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There are many Greek letter societies on America's college and university campuses; some are social fraternities and sororities, others are honorary societies. The oldest and most prestigious of the honorary societies is Phi Beta Kappa. It was founded at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776, a date shown on the widely recognized Phi Beta Kappa key, the symbol of membership. Chapters were then established at Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth, all in the 18th century, followed by Brown, Amherst, Williams, Columbia, and Cornell in the 19th century. The first West Coast chapter was formed at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1898. The key worn today by new initiates differs little from the key designed in 1780 for the members of the chapter at William and Mary. 

The charter for a chapter at Santa Clara came along much later, in 1976, coincidentally the bicentennial year of the Society. It was the 222nd chapter to be established and the 11th in a Catholic University. Santa Clara is one of two Catholic universities west of the Mississippi to "shelter" a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. "Shelter" means that chapters are not granted to institutions but to Phi Beta Kappa faculty at those institutions. There are currently only 276 chapters at the more than 3,000 American colleges and universities.

Although the primary purpose of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is to recognize and honor graduating seniors (and a few very select juniors) at America's best colleges and universities, the Society provides to members a number of opportunities after graduation for enhancing their intellectual and social lives. In addition to chapters on campuses, there are Phi Beta Kappa Associations in virtually all major population centers in the country where Phi Beta Kappa members can gather for a variety of cultural and intellectual activities. The Northern California Association, centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, has a full schedule of meetings, lectures, concerts, and visits to literary and cultural sites in the area. In addition, the Associations sponsor scholarships for Phi Beta Kappa members, and give awards to students for achievement and to faculty for outstanding teaching.

Nationally, the Society sponsors the Mary Isabel Sibley Fellowship in French and Greek Classics, the Romanell Phi Beta Kappa Professorship in Philosophy, the Sidney Hook Lectureship, and a number of awards for distinguished books: the Christian Gauss Award, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. In addition, it sponsors a Visiting Scholar Program that sends outstanding scholars to campuses with Phi Beta Kappa chapters, to lecture, visit classes, and enhance the academic environment of numerous colleges and universities throughout the year. The Phi Beta Kappa Associates, a select group of Phi Beta Kappa alumni, also sponsors visiting lecturer programs around the country. Further, the Society has in recent years sponsored institutes for teachers to further the quality of liberal arts instruction in American high schools.

Phi Beta Kappa publishes a newsletter for its members, The Key Reporter, and a general interest journal, The American Scholar, which you can find at most well-stocked newsstands and bookstores.

Many members of Phi Beta Kappa have influenced the direction of the United States. Seventeen American presidents including Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have been elected to the Society, as have ten chief justices of the Supreme Court, and more than 130 Nobel Laureates. Members of PBK are prominent in all walks of life. The list of well-known members includes news anchor and journalist Christiane Amanpour, entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, retired quarterback Peyton Manning, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, and actress Kerry Washington.