When I first started my undergrad studies in 2007, there were two things I was certain of about Greek life: 1) Every fraternity experience was exactly like “Animal House,” and 2) Greek organizations of any kind were not allowed on my college campus. Somehow, both of these ideas made me sleep a little easier in my long twin dorm bed every night.
At that time in my life, “fraternity” was synonymous was “scandal,” and “sorority” was a synonym for “slut.” I never knew a person through my undergrad years who was recruited for a Greek house, but I was attending a school just around the corner from Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan. My friends and I would drive through Greek Row on our way to the grocery store, the movies or church on Sunday. And, as we passed lawns strewn with red solo cups and the odd passed-out party attendee, I knew that my two initial opinions of Greek life were right. The Greek system was bad, and it was a good thing I had found an environment that encouraged me to keep my distance.
It’s now ten years later. I’ve moved from Ann Arbor to Fort Wayne to Chicago, and I would like to believe that I’m a little more open-minded than the 2007 college freshman version of me. But, even in 2017, when I type the word “fraternity” into a search engine, the top results do not suggest that much has changed in the Greek system:
*Insert deep sigh*
I’m not alone in my knowledge that the American college Greek system has a questionable reputation at best. A set of extracurricular groups that were once grounded in freedom of student expression, it seems the twenty-first century Greek student is expected to be more Elle Woods than Condoleeza Rice.
But Kristin Scriven, a third year member of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ (IUPUI) Delta Zeta chapter, argues that, separate from Greek-bashing news headlines, media portrayals of Greek life are more often based on stereotype than fact.
“The Greek system, to me, before I went to college, was anything and everything that the media portrayed,” she says. “When I initially signed up for recruitment my freshman year, I expected to see the typical sorority girl: a vapid, egotistical, basic, shallow, snobby, parties-all-the-time, rich girl who pays for her friends.”
It was when Scriven actually met a real life sorority woman and joined that her preconceived notions were completely changed. “We are intelligent, and we are leaders and philanthropists who are selfless, caring, goal-oriented and dedicated women who all strive toward one common goal of bettering our community and world along the way. I don’t pay for my friends, and if I was, I’m not paying nearly enough,” she says.
This unsung side of Greek life, according to “Huffington Post” writer Amy Hansen, is at the core of why Greek life continues to thrive. “Sororities and fraternities teach young people to be strong, to be curious, to be brave, to be zestful. Their rituals aren’t just words whispered in a dingy basement. “They are living, breathing actions during collegiate life and beyond. I believe that the true rituals take groups of strangers and bond them together to become family. When performed by people with the truest of hearts and intentions, they are not harmful or embarrassing. They are meant to inspire,” she writes.
Similarly, “New York Times” writer Charles Eberly explains that the negatives acts of the few Greeks should never outweigh the positive acts of the many. “Sadly, negative consequences surrounding the actions of fraternity and sorority members seem to be highlighted with far greater frequency than the positive outcomes associated with membership. Typical of the latter are examples from a fraternity chapter I counsel at Eastern Illinois University. One member who is graduating with a Master’s in School Counseling developed a program on healthy men’s development that is presented to all new members of the college’s fraternity system each year, and another brother created a charity to support a local children’s advocacy center,” he writes.
“Being in my sorority has completely changed my college experience. It’s given me friends that I see as a second family, a home away from home, something to do, ways to give back to the community, and encouraged me to grow in ways I never thought possible,” Scriven says.
In 2007, the same year I moved into a dorm as a college freshman, the TV series “Greek” aired on ABC Family (now Freeform). Focusing predominantly on two siblings—the perfect sorority princess without a cause and the brilliant engineering major-turned-frat-pledge—the show also portrayed real humans who lived in Greek housing.
In the midst of extravagant parties and hookups, the characters struggled with credit card debt, landing internships and picking a major, balancing good grades with a social life of any kind in college. And, by the time the show had wrapped up in 2011, it had reminded me as a viewer that all college experiences are a little more complex than meets the eye.
The year 2017 reminds me constantly that nothing should ever be taken at face value. Stereotypes and labels are a language we need to leave behind. And whether we spend our college years as a Greek or not, this just might be the perfect time to learn to let go of some of our previous limitations.