Don Cooke didn't know much about the college honors society he joined two years ago, aside from the fact that it made him eligible for more scholarships.
That changed when he became head of Phi Theta Kappa's public relations at Anne Arundel Community College. Cooke said he learned more about the 90-year-old honors society for students at two-year colleges and its commitment to public service and leadership. Newly inspired, he realized that his campus chapter could be doing a lot more.
"We really didn't look beyond the borders of the campus," said Cooke, now the chapter president.
This year, the honors society swept a host of awards at the American Association of Community Colleges' annual convention April 5-8 in Philadelphia. The college's chapter won a Milestone Award for the best chapter performance in the Middle States region, which encompasses 76 chapters in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It also was the only Maryland chapter to make the list of the top 100 Phi Theta Kappa chapters worldwide.
"Students really ran with things this year," said Christine Storck, assistant director of Student Life and the chapter's sponsor.
In addition to boosting membership by nearly a third, the chapter cleaned up the campus and two county parks, donated holiday presents for needy children, held a book drive, expanded on-campus recycling and planted red flowers in memory of people who have died of AIDS.
Students gathered Thursday to clean up a stream on campus in one of their last events for the school year. On May 16, the chapter will host a 12-hour Relay for Life to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
Cooke, 44, is an Annapolis native and said he felt a certain pride in making the chapter the best.
"I'm passionate about making the world a better place," he said.
Phi Theta Kappa was based on honors societies that formed at several Missouri colleges in the early 1900s. Initially, Phi Theta Kappa membership was conferred on graduates, but the mission of the organization changed with the explosive growth of community colleges in the 1960s, according to the organization's Web site. Phi Theta Kappa chapters began working with undergraduates and encouraging them to do public service and work on leadership skills.
The Omicron Theta chapter at Anne Arundel Community College started 41 years ago. In each of the past three years, the chapter has won the Pinnacle Award for increasing membership by at least 10 percent from the year before, Storck said. The chapter had 355 members in 2007, a 32 percent increase from 2006.
Normally, the chapter recruits members by sending out invitation letters to those with a grade-point average of 3.5 or higher. In the past couple years, the chapter has been able to generate more awareness by hosting campus-wide events and making more use of its Web site.
"We tried to be very visible on campus whenever possible," said Christina Williams, the chapter's vice president.
The chapter won three Four Clover Awards for its environmental and beautification efforts. The chapter joined the Cecil County Community College chapter to clean up after the July 5 fireworks at Meadow Park in Elkton. The two chapters also teamed up with the Community College of Baltimore County chapters to clean up Arundel Hills Park in Ferndale on Nov. 16-17.
The Arundel chapter expanded on-campus recycling by getting bins for plastics, cell phones and ink cartridges. The campus cafeteria also stopped using plastic foam containers at the chapter's urging, Williams said.
The chapter won the Red Ribbon Award for its work in raising awareness of HIV/AIDS. In addition to planting memorial flowers, it invited a speaker to talk to students about AIDS awareness.
The chapter's work has made such an impact on the 28-year-old Williams that she has pledged to help other chapters even after she graduates in May with an associate's degree with a concentration in psychology. Williams plans to attend Frostburg University this fall. She said she would help form a Phi Theta Kappa chapter at nearby Garrett College and assist the chapter at Allegany College of Maryland.
"It really kind of spoke to me in giving back to the community," said Williams, of Glen Burnie. "This chapter really is the world to me."