experience across campus,” Edens said.
Edens added that the fraternity always has valued diversity among its membership, which fits well with UTEP’s campus culture and is a major reason for the group’s ongoing success.
The list of former fraternity brothers working at UTEP include Mendez; Martin Muñoz, a director with University Development; Frank G. Pérez, Ph.D., associate professor of communication and charter member; Craig Thompson, associate director of the University Career Center; and David Vasquez, head cheerleading coach.