For more than 50 years as a Cornell volunteer, Ralph Wilhelm Jr. ’67 has kept students at the center of his mission. As chair of the Fraternity Sorority Advisory Council (FSAC) for 10 years, from 2008 to 2018, Wilhelm guided the FSAC with a steady presence and a fresh perspective.
“I live for the interaction with the students, and with the staff and the faculty who have an influence in those students’ lives,” says Wilhelm, who still keeps in touch with some of the students he counseled. “It’s very important, like a family.”
Wilhelm sat down regularly with the top student leaders in each of the three Greek councils, sometimes one-on-one, other times in pairs. He says spending time to build connection and trust frequently opened doors to frank and honest feedback. Difficult situations in Greek life sometimes gave rise to difficult conversations and the need for undergraduates to think and act well beyond their calendar years to lead successfully.
The role called for Wilhelm and fellow alumni volunteers to serve as a bridge of understanding between the university and the Greek community, with its unique needs and challenges. Approximately one-third of Cornell students are members of a fraternity or sorority.
Co-chairing the Cayuga’s Watchers Board of Advisors and later Board of Directors was another opportunity to share lessons learned with student leaders. The student-run organization provides training for students to anonymously help prevent dangerous situations during social functions, such as sexual assault and the overuse of alcohol and drugs.
At the heart of Wilhelm’s volunteer work is gratitude for the people and experiences that helped him find his own way at Cornell. As an engineering student, he left after his grades plummeted in his third semester, questioning what he wanted to do with his life. Time away gave him perspective, and he returned with a renewed sense of purpose. He became a leader in his fraternity and gained a stronger sense of self with help from mentors.
“It gave me more self-confidence and the ability to interact with people. I never could have led large groups of people and held responsible positions in my fraternity or in my subsequent work life without getting that self-awareness. I decided Cornell had given me so much in terms of how to think and deal with people that I was driven to increase the amount of time I gave back,” he says.
During a 30-year career in the automotive industry, Wilhelm led a group of other Cornell graduates at General Motors Corp. to build a community of alumni who would return to campus to interact with students. Along with recruiting, interviewing, and giving talks, they set up experimental cars on the Engineering Quad, which proved a big draw. “That was a hoot. We got to meet quite a number of Cornell Engineering professors, staff, undergraduates, and also people in the business school,” he recalls.
Wilhelm is a life member of the Cornell University Council and a member of his Class Council, serving as chair of the 45th and 50th class Reunion campaigns. He continues to work with students through his Greek connections, Alumni Affairs and Student & Campus Life relationships, and interactions through the Cornell University Council. He serves as a sounding board and voice of experience for students who are questioning long-held assumptions or learning how to set and achieve realistic goals for themselves and their organizations.
“They measure you by what you do and not what you say,” Wilhelm notes. “You’re not there to make decisions for them. You’re there to provide feedback and potentially new ideas to aid their decision-making process.”
Written by Sally Parker, freelance writer