Rush Hour – A Look at Sororities and Fraternities
The decision to join a fraternity or sorority in college is a big one. It can have an enormous impact on your social life, where you’ll live, and even what you’ll do after you graduate. It’s a decision that, at some institutions, students must make within a month of matriculating.
Most U.S. colleges and universities maintain Greek houses in one form or another. Their size and influence varies; on some campuses just a scant percentage of students join a fraternity or sorority, while at others, many more do so. You’ll want to have an idea about the percentage of students involved in Greek life at a school before applying.
There are many stereotypes about fraternities and sororities in the media, which can obscure the true nature of the experience. What, then, are the benefits of joining a Greek organization? What are the potential downsides? And how will you know if joining one is right for you?
Obviously, Greek organizations vary from college to college, but for the most part, fraternities and sororities tend to offer the following positives:
Robust, lasting friendships.
“The concept of ‘brotherhood’ or ‘sisterhood,’ while a cliché, is a powerful aspect of Greek Life,” says Dan Sherrick, a junior and brother in the Theta Chi fraternity at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. “Your brothers or sisters within the chapter become the best friends that you could ever ask for; they’re practically family. It’s something that dorm life simply can’t hope to offer.”
Says Lindsay Asker, a sister in the Chi Omega sorority at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., “I have made some of my closest friends through my sorority, and have found that the bond with them is even stronger than with my friends from high school. As cheesy as it sounds, I know that I have found my bridesmaids for my wedding — whenever that actually happens — people I can confide in, and the women that I will be lifelong friends with.”
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
In addition to developing a social circle that can last a lifetime, the network of brothers or sisters can open doors to career-development opportunities down the road. “I have gotten almost every job in my life as a result of association with my sorority,” says Amanda Koerth, Panhellenic Council Advisor at the University of Georgia.
Andrew Shibley, executive vice president of the University of Tennessee’s Interfraternity Council (IFC), says that Greek life [helps] develop real-world management skills that could pay off after graduation. “The ability to lead a group of 80 men, or create a philanthropy, or lead a volunteer service project is something that employers will be very interested in.”
A built-in social life.
Fraternities and sororities typically have a number of parties, trips, events and other social activities planned throughout the semester. “Usually there is a social once a month,” says Asker of her sorority, “and then throughout the year [there are] formals, semi-formals, hayrides and philanthropy events.” Such occasions can make it easier to meet people from other houses.
A leg up in the classroom.
Most fraternities and sororities require a certain GPA to join and remain in the organization, and because of the priority that’s placed on academic performance, many houses have a built-in support structure to assist with class work. According to Luke Gustafson, a member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity at the University of Tennessee, “Structured study hours…help a lot, especially for incoming freshmen who are transitioning between high school and college.” Gustafson says there are tutoring programs with older chapter members that can assist younger students with time management, study skills and even interviewing techniques.
You can do some good.
Nearly all Greek organizations have some sort of charitable component to their charter, which can include almost anything from raising money for a charitable cause to volunteering on or off campus. It’s a great way to get involved in the community, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have on a resume.
It’s not free — and sometimes it’s not cheap.
Dues are a reality of the Greek system — membership in nearly any fraternity or sorority usually requires an up-front initiation fee and some form of regular payment. The dues pay for a variety of things, including upkeep and maintenance of the house, insurance, fees to a national organization, scholarships, and social events for members, alumni and prospective members.
There may be additional costs if you’re living and/or eating at the house, but you don’t have to live in the house to be an active member of a fraternity or sorority.
Conflicts with the college administration.
There has often been a tension between Greek organizations and college administrators. This may be the result of the perception that fraternities and sororities participate in hazing, or distract students from their academics.
Disagreements over the role of fraternities and sororities can sometimes cause rifts between Greek students and those not a part of the system. But Sherrick notes that students outside the Greek system can still take advantage of its benefits. “Greeks and non-Greeks at Illinois Wesleyan tend to get along quite well,” he says, “and it’s not uncommon to see non-Greeks at Greek social events.”
At some schools, Greeks are considered to be among the most supportive alumni. According to Susan Kirby, Director of Alumni Relations at Drury University, “Greeks who have graduated are a vital part of Drury’s Alumni Association. They are enthusiastic, involved and loyal. Many of them develop strong leadership skills during their Greek years and they become active alumni volunteers and leaders after graduation. They support the university because they are passionate about their Drury experience. And, they’re first in line at events like Homecoming and Reunion weekend. For most of them, the strong friendships forged during their years as students in the Greek system provide lifelong social and career networks.”
The media’s depiction of Greek life tends to be negative.
The definitive cinematic portrayal of life in a fraternity is, of course, National Lampoon’s Animal House. The 1978 classic hilariously depicts the antics of a fraternity at a fictional college. More recently, however, decidedly nonfiction stories sometimes appear in the media about hazing at college fraternities and sororities. How can incoming freshmen know what to expect from life in a fraternity or sorority?
“Of course I’m concerned by the media’s portrayal of Greek life on college campuses around the country,” says Gustafson, the vice president of recruitment for Tennessee’s IFC, “but I think I’m more concerned with the incidents that the media are reporting upon. Unfortunately, Greek organizations have bad apples out there that cast a dark shadow on the rest of the community… However, these few chapters are not representative of the good things happening in a majority of chapters across the country.”
Both the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference maintain policies strongly denouncing hazing. While this is not to say the practice never occurs at individual houses, it may be possible to get a sense for a house’s reputation during the recruitment process, so you’ll have a better idea what’s in store if you join.
In some cases, you have to make up your mind quickly.
The decision to join a fraternity or sorority can be a big one. On some campuses, however, you’ll barely have your bags unpacked before it’s time to start “rush,” the colloquial term for the recruitment process. Deciding whether to rush, and which house(s) to select, can be a lot for a first-semester freshman to take in — considering the adjustment to life away from home, the academic rigors of college, and the other ways one can get involved in campus activities.
Some schools require that incoming freshmen wait a full semester or longer before this decision. Often called “deferment”, this allows new students to acclimate themselves to college before deciding whether Greek life is for them. Certain universities allow freshmen to rush during their first semester, but they must wait until their sophomore year to move into a fraternity or sorority house. Additionally, some chapters permit students to wait until their spring semester or even until the beginning of their sophomore year before pledging.
Given all this, how, then, will you know what to do when you arrive on campus for your first semester?
“My advice is always to check it out and participate in the formal recruitment process,” says Carolyn Whittier, Director of Greek Life at Elon University in Elon, N.C. “There is no obligation to join if you choose to go through recruitment — but at least you will know exactly what you are saying yes or no to. I always encourage freshmen to understand that it is a time and a financial commitment — and to discuss that commitment with their families.”
“At the very least,” advises Sherrick, “take a serious look at Greek Life. My best memories are with my fraternity brothers. The bonds that you forge during your college years will last a lifetime.”
Adds Asker: “These girls are amazing, and I could not be prouder to call them my sisters…At the end of the day, I am still me and I haven’t changed, I just have the support of 180 other girls that I didn’t have before, and I love it!”
While many members of Greek organizations understandably laud their merits, it’s worth remembering that many, if not most, college students enjoy academic success and a fulfilling social life without joining a fraternity or sorority. Greek life isn’t for everyone, and with so many opportunities and activities to explore, finding your niche shouldn’t be difficult.