How Fearless Students, Big Ideas and Free Pizza Revived an AX Chapter to Star Status

Until recently, the Alpha Chi chapter at Grand Canyon University was, in the most generous assessment, an inactive chapter. At best, fifty students belonged, viewing their membership as little more than a pad to their resumes. Chapter events were infrequent. Enthusiasm non-existent. And its most recent student president had opted to step aside.

But this hadn’t always been the case. In the early 2000’s, the chapter was large and thriving. What happened? No one’s sure what led to the decline in the ensuing decade, but by 2015, Alpha Chi at GCU had lost its mojo.

So when Breeanna Naegeli, the school’s proactive new Alpha Chi sponsor, reached out to Zack Merhavy asking him to join the chapter’s board as its treasurer, he was flummoxed. “I didn’t even know what Alpha Chi was,” he remembers. “I’d never even heard of it before.”

Neither, at the time, did Zack know Thomas Varkey, the chapter’s ambitious new president. Thomas had been working to resurrect the chapter, but he was struggling against a wall of inertia.

That was about to change. In a very short time, Zack and Thomas would not only revive the club, but transform it into an exemplary Alpha Chi chapter.

Tips for Reviving your AX Chapter

Tip 1: Find transformational leaders.

It all started at Zack’s first board meeting. He came prepared.

“I’d been trying to figure out how to run the board for a year, and I’d had nothing but push back from different people,” remembers Thomas. “And then Zack walks into the room and says ‘Alright, this is how we can become a star status chapter.’”  Zack laid down his plans for a complete chapter revival. Thomas stared at his proposal, then looked up at Zack.  “And in that moment,” Thomas says, “I knew I had a partner in crime.”

From that day forward, Zack and Thomas were two men on a mission: to not just revive GCU’s Alpha Chi chapter, but to reach Star status. Feeding off each other’s leadership and ambition, the two began to re-shape the chapter from a uniquely student-centered perspective.

“Why would a student today want to join in Alpha Chi — or any honors society for that matter?” they asked. Their answer: for a chance to better themselves, for self-improvement, both academically and professionally.

To that end, the two science majors identified the biggest pain point their STEM classmates faced. “Organic chem and biochem are crazy hard subjects,” says Zack. “They are the make-it-or-break-it classes if you want to become a doctor.” So, they turned the AX meeting space into a tutoring center.

Tip 2: Be Student-facing.

Thomas volunteered twenty hours a week in the AX club room, tutoring not just AX members but also those students who aspired to Alpha Chi membership. Zack chipped in too, tutoring students in his fields of anatomy, physiology and physics. Soon word spread, and a steady flow of struggling chemistry students came to Thomas and Zack for help.

To the students, it was priceless tutoring. To Zack and Thomas, it was stealth recruiting. As the tutored students’ GPAs rose, they joined Alpha Chi. And existing AX members followed Zack and Thomas’ lead, volunteering to tutor in their fields.

The duo didn’t stop there. Following member enthusiasm, the AX club teamed up with the biomedical academy on campus to create tutoring videos for physics and organic chemistry.

“You have to give your members something they are passionate about—and let them run with it,” says Zack. The duo opened their chapter to grassroots passion projects. “If you have an idea for a project or something you want to do and have a passion for, send it to us,” they told everyone. Countless projects bubbled to the surface this way: a mural in the honors college space, volunteer efforts for a local food bank, and an honors advocate award to someone NOT in the honors program who positively impacts the university with a great idea.

Offering students a chance to improve themselves proved a successful tool for reviving the chapter. But so did free food.

Tip 3: When in Doubt, Pizza.

When Zack took over as treasurer, he was struck by how much money the chapter had in the bank. One of the unintended consequences of their chapter floundering for over a decade was a flush bank account. The two went on a spending spree.

For starters, it meant pizza at every meeting.

When GCU played their first game at their newly built soccer stadium—the largest collegiate soccer stadium in the country—Thomas and Zack pounced on the outreach opportunity. Alpha Chi threw an epic tailgate with free food and giveaways.

