Frances Patano, currently a College senior, had just gotten out of rehearsal when her friend called her with bad news. “I don’t know what happened, you had an amazing application, it was just so competitive this year, I feel awful.” She asked to meet up with Frances at 40th and Spruce Streets, where she put her arm around her and slowly walked her around the block. Frances’ stomach dropped. Had she really not gotten in? Several minutes later a group of people wearing togas and carrying handles ran towards her and shouted “Get on the ground!” She was filled with relief. She had gotten into Friars Senior Honor Society.
“I was like ‘Finally!’” Frances recalls. “I’ve never been so happy to hear that shouted at me.”
Senior society recruitment seems to comes out of nowhere. Whispers swirl about “smokers.” The lucky ones might receive a “tap” from one of the dozen senior societies. The luckier still receive admission to the society. Strange chalk markings appear on campus, made by members scribbling out their society mottos on initiation night.
“Senior society” is a term that’s used loosely to refer to a variety of organizations at Penn that recruit juniors and seniors to reward leadership and involvement on campus. Some are steeped in tradition, while others were created only recently out of a need to recognize cultural groups or to create interest–based communities. Some people expect to be tapped, just the recent in a long line of club presidents who have been in a certain senior society. Others don’t expect to get tapped at all, and are pleasantly surprised or even confused.
Senior societies in concept are not unique to Penn. Yale has several secret societies, and Harvard has its so–called “Final Clubs.” Unlike these counterparts, though, which are often cloaked in secrecy and elitism, Penn’s senior societies are relatively transparent and theoretically meritocratic. Membership is published on the groups’ websites and Facebook pages, students proudly display their affiliation on sweatshirts and baseball caps and students are candid about the recruitment process.
By all counts, senior societies at Penn are a public affirmation of success, so they pose an interesting paradox: They aim to make their organizations inclusive by gathering members that represent all facets of campus, but in doing so they create another layer of exclusivity.
Friars and Sphinx were both first recognized by the university in 1901, although there is a friendly rivalry between the two over which one was formed first. Both were all–male until 1971. Mortar Board, on the other hand, was originally an all–female society. Now co–ed, Mortar Board and the colloquially named “on–campus” Omega represent the only two senior societies that are affiliated with national organizations.
The “on–campus” designation is intended to distinguish between Omega, the honor society with a National chapter for leaders in on–campus Greek organizations, and Omega, the informal senior society for members of affiliated and off–campus Greek organizations—which was referred to by one member who chose to remain anonymous as “a blacking out society.”
Admission to Sphinx and Friars is based on general leadership—essentially, members are rewarded for holding high–level leadership positions in various clubs or organizations. Past Sphinx members include Jon Huntsman Sr. and John Legend, while Friars counts former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Walter Annenberg and Elizabeth Banks as alumni.
Most senior societies members are tapped in the spring semester of their junior years by the members of the graduating class, and a smaller number join in the fall of of their senior years. During both the spring and fall recruitment periods, existing member can tap one or two students that they feel would be a good fit by extending invitations to “smokers”—social events designed to introduce prospective members to the groups. Usually less than half of those who are tapped will actually get in, and that percentage gets considerably smaller in the fall.
Frances Patano, Friars
In a school already steeped in exclusivity, senior societies and their rush processes represent yet another competitive system that rewards those who succeed with connections and networks. The integral nature of exclusivity to the senior society experience is widely acknowledged, even by those on the inside. “When you think about how top institutions are, they love exclusivity. I feel like that’s kind of embedded in Penn’s DNA,” said Temilola Ransome–Kuti, a Wharton senior who is a member of both Sphinx and Onyx (a senior society that recognizes black leadership).
“I think it’s very Penn...It’s an environment that is both competitive and collaborative. To me it makes a lot of sense that we have this,” said Emily True, a College senior who is a member of both Friars and Osiris.
Exclusivity permeates our campus in every aspect. Students compete for membership in almost every community at Penn—for Greek life, for performing arts groups and for publications. But most groups are competitive for a purpose: to do community service, to entertain or to create a product. Senior societies are exclusive, but without a clear mission. “[Senior societies are] like the kind of very ultimate form of Penn...honestly we’re just competing for status,” said Trudel Pare, a College senior and member of Osiris, a senior society for students in the performing arts.
“It’s just sort of being very self–congratulatory, being like, ‘We’re all really good at this thing, let’s tap all of our friends and have like a cool kids club basically that people can’t get into’. So I love it, but I also get why people don’t like [senior societies],” said Trudel.
This competitive process for a group without a clear mission draws parallels to Greek life, the other competitive social organizations that dominate Penn’s campus.
