Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

The Sorority Scene

11.1.00

In the months since I joined a sorority, I've had a lot of explaining to do.

"Why do you need an official group to decide who your friends are going to be?"

This is the question I would have had the most trouble answering before joining Delta Gamma, and it's one many people struggle with. "I couldn't understand why people would pay dues to be friends with people," says Noelle Sherber '01, the president of DG. "What I know now is that the friends aren't something you pay for."

Though my new friendships might not have formed without the group, that doesn't mean they're in any way artificial. "How does any friendship happen?" asks Scott Penner '01, president of Alpha Epsilon Pi (A.E. Pi), a secular Jewish fraternity founded in the spring of 1999. "If you meet someone in class, that's an artificial structure, too."

The groups differ in terms of membership. Though none of the organizations turns members away on the basis of ethnicity or religion, some are founded with the intent of serving a particular group, so their membership tends to self-select. While DG, Kappa Alpha Theta (Theta), Sigma Chi, and Delta Upsilon (DU) have mixed membership, A.E. Pi's members are all Jewish--though the group had a non-Jewish member who graduated last year. (A Latina sorority, a Latino fraternity, an Asian fraternity, and a black fraternity also have chapters on campus. Members of the Latina sorority declined to comment; members of the others did not return requests for comment.)

"I have met and become close friends with a diverse group of people I never would have met within my own sphere of activities and interests," says Michael Tringe '01, president of DU. Those words could have come from any of the members I interviewed: Sororities and fraternities diversify your group of friends. Through DG, I've met as broad a cross-section of Harvard's female population as you could find. About the only thing we all have in common is a genuine concern for one another--and that's no small potatoes at a school where many people are too wrapped up in thoughts of upcoming midterms and internship application deadlines to stop and say hello.

 

"But I thought they didn't have sororities at Harvard!"

The University refuses to recognize Harvard chapters of national Greek organizations because student groups aren't allowed to honor affiliations with a larger national organization. "We want student groups at Harvard to operate under the authority of Harvard College and the dean's office, rather than some other authority," explains David Illingworth '71, the assistant dean of the College who oversees matters related to student groups.

In addition, the groups' single-sex nature makes them exclusionary in the University's eyes. Though many officially recognized student groups have self-defining names or purposes--the Black Students Association or Catholic Students Association, to name two--technically, all officially recognized groups are open to anyone who wishes to join.

Sorority sisters Elizabeth A. Gudrais '01, Maria P. Valencia '03, Sarah N. Pickard '01, and Laura D. Babkes '01 at Derby Day.

Sorority sisters Elizabeth A. Gudrais '01, Maria P. Valencia '03, Sarah N. Pickard '01, and Laura D. Babkes '01 at Derby Day.

"While I am sure their members consider them important, the Greek organizations do not add to the educational experience here in the aggregate, since they simply displace other forms of activity," says dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68. "A student who organizes the rush for his Greek organization is probably not going to organize things at the IOP or a choral group or his House intramural teams, too."

The needs fulfilled by fraternities and sororities, in Lewis' view, wouldn't go unfulfilled in the groups' absence. "There are lots of good ways for students to find fellowship and to work together in common cause with their peers," he says. Furthermore, the groups' basis runs contrary to the values upheld by the College's randomized housing system. "We take students with widely differing interests and backgrounds and room them together," he says, "All this is, at some level, counter to human instinct." Yet, "It is absolutely clear from survey information that getting to know different kinds of people is one of the things students appreciate most about the education we offer."

Lewis acknowledges that the Greek groups offer diversity of a sort, but says that, from the College's point of view, gender segregation is enough to take away the benefits of diversity. "We still believe that using gender as a primary classification key results globally in artificial denial of opportunities in the long run," he explains, "even as it may provide a exhilarating sense of kinship and empowerment in the short run."

Title IX, the amendment to the Civil Rights Act that prohibits colleges' student organizations from gender discrimination, contains special exemptions for choral groups and athletic teams on the grounds that "the participants in both the men's and women's...programs would accept as fair and equitable the overall program of the other gender," according to a statement of the NCAA gender-equity task force. The statute also makes a special allowance for fraternities and sororities--but, says Lewis, "Our standards are stricter than those of federal law."

But recognized or not, we're here. At least nine national Greek organizations have chapters on campus. Bar one, the chapters have all been "colonized" within the last 10 years, and the one that's older was defunct from the 1940s until it was reinstalled in 1999. Now, the campus is abuzz with talk about the need for more, and plans for new colonizations to come.

Even so, the groups' unofficial status does hurt. Says Sherber, "A lot of people think that, because we're not recognized, we're doing something wrong." DG chapters elsewhere have sponsored speakers like Barbara Bush and Maya Angelou, with matching funds from DG's executive office. But such activities are difficult at Harvard because unofficial organizations aren't allowed to rent Harvard-owned spaces like Sanders Theatre. Nonrecognition also means the groups can't publicize themselves by putting up posters on campus. "If we could poster, I think we'd be able to attract so many more girls," says Suzanne Pomey '02, the president of Theta.

Still, it may be the case that the hardship brought on by that handicap serves to draw members closer together. It's certainly part of what distinguishes the Greek experience at Harvard from that at other schools. "Not having a house forces us to base the group on something that's not tangible--friendship," says Sherber.

Though official recognition doesn't look likely, groups can circumnavigate the ill effects with a little creativity. By fronting the operation through a Phillips Brooks House community service organization of which several Sigma Chi brothers are members, the fraternity was allowed to use the MAC Quad, the open space in front of Eliot and Winthrop Houses, for a fundraiser called Derby Day last April 15. At Harvard, says Sigma Chi president Rene Roy '02, "There are very few events that promote social interaction on a large scale, feature some informal competition, and help out a worthy charity." Derby Day, which raised money for the Children's Miracle Network, included athletic competitions and an auction. DG, Theta, and nine other fraternity and sorority chapters from other schools took part.

