During my first week of college, my school hosted an activities fair. Baking in the Virginia sun, I wandered through the booths with my roommate, overwhelmed by the crowd and hoping to snag a few free cups and T-shirts. I wasn’t sure if I should cling to activities I knew (newspaper, student government) or step out of my comfort zone, but I did know one thing for sure: I would never be a sorority girl.
As my first semester went by, I found my niche in exciting classes like Tibetan Buddhism and joined a literary and debating society. If I was aware of sorority women, it was only that they wore oversized T-shirts covered in unidentifiable Greek letters. Like most people, I had seen movies about college and was well-versed in the sorority stereotypes: Exclusive clubs of girly-girls who chased fraternity boys, gossiped about one another, awkwardly squatted in photos, and were comfortably mired in group identity. They were the woo girls I avoided, attendees of the sticky, noisy fraternity parties I loathed, and I had only the vaguest awareness that they hosted philanthropic events.
One night, walking to a corner store after a party with my new debate society friends, we passed a white house. “That’s where Marie lives!” one of them remarked.
Marie was my hero: a driven, accomplished third year with passions ranging from Japanese politics to pastry. Curious about my role model, I snuck a glance at the house. With shock, I noticed a brightly illuminated sign next to the front door, painted with letters that were unmistakably Greek. Marie was confident, humble, and down to earth—the opposite of the stereotype I imagined—yet she was in a sorority.
In December, my roommate signed up for rush, and as we tried to talk about the process, I realized that neither of us had any idea what we were talking about. Speed dating-style conversations, skits, house tours—it all seemed over-the-top and contrived. But as I clicked through pictures on the Intersorority Council’s webpage, it occurred to me that I actually knew nothing about the sorority chapters at my school. Rush would be my only opportunity to step inside a members-only world and actually learn about what I said I was rejecting. So, 15 minutes before the deadline, I typed up an application, paid the fee, and sent it off.
Rush started early on a cold, sunny January morning. I was scheduled to meet Marie’s sorority late the following evening, but our first house was right next door. Surrounded by nervous first-years, I suddenly heard screams and cheers from within Marie’s sorority house. As we were ushered into our first house, I saw women filing into Marie’s house amid clapping and cheering, and my uncertainty transformed into curiosity.
As the first weekend wore on, I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to distinguish one sorority from another. Each round was a blur of well-dressed women trying to ask about my winter break while awkwardly assuring me that they were all very good friends. My voice quit on me after the first few rounds and conversations became more and more difficult to carry. At first, the only way I could distinguish between my hazy memories of houses was by looking at the pitiful notes I managed to scribble between rounds.
But a few rounds later, I started picking up on each sorority’s personality. I felt eager to return to some houses and significantly less eager to return to others. One sorority in particular stood out to me; being there felt like taking a break from rush, somewhere I could relax and be myself. Whether I spoke with an engineering student or a cheerleader, we discovered that we had similarly sensible outlooks. To my surprise, most women there replied that they actually didn’t intend to pledge anywhere. But they were so glad they had.
Even though I had fully planned to drop out of rush after the first few rounds, I stayed on. Finally, it was bid day, and I stared at my envelope for a long moment before nervously sliding one finger under the flap. I now understood my options and although I felt that I could probably find friends in each of them, there was some intangibly comforting quality about that one house that made me hope that it could become a home. I held my breath and pulled my bid card out of the envelope.
Seconds later I called to accept my bid. I could hear cheers in the background and as I walked to class, my phone blazed with Facebook notifications: over one hundred somewhat creepy friend requests and congratulatory wall posts from the women who would supposedly become my sisters, my best friends, and one day my bridesmaids.
I remained skeptical and removed for the remainder of my first year. As I watched my parents, family members, friends, and boyfriend look at me with questioning eyes, I felt my identity slipping out of my control. I felt embarrassed to admit that I had been swept up in the excitement of rush, and frustrated that a significant portion of my summer paycheck would be handed over to our treasurer at the beginning of the semester. Often, I didn’t even mention that I had pledged. Whenever it came up, I immediately defended or downplayed my decision.
