Welcome to the Family

Greek life has glorious traditions and problematic issues, just like any family. The system has become increasingly controversial under the public spotlight, and society is beginning to ask: is Greek life worth preserving, or is the family album running out of pages?

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Welcome to the Family

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With each step, the music becomes louder and the floor becomes stickier. As you descend into the basement, you fight against the flashing lights to distinguish your fellow fraternity brothers from the sea of unfamiliar faces. Wading through crushed beer cans and empty red Solo Cups, you push through the sweaty masses and make your way deeper and deeper into the horde. You spot a bottle of vodka floating across the dance floor; as it weaves in and out of the crowd, alcohol splashes, contributing to the ever-growing grease and grime that consumes the cold, wooden floor. The music and sound of 200 other partygoers’ feet pounding against the floor align, causing unattended drinks and various snacks to pulsate with every beat. It’s 9 p.m., and the party has only just begun.

Parties, like this one described by University of Washington sophomore Rylan Burns, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, have begun to overshadow the traditional culture associated with the Greek system. The promise of a tight-knit community incentivizes students to join Greek life, but what comes after bid day is always a visceral experience; students often discover that the Greek system fosters a culture saturated with alcohol and substance use disorders, as well as racist and sexist tendencies. However, Greek life can also positively affect an individual’s college experience, allowing one to gain a stable community, a sense of pride, long-lasting friendships, and engagement in both social life and charity. These positive aspects have recently begun to compete against the negative views of the Greek system to answer the question you’ve been asking yourself all along: is it worth it?

Those who participate in the Greek system throughout their entire time in college are forever connected to their chapters, prompting them to ask themselves the same question they did as undergraduate students: was their experience worth it?

Before becoming a sorority president at the University of Michigan, Maeve Avila, whose name has been changed, remembers the excitement and anticipation she felt before joining Greek life. “I think I was looking for friendship, [and] having the mentorship of older girls who I admired,” she said.

Her experience within the Greek system, however, did not fulfill her hopes. “I spent all my time trying to impress or create relationships in this really arbitrary way,” Avila said. “It felt like you were in a popularity contest, [which] is rated by going out and being drunk in class the next day. It [the Greek system] totally compromised my social and intellectual abilities during the first two years.”

As students venture further into the established order, they often find themselves experiencing peer pressure and an obligation to conform to the quintessential lifestyle. “These things [partying and drinking] are social cachets, and it’s hard when you’re in [a sorority] to not fall into these patterns and care about these things,” Avila said. “I didn’t realize how unhappy it made me until I exited the arena.”

In efforts to hold onto a sense of community, members become wrapped up in the chaotic Greek lifestyle. Seemingly oblivious, students are often subconsciously influenced by the harmful system, with long term effects that can persist long after the end of their days of college life and partying.

The prevalent partying culture in college has encouraged heavy drinking among members of fraternities and sororities. According to Kenneth Sher, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, “the Greek system represents the center of drinking culture [on many campuses].”

A student’s participation in the party culture established within Greek life can work to explain their past, and even has the power to define their future. “On average, individuals involved in the Greek system tend to drink more than those not in the Greek system before they get to college,” Sher said. “However, once in the Greek system, their alcohol use tends to be higher than it would have been had they not affiliated.” A 2018 article published by the Journal of Adolescent Health explains that 45% of young adult males who lived in a fraternity house show two or more symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) by the age of 35. In comparison, as recorded by National Institute on Drug Abuse, 32.7% of those living in non-residential fraternities and 30.4% of students not participating in Greek life have been reported to have shown symptoms of AUD. The difference between rates is noticeable and add to the ever-growing evidence for the correlation between Greek life in college and future AUD.

Kathleen Bucholtz, a professor at the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University’s School of Medicine, explains the notable impacts that AUD may have on a student’s future. “Heavy [alcohol] use is not a benign behavior; it can have lasting effects on brain development, cognition, et cetera in addition to other organs in the body,” she said. “[It can also] interfere with attainment of typical milestones, like completion of education, formation of enduring romantic partnerships, stable employment and parenting.” The widespread and damaging effects of AUD are longlasting, suggesting that heavy alcohol use throughout high school and early adulthood can persist through and steer critical aspects of life.

Joining a fraternity or sorority is a lengthy process; pledges are judged primarily on their looks, demeanor and personality. Through this process of judgment, internalized prejudices generally regarding race and religion are subconsciously used to determine the next pledge class, and, furthermore, the framework of the system for years to come.

Because of an innate human tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, a never-ending cycle is created, in which Greek members are encouraged to judge others based on superficial qualities. “The theory [goes] something like this” Palo Alto High School Psychology teacher Chris Farina said. “Evolutionarily, it made sense to protect people like ourselves, since that would help our characteristics survive and be passed along.” Ultimately, this form of categorization generates a sense of insecurity among those rushing.

