Under 30% of Penn students are involved, but its fingerprints are all over campus. Giant capital sigmas and phis dot the mansions that stand amidst Huntsman Hall, Steinberg and Cohen. Every year around this time, signs promising free Chipotle and Ben & Jerry’s emerge on doors and fences. Straight lines of girls, shaking from the cold or nerves, appear at the steps of front porches, their black coats pulled tight around their name tags and “snappy casual” attire. Then, at one minute past the hour, the chanting begins on the other side of the door. This is the week and these are the organizations that are full of promises: a guaranteed social outlet, academic support, professional networking. For many, acceptance into a fraternity or sorority will define the next three and a half years of a Penn student’s life. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would give that up.
Maddie* is one of the approximately 600 girls who organized in lines this past week. Like many Potential New Members, she hoped that Greek membership would provide meaningful relationships and experiences throughout her time at Penn. When you’re an unaffiliated freshman, she said, “you’re kind of reliant on the Greek bodies to invite you to things and to host things. It’s hard to imagine your own social life without Greek life.”
And so the pressure was on for her and the other girls in line. “They think that if they don’t get into certain [sororities] they’re going to hate Greek life and they’re not going to get out of it what they want,” said Maddie. “Everyone already kind of has an idea of what’s what. I don’t think most people are going in with open minds.”
By Philanthropy Round, Maddie was feeling positive about rush, but still somewhat confused. Even though she was happy with her options, she was nervous about the decision she would have to make — and those that would be made about her.
“Every sorority tries to spin it that they’re the sorority that’s closer and you can be yourself here,” she said. “Since everyone’s saying that’s unique to their sorority it’s hard to know if that’s true everywhere or anywhere.”
Later that same day, at an imprecise hour, fraternity rush events began. Unaffiliated male students accepted the invitations that interested them and wandered as they chose into houses for free food, beer and casual, unrestricted conversation.
Then they returned to their respective freshman dormitories to wait for yet another round of verdicts.
Then there are those who exist on the opposite side of the mutual selection game. The ones who now run it, the ones who sat it out, the ones who lost — and the ones who won and gave back the trophy. These are the Penn students who have entered the tight–knit sisterhoods and brotherhoods they were promised and left. These are the people who, if asked, might not tell you to “Go Greek!”
To unaffiliated freshmen bombarded with that "Go Greek!" message by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, The Panhellenic Council, and, more importantly, their peers, this can seem impossible. It did to Logan Gardner (W’17), who was cut from the fraternities that interested him during his freshman year after multiple absences for personal reasons.
“I was really scared going into sophomore year because I didn’t have the social security that I think a fraternity gives people,” he said. And so he decided to rush again as a sophomore and join Pi Kappa Phi, an organization which has since left campus to become “Phi.”
After joining as a sophomore, however, Logan found that his new brotherhood interfered with what was already a busy schedule and well–established social life. “I realized I didn’t have realistically enough time or space in my life for both my personal social life and a fraternity social life,” he said. “If I was going to do it I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to not half–ass it.”
And so, later that semester, he decided to deactivate.
“Freshman year, I think a lot of people join because they want a group of similarly–aged people looking to be in a similar social scene,” said Logan. “It took me joining to realize that I already had that.”
Annabelle* had a similar realization a year into her affiliation with her sorority. She was funding her membership herself, which meant shelling out around $600 every month from her own pocket.
The money wasn’t worth it to Annabelle because, among other things, she found that her class in the Nursing School — ninety students, most of whom are women — provided many of the same benefits as a sorority.
“We go through a lot together and spend a ton of time together in classes,” she said.
Annabelle compares the experience of training to be a nurse with pledging. "We go through pretty crazy working hours and life experiences together working in the hospital,” she said. “I’ve seen people die and all kinds of stuff.”
And so she sent an email to the sorority president, filled out a form to deactivate and returned to a Penn experience unanchored by a Greek organization.
But some people deactivate due to fundamental problems they have with the Greek system altogether. Rashad Nimr (C’17) rushed mostly for the free food back in 2014. Through the process, he became something of an oxymoron: a gay, half–Palestinian man in a historically Jewish — but ostensibly diverse by comparison — fraternity.
“I don’t think that I was supposed to be in this system,” he said. “All frats were made for a specific type of person.”
Rashad felt at odds with the organization even during pledging. He remembers that his sexuality rendered him “objectified as a person who brings hot girls.”
“Which is a very interesting offshoot of all of the sexism that actually happens,” he said.
He chose to remain a member, however, in hopes of changing the system from the inside and, subconsciously, to prove that his sexuality wouldn’t preclude him from participating in an integral component of Penn social life.
Over the next two and a half years of inactive membership in the fraternity, he learned a valuable lesson which he's carried with him into his senior year. “You can survive anywhere,” he said. “But you can’t really thrive everywhere.”
“I just didn’t really see things getting more ‘diverse’ or more ‘open,’” he said. And so he deactivated in the summer of his junior year.
