The Greek Life
Fraternities and sororities at U.S. universities provide students with lifelong friendships, networking opportunities as well as training on useful topics.
One of the most iconic elements of U.S. higher education is its fraternity and sorority system, also known as the Greek system. Many films, television shows and other media have featured these social organizations for decades, especially for their strong sense of camaraderie.
According to CNN, in 2018, about 800,000 college students were members of fraternities and sororities, the names of which are usually combinations of Greek letters. Although some may think that such organizations focus on partying, students choose to join them based on their philanthropic record, social scene, cultural interests or even religious faith.
Graduate student Morgan Wilson was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority for all four years of her undergraduate studies. “My experience was a little bumpy at first, but I found a core group of friends that became the closest friends I made in college,” she says.
Social fraternities and sororities are usually single-sex, though there are some organizations that are open to all. They are primarily self-governed and many offer their own student housing. The social schedule of a fraternity or sorority is generally filled with events, volunteer work, networking opportunities and training on topics that will be useful to members in the future. “We had speakers coming to meetings about diversity, did cleanups of the town, learned about stress relievers in college and how to be leaders,” says Wilson. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, sororities and fraternities across the United States have launched philanthropic efforts to assist fellow students and their communities.
The Greek system is almost as old as the United States, with records of men’s fraternities going back to the mid-18th century. Many of the men’s fraternities are now linked through the association called North American Interfraternity Conference. Women’s organizations burst onto the scene about a century later. They were first called women’s fraternities before becoming known as sororities. Many of these sororities are now represented through the National Panhellenic Conference umbrella organization for the United States and Canada.
The Greek system was originally the bastion of America’s wealthiest families, with many American presidents, senators, cabinet members, Supreme Court judges and other prominent individuals in history having been fraternity and sorority members. The system is now increasingly becoming open to students from a variety of backgrounds.
Graduate student Jocelyn Foster was a member of Phi Mu, the second-oldest Panhellenic organization, founded in 1852 as a women’s fraternity. “Our chapter was the most diverse Panhellenic organization on that campus, and one of the most diverse chapters in the fraternity,” she says. “And through that fact, I got to advocate for diversity and serve as an example as to why diversity within an organization was essential for making university spaces more comfortable for women of color.”
Foster also appreciates her organization’s advocacy efforts, recalling an incident when a male fraternity member made a sexist remark during a fundraising pitch. “We all agreed to take a stand and not participate,” she says. “We still donated to the philanthropy because we knew that they deserved our support, but we stood up for ourselves in not participating in the event, showing them that we were not going to stand for that kind of language.”
College faculty member Danielle Shorr was a founding member of her school’s Pi Beta Phi sorority, which also took a progressive stance. “I had an overall good experience, met great friends, and was pleasantly surprised by initiatives taken by our local and national chapter to welcome trans women to the sorority,” she says.
A former student’s Greek ties can often follow them into adulthood, with lifelong friendships and networking opportunities. Interviews with more than 30,000 alumni for a 2014 survey by the analytics firm Gallup revealed that those who took part in Greek life reported better outcomes both in their university years as well as later in life.
College faculty member Daniel Strasberger, who was a member of the Chi Sigma Chi fraternity, says he values his fraternity experience. “Honestly, it gave me a group of friends and also confidence in myself,” he says. “Overall, what it gave me was a connection beyond generations in the school. I’ve grown close to ‘brothers’ who graduated 10, 20 years before me and also after I had graduated.”
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.