Former University of Michigan sorority president Maeve Avila was surprised at the level of discrimination she observed in the system. “One thing that I found really shocking when I went to college was that all these sororities and fraternities were [religion and race based]. There were Jewish ones, [non] Jewish ones, and Black ones and white ones,” Avila said. The system has been bound to various traditions for centuries, and, even today, many fraternities and sororities primarily house a single race or religion. In conversation with Lakshmi Singh from National Public Radio (NPR), Matthew Hughey, University of Connecticut sociologist, described the Greek systems’ established link to prejudicial traditions. “We have the American higher educational system, which was designed to educate white, male, propertied, elite students,” he said. “As more and more students started to come into university, and university started to become a little less elite, Greek letter organizations were formed.” There is diminished diversity, enabling an ongoing discriminatory culture to occur inside the system. “[Greek chapters] were formed as a way for those very elite, propertied, white, male students to create even more exclusionary spaces within college and university life,” Hughey said. “So they became vehicles, in a way, for the reproduction of inequality.” When racist actions are accepted at such a young age, it can become ingrained in an individual’s mind and, in the future, it can be increasingly difficult to part from these beliefs. “[The creation of Greek life] was very much working in elite interest. That’s what it was designed to do. That’s how it functioned.”

Racism continues to manifest in many modern sororities and fraternities, exemplified by the increasing number of Greek chapters being suspended or abolished; concurrently, administration, along with students continue to remain undecided about how to suppress the deep-rooted tendencies from which many of these chapters are struggling to stray away.

In one egregious example from last year, a Lambda Chi Alpha member at California Polytechnic University wore blackface in efforts to associate with a black-themed group for a brotherhood event, in which members were assigned different colors. The same event also hosted members mockingly dressed as gangsters, which sparked additional controversy.

The rise of social media has, of course, now permitted public access to the Greek system’s once-selective groups and parties, allowing the documentation of racist actions to be easily shared and spread on social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. While a person’s behavior captured on social media can be temporary, online records never cease to exist. The consequences may remain buried under the rubble of forgotten posts, but when it is time to shine light upon it again, both digital and print records always show the truth.

No matter how much time has passed since the poor decision, it can always come back to haunt you; Attorney General Mark R. Herring has recently discovered this the hard way. The New York Times reported that Herring, the third-ranking elected official in Virginia, acknowledged “that he had worn blackface at a party as an undergraduate student, deepening a crisis that has engulfed the state’s Democratic leadership.” No images of this poor decision have been seen at this point, but Herring came out and admitted to wearing blackface at a party, saying in a statement which he released that, “I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”

Despite the more recent, nationally highlighted act of blackface that occurred at Cal Poly, Cal Poly junior Reuben Collier, whose name has been changed, said he had not personally observed anything among the likes of racism at his school. “I was definitely surprised by it [the blackface incident],” he said. “It upset me that something racist like that could happen at my school.”

Current Cal Poly sophomore Ally Hutson suggests that long-held attitudes regarding race, formed prior to college, may have played a role. “I think a lot of people that go to Cal Poly are undereducated on a lot of racial issues,” Hutson said.

The school is currently making efforts to combat racism among members of the Greek system. In response to the incident, the administration suspended all fraternities and sororities for the remainder of the year, as well as permanently closing the Cal Poly Lambda Chi Alpha chapter. “Cal Poly has been taking major steps to be more diverse and unified by requiring a certain percentage of people in each sorority and fraternity to attend leadership training, safety training, diverse training and more,” Hutson said. “I honestly think that Cal Poly is doing an amazing job at stepping up with these issues, but there is obviously still work to be done.”

The separation of gender, into all-male fraternities and all-female sororities, has stemmed from historical tradition. These establishments were created centuries ago with the now-outdated patriarchal social order, granting men a higher status. Although progressive attitudes have eroded this viewpoint, Greek establishments have struggled to discontinue sexist tendencies and beliefs.

As a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, Amalia Hunt, whose name has been changed, has already heavily experienced these gender norms within the Greek system.

“In particular, what stood out most to me was who fraternities let into parties,” she said. “They strictly censor the guys who enter the parties […] but they pretty much let all of the girls in. At first, I thought it was a nice perk of being a girl […] until I started to think of it more as a preying ground, which really freaked me out.”

The system has been built on the basis of male dominance, enforcing an unsafe and unjust culture by promoting a gender imbalance, which can be seen as the primary cause of rape culture within the Greek system. According to a study conducted by The Guardian, men who join fraternities are three times more likely to commit rape. The study furthered concluded that women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to be a victim of rape than their classmates who are not involved in Greek life. Many who are in the Greek system have noticed—or even experienced—the rape culture that is present. Maeve Avila feels strongly about the power dynamics present. “It’s definitely sexist that the guys have their own rooms, have a house without adults, can host parties [and] have alcohol, [while] women are expected to be prim and proper and more community service oriented,” she said. By examining the pre-existing attitudes and behaviors of men who joined a fraternity during their freshman year of college, Rutgers University psychologist Rita Seabrook and colleagues were able to test a cause and effect relationship between fraternity sexual aggression relationship. According to Psychology Today, Seabrook and colleagues determined that “fraternities can change the men who join them or, alternatively, the men with these proclivities seek fraternities out as a place where their sexual aggression is tolerated.” Whether or not fraternity members join Greek life with the intention to act on their sexual aggression, for Maeve Avila, one thing is clear. “These environments [foster] these [dangerous] dynamics, with the men having the homes with alcohol you can always access and beds you can always access, putting women at a really big disadvantage.”

