“What if someone did you a favor, something big, and instead of paying them back, what if you paid it forward to three other people? And the next day, they would pay it forward to three more people, and each day, everyone in turn paid it forward this way. In two weeks, you would touch 4,782,969 lives.”
This concept from the movie “Pay it Forward” echoes the motto of one of Christopher Newport University’s most cryptic organizations.
“Service without recognition” is the mission of the mysterious CNU group, PIF, which openly stands for Pay It Forward. However, in an email from the organization, an unidentified member said, “The real meaning of PIF is known by members only.”
“We are a secret society founded with the purpose of promoting spirit and service on campus,” the email from PIF read. “We do not disclose our identities because our aim is to provide service without recognition and to always represent the entire student body.”
The concept of Pay It Forward relates to social psychology, and is also known as reciprocal exchange. Volume Two of “The Handbook of Social Psychology” states, “Although some of the specific rules of social exchange vary across societies, the norm of reciprocal exchange is universal,” meaning that instead of paying someone back monetarily for a favor, it can be reciprocated either back to that person or to someone else. The concept is that no favor will go unpaid, and helping others is a worthwhile use of one’s time.
This organization has sparked curiosity in students and the administration alike. Students may have seen signs of PIF’s efforts on campus in one of several ways. The group had a panel on the fence around Forbes Hall last semester, with a triangle, the letters “PIF” and the slogan “Service without recognition.” During exams last year, the group left pennies in the middle of the Trible Plaza with stickers saying, “Good luck” attached to each penny. It is rumored that PIF is also the group behind the tiny folded paper cranes left on the doors in residence halls, which reflect wishes of good luck and fortune.
An interview with Dean of Students Kevin Hughes brought to light just how mysterious this group is.
“What I know is that it’s a secret society of sorts, I don’t know how many people are in it. I know that they have done a variety of different things over the last three years,” Hughes said.
A few years ago, according to Hughes, PIF left letters for each graduating senior on chairs at the commencement rehearsal. They were also the first ones to paint the rock near Ratcliffe Hall.
When they provide a service to the campus or students, they periodically email Hughes letting him know what they have done, just to make him aware. The only contact he has with PIF is when they initiate it. Hughes also confirmed that PIF is not a recognized organization on campus.
“We do not have a PIF organization on campus, I can tell you that,” Hughes said. “As a secret society, they aren’t going to seek recognition. There are a variety of ways to do secret societies, but if you’re asking me if they’re recognized, no.”
The Office of Student Activities, as well as the Center for Honor Enrichment and Community Standards, had no further information about PIF. Some students across campus were not even aware of this organization when asked to comment.
However, one student has had not one, but two interactions with PIF.
One night in March last semester, Junior Arrenvy Bilinski received an email from PIF, which stated the following: “You have given amazing contributions to this campus as a Resident Assistant, which do not go unnoticed. We, PIF, are a secret society that has seen the significant positive impact you have had on the lives of your residents and those around you. For this service, we would like to help appreciate you even further!”
The email went into details about having Bilinski participate in a project one night, with a certain time and date she would have to be available. She accepted to participate and emailed back her cell phone number, which PIF requested.
“That night I got a text from their email address that said what I had to do was go behind the CNU Landing sign and pick up a bag,” Bilinski said. “I was on duty with another RA and we finished our walk, and went there and picked up a huge white bag. I told them I had it and waited and they texted back and said ‘take the bag back to the office and there will be instructions.’ Inside were a bunch of little white paper bags with all the RA’s names on the outside and on the inside were door tags with inspirational quotes and some candy.”
“I think each RA got emails and had to do the same thing. Whoever it is has access to information,” she added, concluding the story of her first interaction with PIF.
Bilinski is also involved with the Campus Activities Board (CAB), and PIF contacted a committee chair saying they had materials to set up a table at this year’s Fall Fest, held on Sept. 16. The PIF table consisted of a sign and packs of construction paper to write letters to soldiers.
After Fall Fest, CAB was instructed to return the materials and PIF requested to have a female CAB representative leave them in a locker in the Freeman Center. They provided them with the locker number and the appropriate code to unlock it.
Bilinski is on the committee that PIF contacted, and volunteered to return the bag of materials. She went to the Freeman Center women’s locker room, and had a strange experience trying to return the materials.
“I had to get a key to unlock the actual locker, and they were asking me what it’s for and why, and I really couldn’t explain it,” Bilinski said. “A lot of students don’t know what it is or what their purpose is. I told them, ‘this is something that they sent me and I need to leave it in the locker room.’ So one of the female employees went in and unlocked the locker, so we left the bag. It was really weird.”
The activities of PIF will remain mysterious, and students and faculty may never know who is involved. But their mission remains clear – PIF is committed to service without recognition.
“I guess the whole point is to be selfless in service, so, that makes sense.” Bilinski said.