OUR CORNER: Get him away from the Greek

With another school year ended and a slew of high school graduates preparing for the next step, college-bound students will be considering what their life will shape into come fall. What will I study? Will classes be hard? Do I want to get involved in clubs and organizations? If so, which ones?

Some students will likely be contacted by Greek organizations, that is, fraternities or sororities. This is a serious consideration, one that will impact one’s lifestyle and yet will be difficult to consider lucidly because of highly aggressive salesmanship tactics. It can be just as hard or harder for parents, who are concerned about their child’s first independent choices but are not on hand to directly weigh in on the positives and negatives.

I know, because I was one of those students who joined a fraternity at the beginning of his college career.

I won’t sugarcoat it: my experience was negative and by the middle of my sophomore year I left. But for the sake of fairness, I will try to include some of the positive aspects of membership.

Let’s break it down:

First of all, some feel-good words of encouragement. You will probably gain a better understanding of your identity in college no matter what organization you belong to. Many Greek houses tout their ability to mold men and women into full adults. I ate that line up, but in hindsight I realize it should have been taken with a grain of salt. The passage into adulthood is a deeply personal one, defined by individual experiences that should not be substituted with group values. It can be done, but it used to be called fascism.

The idea that Greek organizations build moral character is an old one, which borrows from military philosophies and looks nice on a Web site. What’s not mentioned in the average ‘About Us’ section is the rampant wildness, sexism and racism of fraternity life in particular. By the time I joined in 2005, my chapter had only initiated two black men during its 80-year history and racial epithets were tossed around like so much confetti. What’s worse is that such behavior becomes entwined with the vague code of manhood – it’s just what guys do, dont’cha know? In my case, it was incredibly confusing because many of these behaviors felt wrong, yet speaking out against them would be ostracizing.

The insularity of Greek organizations is incredible, especially considering the arbitrariness of the “secrets” the organization protects. I imagine the “how to” steps for writing fraternal secrets goes something like this: 1) Have a tall margarita; 2) Find the nearest napkin 3) Write on that napkin. Yet, after I had left the house, a pledge that I had met twice and thoroughly liked was kicked out simply for being a journalism major. Maybe it was understandable given the excesses that happened on a given day. Consider this quote I heard from a senior, which speaks volumes about insularity from the outside world: “You can literally do almost anything in the walls of this house, and the most it will cost you is $50 (in fines).”

This brings up finances. A common talking point is that room and board are cheaper than living in a dorm. In numbers, this was just barely true and when considering the talent of the in-house cook, it was a bargain. But there are other mandatory fees not discussed during rush. For one, there’s the aforementioned fees for rule-breaking. Some of these are understandable (property damage, fighting, smoking in the house). But as soon as I pledged, oops, surprise!, there were additional social (read: booze) dues. At $200 a quarter, these were a costly chunk of change, mandatory whether or not I was inclined to party.

And of course there’s the impact on academics. There’s the drinking, always the drinking, underage and overdone. But even worse was the lack of sleep. No matter where my room was, the door always seemed to be the place where people would stop, talk and occasionally MMA fight.

Greek houses have an adult charged with making sure brothers/sisters live well (a chapter adviser for fraternities and a house mother for sororities). This person is also, incidentally, a moron in my experience.

OK, that’s not entirely fair. My chapter adviser, let’s call him Ted, did seem to honestly want the brothers to make good choices. The problem was that when Ted came around, he would talk endlessly about the “good old days” of doing mushrooms and accidentally getting married in Mexico – and then immediately lecture the nearest person about the dangers and liabilities of underage drinking. This was an understandably confusing conversation for everyone involved – even Ted, I suspect.

But, as promised, there are positives to Greek life. Any organization requires structure and therefore leadership. From the beginning of my sophomore year until the time I left, I was secretary of chapter meetings, which allowed me to write and report new business and draw funny cartoons, which I posted on the bathroom stalls (technically, my first foray into journalism). Shortly after, I was elected to Supreme Council, the legislative and judicial body of the house. These were my most positive experiences of Greek life, the former because it was creative and fun, the latter because I felt like I was actually accomplishing something.

However, I later found that the positives I gained from Greek life could also be found in other school organizations like my school newspaper, and were able to be obtained without the drama and fuss.

I reiterate that my experiences are my own and do not apply to everyone. If I sound disgruntled, it’s because I am. For some people, especially those with a long family tradition, a Greek organization can be a good fit. I urge new college students and their families to research any organization they would consider joining extensively. Look at the Web site, visit as a family, interview members and alumni and always – always! – maintain a healthy skepticism.

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