“Towards the end of the tailgate, we were tossing shirts and prizes out into the audience and people were screaming and jumping and pushing each other to grab free stuff,” recalls Zack. “I felt like a celebrity. We used a lot of our money to get hamburgers and stuff and it was a huge, huge event.”

The tailgate proved enormously successful. After years on the periphery, the chapter put the Alpha Chi name out front and center to the student body at the biggest sporting event of the year.

And they were just getting started. When new member invitations went out to qualifying students, they turned to the recruiting power of doughnuts. “We stood in front of the student union and had a little table with a tablecloth and handed out doughnuts at lunch hour,” says Thomas.

“I think we gave out 60 doughnuts for five days,” adds Zack. “We were able to talk to students about Alpha Chi, ask them if they received their invitation in their email, and how we’d love for them to join.”

Did doughnuts produce any results?

“It was so cool to see,” says Zack. “After handing out doughnuts, there was a triple involvement at the next meeting. It was just insane the very clear increase in member population.”

Tip 4: Don’t Shy Away from Big Ideas.

As the GCU chapter found new life, Thomas and Zack trained their ambition on a project with transformational impact to their university. Before joining Alpha Chi, Zack had an idea for Grand Canyon University to start a medical school and a university-run hospital. Thomas thought it was just the thing for the chapter to rally behind. Over the next year, the chapter, working with the dean of the Honors College, worked tirelessly to research, plan, and present the idea to the boards across the university, to the president, and to the university’s executive board. “Pitching a medical school is no small thing,” says Zack. “But that’s what Alpha Chi is all about—getting people together who can make a difference in the world no matter what field they are in.”

“The first time we presented,” says Zack, “we wanted to blow the board away, give them all this information and put them in the mindset that, ‘Yes,’ this was something we want to do as a school.”

Their idea won over the entire office of the school’s presidency and the executive board. An entirely student-driven campaign, the prospects of a launching a medical school and building a hospital still remain in the air. But Thomas, Zack and the entire Alpha Chi chapter will have played a key role.

For the chapter, this initiative further coalesced what they can achieve as a group. To Zack and Thomas, it cut to the heart of their leadership style. “Resurrecting a club requires that its leaders offer its members a motivational spark, this idea that we are going to do something great and we need you to come alongside us,” says Thomas. “As soon as you get that mindset, people come out of the woodwork that you didn’t even know existed.”

“We had chapter members who were basically hidden, unsure if whether they were even members anymore, but suddenly they became some of the most active members. They attend every single meeting.”

Tip 5: You’re Going to Need a Bigger Venue.

In the end, the numbers tell the story. Within a semester of Zack and Thomas’ leadership, chapter membership had skyrocketed. For the 2016 induction ceremony, the chapter had to change venues more than three times to accommodate a mushrooming crowd. More than 1200 people RSVP’d for the event. 450 inductees sat through the ceremony in a jam-packed building. “We broke so many fire codes,” laughs Thomas.  “We just had nowhere to put all those people. That’s when we realized—whoa—look how much bigger the club had become. That’s when we realized we had done something that’s huge.”

In one semester, they had grown the club from less than 50 members to 450.

Tip 6: Embrace Student-Led Change.

Many national honor societies are top-down organizations controlled by a centralized office. Not Alpha Chi. In fact, it’s a pillar of our organization that students lead their own chapters. And chapters determine their own path. The Grand Canyon University chapter proves the wisdom of this autonomy. Student leadership, creativity, and passion can accomplish what no national office could ever dictate. From local chapter planning, to events, to research, Alpha Chi students follow their own intellectual curiosity. And as members they not only have a voice, they have a vote.

As for Zack and Thomas, they have teamed up to conduct groundbreaking research in their final year at GCU, pursuing new antimicrobial properties in Sonoran Desert plants. They will present their findings—along with all the other GCU members—at the AX national conference. Having already transformed their chapter, they are now working on their own transformations—to medical school for Zack and a PhD in organic or biochemistry for Thomas.

“I’ve been so incredibly blessed with this opportunity to be on the board and work with Thomas,” says Zack.  “He’s shown me that nothing is ever impossible. You just have to have the right people—full of passion—behind you.”