Illingworth acknowledges these positive effects, but takes issue with the fact that the event was also a great publicity boon for the groups: many participants wore Greek insignia and were eager to inform curious passersby about their affiliations. If Derby Day is to be held in College space again next year, Illingworth says, the groups will have to tone down the Greek presence.

 

"What was initiation like? Did you have to eat live rodents or drink an entire liter of vodka?"

Delta Gamma, like many of the other Greek organizations at Harvard, has a no-hazing policy--really. After the actual ceremony was over, our "initiation" consisted of a sunny, idyllic afternoon in early May spent eating cake and sipping lemonade in the backyard of an alumna's house in suburban Boston.

Members will tell you this is just one of the ways Harvard's Greek scene is different. "At other schools, people are banging down the door, " says Sherber. But at Harvard, "We have a lot of people who are hesitant right up until they get initiated."

Indeed, though I thought about rushing as a sophomore, I was intimidated by my own preconceptions of sororities' elitism.

I thought more seriously about it my junior year, when one of my best friends joined. But, I'd grown up in a relatively poor family, and it was hard to shake the sense I had that sorority girls floated on a social plane high above me.

Finally, my friend convinced me to come to the informal rush event: baking pizza in the kitchen at Tommy's. One hour, one event, and that was it. Afterwards, the girls would vote by e-mail, and I'd know in a day or two whether I was in. I was still ambivalent but, at the last minute, I decided to take the chance.

That event shattered my prejudices. I found a group of friendly, down-to-earth girls whose strong character and interest in other people was readily apparent. Afterward there was no doubt in my mind: I wanted to be part of this group.

Needless to say, I got in. And needless to say, someone was turned away. But in most cases, presidents of the groups say, it's obvious to all involved--including the person turned away--that the group isn't a good fit for the potential pledge, rendering Harvard's Greek system relatively free of angst and disappointment.

In fact, Theta and DG conduct a joint rush through which prospective pledges can meet members of both groups and choose the one they prefer. "It's really a mutual selection," says Sherber.

 

"You don't really seem like the sorority type."

We Greeks have a lot of stereotypes to debunk. For girls, there's the Southern belle sipping tea, twirling her ringlets and swishing her hoop skirt as she plots to steal her best friend's fiancé--or the modern-day sorority girl, a drunk blond who wears the same clothes as all her friends and throws up with them after meals, too. For guys, there's just one stereotype: Animal House.

But if Harvard's Greek system differs from others in its member selection it also differs in its product--as those of us who came in with stereotypes in our own minds should know. Yet the myths are especially hard to fight when they're held by Harvard scoffers who turn up their noses at any organization whose chief purpose is social, and at anything another school has--and perhaps even bigger and better.

In addition to forming genuine bonds of friendship, members of all the groups do community service. A.E. Pi holds an annual basketball tournament for charity, and is currently working on a food drive. Sigma Chi held Derby Day. DU requires each class of new members to complete a service project together. In one of the rush events for DG and Theta, prospective pledges made braille cards for blind children.

"Yeah, right," you say. "You expect me to believe that fraternities are really about community service?"

I'll be honest with you; it's not one of the reasons I joined. But most members I've talked with mentioned the community-service component as one of them. Says Tringe, "Greek service is a way to combine social life and service in a way that is manageable for many busy Harvard students."

And to rebut one final stereotype: It's difficult to live that sex-crazed, beer-drowned existence that our critics envision when you don't have a house. (Sigma Chi is the only Harvard Greek group that owns one.) Though it's true that some Greek groups have been known to hold parties where alcohol is served, in general, the Greek scene at Harvard is absolutely not based on the consumption of alcohol. Social interactions with my sorority sisters don't center around alcohol any more frequently than do my interactions with other, non-DG friends.

 

In the end, it's the sheer availability of other members willing to do things that members of all the groups mention as one of the greatest benefits. On paper, my sorority's activities consist mainly of official meetings, formal dances, fundraisers, and retreats. But for me, the essence of these groups is the small moments of meaningful personal interaction. And while it's true this can happen with people one meets in classes, or with the guy next door, my sorority is a group of girls who are more willing than average to make a place for those interactions in their busy lives.

Harvard can be a lonely place. Often it's tough to find someone who doesn't have a problem set due the next day, or an important meeting for one club or another.

But that's precisely why this year, as I try to balance classes, a thesis, a job search, and several extracurriculars, DG won't be the thing I cut out. It keeps me balanced--even if I do have to spend a lot of time answering questions.

 

You Might Also Like:

Head shots of smiling Aloian Scholars

Fariba Mahmud and Courtney Rabb

Photographs courtesy of the Harvard Alumni Association

Aloian Memorial Scholars

The author and her two roommates stand in the snow in front of their future home at Harvard.

March 2018, Randolph Courtyard: The author (center) and her two future roommates, Sreya at left and Pranati at right, have just run over from the Yard on Housing Day, having learned they’d been assigned to Adams House.

Photograph courtesy of Meena Venkataramanan. 

Harvard seniors and freshmen share Housing Day thoughts

You Might Also Like:

Head shots of smiling Aloian Scholars

Fariba Mahmud and Courtney Rabb

Photographs courtesy of the Harvard Alumni Association

Aloian Memorial Scholars

The author and her two roommates stand in the snow in front of their future home at Harvard.

March 2018, Randolph Courtyard: The author (center) and her two future roommates, Sreya at left and Pranati at right, have just run over from the Yard on Housing Day, having learned they’d been assigned to Adams House.

Photograph courtesy of Meena Venkataramanan. 

Harvard seniors and freshmen share Housing Day thoughts