Rashad is, however, grateful for the experience in the fraternity.
“I’m happy that I could see the problems firsthand,” he said. “I’m not just saying that they suck—I know that they suck.”
Not all students who deactivate leave with such negative impressions of the concept of Greek life. Some simply feel that they were placed in the wrong organization, whether due to a misinformed decision, bad first impression or even a computer glitch. Some even go on to join other organizations.
When Lisa* returned to Houston Hall the evening of Preference Round in 2015, she made the decision that the Panhellenic Council encourages all Potential New Members to make: she would accept a bid from her second choice sorority if her first choice didn’t work out.
When it didn’t, Lisa went through with pledging and the initiation ceremony. She made close friends, despite the cultural barriers she encountered as an international student in a distinctly American institution. But when she received an email from her Big, she knew she had to decide whether or not to continue in her sorority.
Lisa felt that she was juggling commitments, and she wasn’t excited about her future in the sorority the way she felt she ought to be. “I was very torn,” she said. “I spent a day going back and forth.”
By the end of the day, she had gone forth and deactivated.
Lisa had not, however, lost faith in the Greek system; in 2016, she decided to give rush another chance. Today, she is active in the sorority she initially hoped to join, in charge of organizing Bid Night, assigning Bigs and Littles and generally making the incoming pledge class feel welcome. She has found this organization, which is historically comprised of many international members, to suit her much better.
Mustafaa Dais (C’18) initially joined a fraternity that seemed to suit him perfectly. Sigma Chi is an on–campus organization comprised largely of athletes, mainly members Mustafaa’s football team and the baseball team. He knew many of his brothers before he joined Sig Chi — and for Mustafaa, this was the problem. He had hoped to branch out. Because of the conflicting seasons of football in the fall and baseball in the spring, most of the time he spent with his fraternity was with the members he already knew.
“I didn’t really see the necessity of paying dues if I wasn’t able to spend time with the entire frat,” he said. And so, his junior year, Mustafaa chose to deactivate.
In contrast to Lisa, Mustafaa did not have to wait a full year after deactivation to join another organization. Off–campus organizations, which are not bound to the rules of OFSL or a National Chapter, have the freedom to accept members regardless of previous membership in another.
Mustafaa took advantage of the opportunity to join an off–campus social organization, which, owing to its off–campus status, was able to accept him immediately and offer him “Social Brother” status. He pays only half of the normal dues—which are already low in comparison to an on–campus fraternity—as he cannot attend most of the social events during football season.
The mutual selection process for on–campus sororities leaves more room for bids and cuts that ultimately prove to be the wrong ones. Taylor Brown (W’17) was cut from Alpha Chi Omega—the sorority where she was confident she belonged—right before Preference Round.
She had options, but she was “devastated.”
“You think it’s going to shape the next four years of your life,” she said. “So you’re terrified.”
Taylor decided to take the advice of Meghan Gaffney, the then Associate Director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, and “trust the process.” The following day, she accepted a bid from a different sorority to her friends. At the time, this seemed like a bold decision.
“Now I realize it was really stupid,” she said. “I would have lived with these girls anyway, I would have stayed friends with these girls anyway.”
However, Taylor’s priority was maintaining her friendships from freshman year, and adapting to a new and separate social life proved difficult. “Greek life gives you this notion that you’re going to go in and meet a whole bunch of people,” she said. “And then you go in and you’re like, wait, no, there are cliques of people.”
Then, in April 2015, following a scourge of restrictions by The Panhellenic Council, Alpha Chi Omega went off–campus to become OAX.
“I thought it was a perfect chance to fix what went wrong freshman year,” she said. Although accepting juniors is not common practice in OAX, the organization considered Taylor’s circumstances and elected to include her.
Taylor believes that the flexibility and freedom of off–campus organizations is valuable within the Greek community.
“[Rush] is more of getting to know girls on a personal level rather than the small–talk aspect,” she said. “We’re trying to bring that into rush to differentiate ourselves”
The purpose of college, said Logan in his final semester at Penn, “is gaining some sense of self–awareness—some sense of who you are—that then guides you moving on in life.”
“It’s not those people [in a Greek organization] who are going to guide you, it’s you who guides yourself. A system’s not going to do that for you.”
Yesterday, the Potential New Members returned to Annenberg one last time to receive their prizes for the work of the past week. Maddie’s sealed envelope contained good news—she and her close friends all received bids to the sorority of their choice. The doors of Annenberg opened to release the “biddies,” clutching their bid cards, into the courtyard and open arms of their new sisters. Girls chanted, hugged and cried amidst a sea of posters and massive wooden letters. Smiles—excited, relieved, nervous, false—were all captured in an endless stream of iPhone flashes. “Welcome home!” yelled the girls wearing matching t–shirts and waving signs of glittering symbols that claim to promise social security, relevance and comfort for the rest of college and life.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.
Photo credit: DP File photo