Two things happened this past week. First, my sorority, Gamma Phi Beta, celebrated its 140th Founders Day. Second, Nolan Burch, an 18-year-old first-year student at West Virginia University was found unresponsive at a Kappa Sigma fraternity party in Morgantown. Tragically, he later passed away. This, along with other incidences at WVU, prompted a suspension of all fraternity and sororities on their campus.
The juxtaposition of celebrating the heritage of my sorority and being appalled and taken aback by yet another Greek-related death of a college student forced some serious reflection. As a sorority woman, I was celebrating and reflecting on what Gamma Phi has meant to me, while simultaneously viewing Greek Life through the lens of a college administrator.
There are many people who point to the horrific situation at WVU as a perfect reason to label Greek-letter organizations as binge-drinking hotbeds of potential sexual assault, racist, homophobic, misogynistic behavior that further perpetuate antiquated gender norms. In many cases, I agree. There are so many things about Greek life that make me cringe, but as someone who was forever changed as a result of my sorority experience, I have to say that there is another narrative.
My story starts in the fall semester of my sophomore year. I was a brand new RA and one of my fellow RAs wanted to go through informal recruitment (recruitment for upperclassmen students) and I, quite frankly, wanted to see the inside of the sorority houses. So, I went to the first round of open houses, had awkward conversations, and thought that would be the end of it. Then I started to look at the leaders on my campus, in my classes, and in my social circle. What they all had in common was that they were Greek. I decided to go back to the next night, and then went to the final night at Gamma Phi.
I stood in a circle of other Potential New Members while two current members read emotional letters to the chapter that expressed their gratitude for the sisterhood and what the chapter had offered them. As a sympathetic crier, I couldn’t help but tear up because this was genuine, authentic vulnerability and this sisterhood was something I knew I was missing in my college experience. I didn’t go looking for Greek Life, Greek Life went looking for me.
I was soon swept away in a flurry of New Member meetings, rituals, socials, meetings, philanthropies, being paired with a Big Sister, and so much more. I soon was elected to become New Member Educator and spent my junior and senior years welcoming new members into our sisterhood. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was growing my toolkit for a future profession working with college students. I was tasked with creating learning outcomes and lesson plans for the new member curriculum, balancing long-term planning with daily details, was in charge of Bid Night which involved getting 100+ women to do the same thing on a tight timeline, keeping the graduating seniors engaged, while managing outside vendors, contracts, and the inevitable emotional breakdown of a new member who wasn’t sure if Greek Life was her. In a word, I was a student affairs administrator and I never even knew it. Much like Becca Obergefell’s latest post, Greek Life prepared me for my career.
As much as my experience in Greek Life helped me transition to professional life on a college campus, Gamma Phi’s contribution was so much more than that. I came to college as a quiet, shy, unsure, and completely unconfident first-year student. While I eventually found my home on campus, Gamma Phi made it real. I am basically the opposite of what you would consider a stereotypical sorority woman to be. I was not, and am not, blonde, thin, rich, well-dressed, good at small talk, confident around men, cheer-loving kind of person who enjoys wild parties. But I was and am someone who values relationships and being part of a 100+ year tradition and Greek Life helped me realize this.
The first time I experienced a ritual, I struggled to keep it together because I knew hundreds of thousands of women, from all walks of life, spanning generations, had said the same words, sang the same songs, and dressed the same way. This wasn’t because Greek Life forced conformity. I never felt more like an individual than when I was a college sorority woman. I felt this way because I was able to truly be myself because I knew my sisters had my back.
Does Greek Life have the potential to be a disaster on pretty much every level? Of course. Does it also have the potential to influence, challenge, and change students on pretty much every level? Without a doubt. I’m living proof.