History of Phi Beta Kappa

What is Phi Beta Kappa?

Phi Beta Kappa is the most prestigious undergraduate honor society in the liberal arts and sciences in the United States. It was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary and has operated continuously since then. Many of the most eminent politicians, jurists, businessmen, and academics have been members. Don't let the Greek letters in the name fool you! This is not a social fraternity; it is an honor society. The name ΦBK was chosen in 1776 by the founding members because they stand for the Society's motto "Love of learning is the guide of life," translated from Greek.

  • The Phi Beta Kappa Society: The National Phi Beta Kappa Society is a democratically run society that consists of chapters and associations distributed across the United States. It carries out a variety of activities, all of which are intended to support and encourage excellence and breadth of education in secondary and post-secondary education. The National Society also sponsors lectureships (for example, their Visiting Scholar program, which subsidizes the costs of bringing eminent scholars to schools that have PBK chapters), and they administer scholarships as well. In addition, Headquarters is located in downtown Washington D.C., and members of Congress and of the Executive branch of our government frequently consult the National Society regarding educational policy.

  • Chapters: The chapter at a school consists of the faculty, staff, and administrators who themselves were invited to join Phi Beta Kappa based on the excellence of their performance as undergraduates. Chapters also include honorary members who were chosen and initiated by the chapter. Having a PBK chapter is an honor to a school. Out of the thousands of 4-year degree-granting institutions in the United States, currently there are only 286 campus chapters. Chapters have the power to elect and initiate new members.

  • Alumni Associations: The members of alumni associations were initiated into Phi Beta Kappa at schools where they were undergraduates. There are currently 50 Associations, typically located in urban centers. They schedule activities to foster friendship and learning in their communities, so they can be a great way to make new friends after a move to a new home.

  • For further information, please see the National Society's Web site at https://www.pbk.org.

Phi Beta Kappa in San Diego

PBK Sigma charter document

The chapter at UCSD is named "Sigma of California." It was chartered in 1977, and it is the second oldest chapter in San Diego. The other chapters are Nu of California at SDSU and Phi of California at USD. Our resident membership consists of 176 faculty and staff who were initiated as college students, although fewer than that actively participate in chapter activities. Each spring we send a newsletter to all resident members detailing recent activities and ways to get involved. Contact us if you are a member and haven't received your copy. We would love to hear from you!.

Chapter Activities

Nominating New Members

Our primary activity is nominating new members each spring and initiating them. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa has always been by invitation only. Each spring a committee of chapter members considers students who meet a minimum set of requirements and selects those who fulfill all of the criteria for membership. The National Society of Phi Beta Kappa stipulates general rules that chapters must follow, and chapters have some latitude in setting the details. Follow these links to find out more about the eligibility criteria at UC San Diego and to read about the advantages of becoming a member.

Graduation Ribbons and Certificates of Membership

Each student who has been invited into Phi Beta Kappa and has joined the Society receives a certificate of membership and a ribbon insignia to wear at his or her commencement ceremony. The ribbon insignia consists of blue and pink ribbons because these were the official colors chosen by the founders of the Society. (In 1776 these colors were expensive and considered to be very special because they were exceedingly difficult to produce with the dyes in use at the time.) The best way to get these tokens of membership is to attend the initiation ceremony, but if you cannot attend, alternative arrangements are possible.

Chapter Awards

students receiving awards

During the initiation ceremony we also give monetary awards to outstanding initiates to support their upcoming graduate studies. Initiates must apply for these awards, and we send instructions along with the e-mail message notifying students of their nomination.