Abbie Starker, a College senior and member of Sphinx disaffiliated from her sorority because of the arbitrary exclusivity of Greek life, and was initially skeptical of senior societies. “I felt like this was sort of just another one of those exclusive clubs that made people feel bad about themselves for superficial reasons.”
Sphinx President, or ‘Chief,’ and College senior David Scollan felt similarly about Greek life after initially pledging a fraternity his freshman year. “I didn’t like the idea that...everyone was quite similar, everyone had similar backgrounds, and I was uncomfortable in that position of exclusive privilege and then dropped.”
Ultimately, students found that senior societies distinguished themselves from Greek life by the more organic nature of the recruitment process and the diversity of their members. While students join clubs to find a place to fit in, senior societies enable them to branch out, resulting in very real benefits, including networking opportunities with alumni and the chance for valuable collaboration amongst groups.
Erina Shan, Sphinx
The idea of a supportive community of diverse leaders isn’t a bad one, and many members feel as though admission to senior societies is a reward for years of leadership.
”I think that the people who’ve put in the time and the effort to run organizations, be the captains of teams, sacrifice blood sweat and tears metaphorically for their organization...we should be honoring all the good work that you as individuals and through your organizations have contributed to the university,” David said.
However, not every leader on campus gets tapped. With classes that are usually capped around 30 students, senior societies cannot offer membership to every qualified applicant—meaning that people who deserve to be recognized inevitably fall through the cracks.
Maria*, a College senior, was tapped for Friars last spring. She had known about senior societies for years from talking to upperclassmen, and had always hoped that she would be in one. “It’s really flattering to be tapped. It feels special… that somebody thought of you and identified you as not just a leader on campus but someone they would want to join their exclusive social group,” Maria said. She left a board meeting early to wait in her house at a certain hour, as all applicants are told to do. But instead of a group of members in togas serenading her at her home, she received a phone call telling her she hadn’t gotten in. “It absolutely felt like a personal rejection,” she recalls.
While selection for senior societies is in theory based on leadership, some students say that personal connections play a role. “You happen to be in the right community, you happen to be in that community at the right time that someone in that society saw you do something and was like, ‘Oh, this is worth recognizing’, or you were just friends with the right people,” said Michael Karam, a College senior and member of Oracle, which was founded in 2002 to recognize leaders of Asian descent, referring to senior societies in general. Frances also felt that oftentimes groups recruit by “just friends tapping friends.” She admitted, “I wouldn’t have been tapped if the director of Bloomers weren’t in Friars.”
Cultural senior societies add another dimension to the mix. Onyx, which was founded in 1974 to recognize black leaders, does not issue taps. Any black student on campus can apply, and membership is based on academic excellence and campus involvement. And Temilola felt that although it doesn’t accept everyone, that exclusivity is not “something that people would automatically when they think about Onyx.” Rather, she felt the opposite was true. “I see Onyx as a place where we try to build community, and that involves engaging the people outside of Onyx,” she added.“It’s really one of those special spaces where we’re all bonded by the experience of being a person of color, a black student at Penn. There’s a lot of specific difficulties that we go through and that we definitely celebrate each other more than the normal Penn atmosphere celebrates us.”
Similarly, Cipactli, which was founded in 2001 to recognize leaders in the Latino community, advertises meet–and–greets on Facebook and has open applications. “We try to access as many listervs as possible to invite people from both in and outside of the Latino Coalition,” said College senior and Cipactli member Avi Colonomos. They also have a GPA requirement to apply, and a community service requirement for members.
As it stands now, aside from annual fundraisers, the traditional leadership societies typically do not mix with the rest of campus. “We’re not outward facing,” said Erina Shan of Sphinx. “I think we’re much more of a support system.”
David felt that the way to improve senior societies is to simply have more of them—sentiments echoed by others on campus, as the number of senior societies has exploded in recent years. Carriage for LGBT students, Osiris for performing arts, Kinoki for students interested in the entertainment industry and Bell for those interested in technology and entrepreneurship, were all founded in the past three years. “I think that people are realizing that instead of getting rid of them, why not just have tons and give everyone a community to be a part of instead of not letting anyone have that space?” says David.
Although status or prestige might be what senior societies are most known for, to dismiss them as unnecessarily exclusive would do a disservice to their intended purpose: to bring together different kinds of students and form a completely new, unique community.
The benefits of senior societies to those in them are manifold in terms of networking and new opportunities for friendships, but people tended to be unsure whether or not seniors would be willing to expand their social circles at this point in their college careers without the added bonus of prestige.“I actually do think a lot of people would be happy to go and meet other people, but I think that with inclusivity comes an innate lameness. Being inclusive is not cool or exciting,” Maria said. “And God forbid we not be cool for a moment.”
David Scollan, Sphinx