PSU Vanguard Shield Icon

Jennifer Nelson: My big, fat Greek adventure

It starts happening before you know it. Of course, they don’t tell you this until a year after you’ve joined the Greek system. By then, you haven’t so much abandoned the high ideals of leadership, scholarship and service as much as you’ve come to realize that being Greek – that is, belonging to a fraternity or sorority – means embracing other ideals, as well. The social aspects of the Greek system surpass the rumors. And rightfully so. Show me 10 coeds who want to get involved, and I’ll show you 20 who not only know, but believe, that the best place to do so – academically, extracurricular-wise and socially – is in the Greek system. But that’s not what they tell you at first. In the beginning, the Greek system presents itself as being a little more … what’s the word? Ideal.

The Invitation

It’s September of my freshman year in college, but I’m still at home. Classes don’t start until the end of the month at Oregon State University. I’m relishing the tail end of my summer vacation. Many of my high school friends have left for colleges and universities across the country. Those who remain will soon be in Ashland, Corvallis and Eugene. Some even opt to stay in Portland. Regardless, there aren’t many of us left. We spend our days hanging out, working. On the weekends we go to the mall. Truth be told, I can’t recall the exact day of the week the invitation took place, but I remember the exchange as if it were yesterday.

It was in the Gap, of all places. One foot still gracing marble, the other just descending on those shiny hardwoods, and I saw them – two girls I had grown up with, gone to school with until I transferred out of district.

“Omigod!” they screamed in unison. I was excited to see them, too. We had been cheerleaders together, and I had played softball with one for years. Our parents were still friends.

We went through the routine: hugs all around. “How are you?” “How was your summer?” “You’re going to Oregon State, right?” Right. “Omigod, you have to go through Rush! Are you going to? You have to! Are you going to? You just have to! It’s such a great way to get involved, meet people. You’re too valuable not to.” “Well, I hadn’t really thought about it.”

I wasn’t lying. I hadn’t thought about joining the Greek system because I didn’t know anything about the Greek system. Neither of my parents was Greek. Nor were any of my grandparents. Maybe a cousin? I didn’t know, and they didn’t care. We had already established an important fact: I was not what the Greeks call a legacy, someone whose parent or grandparent belonged to a certain Greek organization and therefore was often pressured to follow suit. I had no allegiances. I was fair game.

“You should go through Rush,” they urged. “Even if you don’t want to join … you’ll still meet so many girls … and you’ll find out firsthand what we’re all about.”

Natural Selection

Although I am alone, I’m not nervous the day Formal Rush begins. My roommate, who is not rushing, hasn’t arrived. She won’t for several days, since the men and women who participate in Formal Rush arrive at school early. In the morning, I head to Greek Row, which at Oregon State is more district than row. Me and 19 of my closest friends, known in some circles as a Rush Group, known in others simply as Competition. Morning until night, we spend five days together, learning the ropes “firsthand.”

The Formal Rush process operates on the principles of natural selection. The schedule seems grueling for a student activity: On the first day, we tour some 13 houses, dropping three at the end of the day. The following morning, we learn whether those we kept want us, too. And so on and so on for several days.

Hello, shake hands, goodbye. “Do you know so and so?” “That’s my all-time favorite movie, too!” “If you’re interested in that, then you’ll love us … we have so many opportunities for involvement.” From the outside it must be hard to tell who’s making the harder sell. But on the inside, it doesn’t seem to matter. On the inside you’re meeting people, connecting, finding a place.

And when it’s all said and done, I’m pleased with my place in a house that bills itself as the first national fraternity for women, a strong house locally and nationally. I think I might have found something, and later that night – the night before my first day of classes – I feel confident and loved and part of something promising as I drink a few beers with my new sisters and mingle with the latest crop of fraternity pledges.

The Roses Fade

The following year, I arrive at school two weeks early. Only then, in the week leading up to Formal Rush, do I begin to fully realize what it is I’ve gotten myself into. Things are different on the other side.

First, there’s the planning. Skits and songs and speeches – these are the tools sororities use to lure potential members. There is a theme for each day of Formal Rush, and costumes and presentations and seating arrangements are made accordingly. We want to present a certain image: fun, yet involved and studious, communal, yet still offering space for individuals to be themselves.

Next, there’s strategizing. An estimated 200-plus women will attend Formal Rush, and we want to know who they are before they walk through the door. We receive via mail rush recommendations, letters detailing the accomplishments of the young women we will soon meet. We make flashcards that include their pictures and list their activities, athletic careers, GPAs, service work. We study them. We voice opinions and make our picks. We know who we want before they come, and we know how we will woo them.

Finally, there’s the execution, at times miraculous in the way it comes together. Mostly though, it’s just luck.

Following Formal Rush, life becomes routine. We’re all students. Each of us has our own interests and our favorite campus haunts, fraternities, even sisters within the house. There are 60 of us living under one roof, plus another 20 or so living in the dorms. At least once a week, we come together for house business. Every term there’s a dance and service projects. Cliques form, lines are drawn. Rules are broken more than challenged. Scandal is everywhere. We might as well be the House of Representatives.

But we’re not. Yes, we’re an organization governed by both fraternal and university rules, and yes, we have all vowed to remain true to a certain code of ethics. But we’re still kids who make mistakes. The old adage “You live and learn” never rang more true than during the second year.

The Truth

Halfway through my sophomore year, I am elected president of my sorority, a position I hold with both pride and resentment for two years. I say pride because there’s no better word. For me, five people agreeing on anything is astounding, 80 left me speechless.

I loved sitting before them in meetings and taking them all in at once, this group of extremely devoted, talented and strong young women who somehow managed to make the ideals set forth to me when I was 17 seem less idealistic and more realistic.

But I also resent it, not because of who we are, but for where we are in our lives. We are young, 18 to 23 years old. We are away from home. We are free to do anything and everything. Even if the law or the organization or the university says otherwise.

Of course, this includes drinking. Binge drinking, legal drinking, underage drinking. Drinking in the house (although I would like to think it subsided under my presidency, I’m not that disillusioned), drinking songs (to any Greek member who doubts the role that alcohol played in their chapter’s history, I say, “Read your songbook.”) Sure, there was drinking. But it wasn’t out of the ordinary. It wasn’t even unexpected, because everywhere I went people, whether they were Greek or non-Greek, of-age or way underage, drank.

Down with the Double Standard

Unfortunately, the argument that drinking is a part of college didn’t keep the critics at bay. And in the end, after four years of participation in the Greek system and now as a critic of the system, I am left with this realization. Forget about the double standard. It’s not the real issue, anyway. The issue lies in the very ideals that the Greeks claim to uphold, because let’s face it, the double standard wouldn’t exist otherwise.

As we saw recently when Portland State University student and former Alpha Chi Omega sorority member Crystal Steinmueller challenged that Kappa Sigma fraternity, an alcohol-free house, was serving alcohol in its chapter house – including to minors – drinking is still very much an issue in the PSU Greek system. Steinmueller’s subsequent suspension from her chapter ignited an emotional debate on the Vanguard Web page. Accusations, name calling – neither side made an impressive argument. Perhaps that explains why the odd combination of pride and resentment that I felt so many years ago has come back to haunt me. The rose-colored glasses of my youth are gone. I wish I could say the same thing for Greeks everywhere.