Countless regretful stories shared by Greek life participants don’t appear to be deterring students from joining, drawing the question: what are the appealing aspects that initially attracted these students and continued to keep them in the system?

Struggling to navigate the overwhelming nature of campus life, students find themselves desperately seeking a place to belong. At the end of rush week, sorority pledges, often dressed in white, begin to cherish their Greek letters, and fraternity pledges host parties to celebrate, all of which is extensively shared on social media. “What comes to mind for me when I think of sororities and fraternities is the outfits, the color coordination after pledge week and the [extensive] traditions,” Palo Alto High School junior Malia Chun said. Generally rooted in a newfound sense of pride and exclusivity, new members commonly broadcast this sacred process, which often only highlights the idealized aspects of Greek life.

However, when joining one of these groups, pledges are immediately accepted into a community that finds purpose in serving charitable organizations by hosting events, developing strong relationships. Stanford University alumnus Blake James, whose name has been changed, shared his experience as a frat brother in the early 1990s.

“First off, you are given great housing in the best locations,” James said. “You also get an awesome group of housemates, which, for me, included my own brother. But most importantly, you take part in shared experiences including charity events, road trips, parties and the growth of friendships you will keep forever.”

Nearly three decades after graduating, James still keeps in touch with some of his fellow fraternity members that were initially brought into his life because of the memories and experiences they shared at Stanford.

Stanford alumna Chloe Parker, whose name has been changed, wasn’t sure about rushing a sorority when she walked on campus as a freshman, but now she has no doubt it was a positive experience. For Parker and many others, Greek life offered a simple way to achieve certain social goals. “I realized I really wanted to make solid girl friends,” she said. “I had such good girl friends from high school but I knew I wanted to reach out and get that in college. When the other pledges and I were first joining the sorority, they [older sorority members] really encouraged us to meet people.”

Aside from meeting a new group of people to walk to classes with, the sorority also introduced her to new traditions that would be shared throughout the Stanford chapter. “Every year there are certain charity events we do,” Parker said. “[For example], there’s one where we sell valentines with a fraternity to raise money.” Parker’s sorority also gave back to the community through other service opportunities, such as cooking dinner for a local homeless shelter or completing other service projects around campus. After graduating and reflecting on her undergraduate years, Parker realized that joining a sorority was one of the highlights of her college career because of the long-lasting friendships and experiences she gained through the Greek system.

The reputation of the Greek system is rooted in tradition; however, its establishment as a community and service-oriented organization has become increasingly overshadowed by the national spotlight, fueled by members willing to share their experiences. “It’s changed a lot in the past year, and [I think that] this is a sign that the Greek system is really going downhill,” University of Washington sophomore Rylan Burns said. “[The Greek system] is probably going to die soon.” During his relatively short time in a fraternity, Burns has noticed that the bottle of vodka that usually floated around the dance floor at fraternity parties has now vanished. “In just the past year, all hard alcohol has been banned; you can only have beer, [and] you can’t even have mixed drinks,” Burns said. “The cops will ‘roll through’ every party to make sure that [the rules are] enforced and that there’s only beer. If they see any underage drinking, they will shut the party down.” The strict enforcement of new alcohol policies at universities is just one way that Greek life is being altered in response to microscopic investigations. With the Greek system being monitored so minutely, it’s uncertain whether or not the organization will continue to exist in the coming years, let alone be recognizable.

Burns is not alone in thinking Greek life may be coming to an end, as other current members have also witnessed the rapid changes occurring inside of the system first hand. “I think there are some nice social aspects to Greek life, but I can also see how it can be seen as exclusive and dangerous,” Vanderbilt sophomore Amalia Hunt said. “It will be sad when Greek life is squandered—because I know it eventually will be—but I also understand the concerns around Greek life.” The fate of the system in the hands of society and only time will tell how long the system remains active.

With the balance of good and bad outcomes, the Greek system is seemingly falling onto two sides of the spectrum—either finding a welcoming community and friendships that last a lifetime, or heavy exposure to addictive substances and poor social norms, which often affect how one lives their future life. What we need to be asking ourselves is, is it all worth it? It’s a question that’s difficult to answer, even for those who have already pledged.

Rylan Burns believes, “I guess with all the good and bad I’ve already experienced in my two years in Greek life, I’ll never really know if it was worth it for me.”