Select group of liberal arts students join elite honor society, Phi Beta Kappa

2012 FIU Phi Beta Kappa Epsilon Chapter inductees

FIU political science major Graciela Aguero remembers noticing years ago that a lot of U.S. presidents have been members of an honor society called Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) – 17 presidents in all – including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

So Aguero did a little research on FIU’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. “It basically said, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,'” Aguero said.

Indeed, membership in the elite Phi Beta Kappa is by invitation only.

Soon enough, Phi Beta Kappa did come calling for Aguero, who is graduating magna cum laude this spring. She is among the 105 FIU students to be invited into FIU’s Phi Beta Kappa Epsilon chapter this year. The inductees represent FIU’s brightest and most academically accomplished students in the College of Arts & Sciences.

“I’m honored to be a Phi Beta Kappa inductee,” she said. “I’ve loved my time here. I’ve really had great professors and a really amazing education.”

Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary. Other famous Phi Beta Kappas include seven of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, a long list of Nobel Laureates and cultural icons like Booker T. Washington, Gloria Steinem and Francis Ford Coppola.

Only 10 percent of universities and colleges in the country have Phi Beta Kappa – in 2001 FIU was one of the youngest schools ever to be granted a chapter. Phi Beta Kappa limits membership to no more than 10 percent of arts and sciences graduates annually.

“That means no more than 1 percent of the college graduates nationwide become Phi Beta Kappa members,” said chemistry Professor Leonard Keller, secretary of FIU’s chapter.

At FIU, a panel of faculty members who are Phi Beta Kappa members themselves screen and select the honorees based on outstanding academic performance. The professors are looking for more than just a high GPA; students must also demonstrate excellence in mathematics and foreign language, as well as good character.

College of Arts & Sciences Associate Dean Gisela Casines congratulated the parents of the inductees at the start of this year’s ceremony. “Those who were invited to join Phi Beta Kappa form a very small group of graduates,” she said. “The students can’t do it without family support. You all are unofficial members of Phi Beta Kappa.”

Bill Castaño and Delia Bolaños Castaño, Aguero’s parents, were among the proud parents at this year’s annual ceremony and dinner.

“She was always smart since she was little,” Castaño said. “Her whole life she’s been studious.”

Each year, FIU’s PBK chapter also inducts one alumnus who embodies the honor society’s values, but graduated before FIU’s chapter was founded in 2000. This year’s alumni honoree is Nicasio Urbina ’83, MS ’84, who earned a doctorate at Georgetown University and is now a professor of Latin American literature at the University of Cincinnati.

During his keynote address, Urbina said he never expected the invitation. “But as a man of letters, as a scholar, as a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati, I fully understand the importance and significance of this honor.”

Urbina reminded students of Phi Beta Kappa’s founding principles, the free exchange of ideas, liberty of expression and scientific inquiry. Those principles have guided Urbina’s life. He left Nicaragua in 1980 disenchanted with the Sandinista revolution and drove a taxicab in Miami. He recalled spending hours at the library wondering how he was ever going to become a writer. His sister-in-law encouraged him to take classes at FIU.

“I took Literature and Revolution,” Urbina said. “What a revolution it was. A new world of hope and opportunity opened to me…. Many of you are graduating. You will take with you the principles you acquired in your education. Hopefully you will use those talents for the common good.”