But by the end of the summer, as I packed up my car to drive back to school, I felt a buzz of excitement at the thought of reuniting with my pledge class. I realized that I had a choice to make: quit or stay. I’m no quitter, and I knew that if I was going to stay, I needed to dive into the date functions, the weekly dinners at the sorority house, the apple-picking, the concert-going. I may have paid my dues, but just like in any other organization, I was the only one who could make my friendships real. I had taken the first step toward open-mindedness during rush, but now it was up to me to see the process through.
All year, I wondered what I would tell the new batch of first years about sorority life. By the time rush rolled around, I knew exactly what I would say. Even though I had initially been embarrassed to use the sorority-specific terminology “bigs” and “littles,” I would tell them about my grandbig Rana, a biomedical engineering student whose unshakable determination to become a doctor inspires me daily. I would tell them about Nessa, my big, who is fluent in French and once sewed a quilt featuring scenes of Vito Acconci’s edgy performance art. This year, I’ll be able to talk about my little, Alex, and how we once ate the majority of a Ben and Jerry’s Vermonster together. These women have become like family to me; together, we celebrate our successes and talk through our sorrows.
I’ll tell the rushees about the emails that come through our listserv, like the one last May about a sister’s upcoming art exhibition, sent out not by the artist but by her roommate. I’ll remember the way my sisters reached out to me when my boyfriend and I broke up while I was studying abroad 3,500 miles from home; I didn’t just hear from them the day it happened, but in the weeks that followed. “I experienced something similar last year,” Elly wrote to me. “I’m here if you want to talk.” And as random worries popped into my mind in the weeks that followed, she patiently answered my Facebook messages no matter what time of day or night. I’ll tell them about Marie, who followed her dream to New York to work as a pastry chef in a top restaurant.
I’ll recount the way our common room becomes a classroom as aspiring teachers test out lesson plans. Sisters listen to each other practice speeches, like the one sister got to introduce Stephen Colbert at last year’s valediction. The same photographer who snapped photos of newly inducted sisters now runs her own wedding photography business on the west coast.
I’ll talk about how surprising it is that somehow, these inspiring, funny, creative women who I look up to so much are my biggest fans. Whether we were sorority sisters or not, I would want to be friends with them, but the truth is that at our large school, I probably wouldn’t have met most of them at all. My sorority is a microcosm of my school. We are engineers, poets, painters, nurses, teachers, anthropologists, and scientists. In our extracurricular lives, we are dancers, political activists both red and blue, actresses, singers, writers, interns, and athletes. Some of us are religious; some of us aren’t. We hail from Singapore, London, Canada, Texas, Hawaii, Colorado, Virginia, South Carolina, and more, meaning that we have friends to visit all over the map. We might love shopping and makeup, but we might not, and if we do, that doesn’t mean that we can’t also love watching hockey, going to music festivals, volunteering, and making homemade ice cream. Instead of closing myself off by becoming cloistered in a sorority, my world has been flung wide open by my sisters’ diverse interests and experiences.
Now that I know and appreciate the individuals in my own sorority (and many others), it’s hard to remember what it was like to view sororities as bland, exchangeable groups of women. Rush can be a difficult, intimidating process. Not everyone will find a home within the Greek system, just like everyone won’t find a home in debating societies or sports teams or community service organizations. But buried within rounds of rapid conversations, sparkling jewelry, and swirling hems is a dynamic community of valuable individuals. It’s easy to view sororities as monoliths that have booze, boys, and blondes at the core, but stereotyping is always easier than discovering the truth. Within and without the Greek world, I’ve learned that there’s more to every group than meets the eye. I’m no longer embarrassed to tell people that I’m in a sorority because I know that any judgment I receive will just be ill-informed. If anyone got to know the supportive, goofy, intelligent group of women in our house, I think they’d like us too.
It seems like every week, the police chief in our city delivers another email about sexual assault to our inboxes, or another enraged Jezebel article makes the rounds on Facebook, or I hear a girl call another girl a bitch—jokingly? In a world that constantly tells women that we’re too fat, too skinny, too bitchy, too meek, and every other type of judgment, it feels good knowing that there’s a group of women in my corner who think I’m fine just the way I am.
And maybe the woman I talk to during rush won’t want to be in a sorority; that’s fine. Maybe she’ll want to be a sorority that’s not mine; also fine. But maybe she’ll be like me: unsure but curious, open-minded and down-to-earth, and just maybe she’ll find a home in my sorority, too.
Photo via Creative Commons[divider] [/divider]