Before arriving to Northwestern, I had never once visited the United States. Prior to my journey over, I had mentally prepared myself for the series of culture shocks I would face: the imperial system, calling football “soccer,” jumbo portion sizes, drinkable tap water. I knew that I couldn’t avoid the fact that things would be different and told myself to keep an open mind. Yet, there were a few American customs that I resolved I would never partake in – on the top of that list was Greek Life.
My exposure to Greek life stemmed from whatever I’d seen on television and the occasional horror story that I’d stumble upon online. It was a bizarre foreign concept that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. My perception of what it meant to be a “sorority girl” could be condensed into a few words: rich, white and superficial.
So, I made my jokes and rolled my eyes and vowed I would never be a “sorority girl.” When I got a notification in my email to register for rush, I chose to ignore it. But, as the days leading up to the closing date for registration approached, sororities had become a common topic that would frequent most of my conversations. I heard stories about cultish initiation ceremonies, eerie chanting, and rumored rituals that each of the chapters engaged in. The constant chatter piqued my curiosity. I wondered whether the whole process was as strange and outlandish as everyone claimed it would be.
When I finally chose to register for rush, it was more out of curiosity than an inherent desire to join a sorority. I wanted to know how close its hyperbolic portrayal in television was to reality. When I told my friends and family back home about this decision, they laughed. In their minds the very act of rushing would transform me into the ditsy stereotype they’d seen on “Scream Queens” and “Legally Blonde.”
I suppose rush was less of a stressful experience for me in comparison to others. I came in not knowing anything about any of the houses, which eliminated a certain amount of pressure to be impressive. Yet, there’s no denying that the entire process felt forced and inorganic at times. The process could most closely be equated to speed dating. On the first day, Potential New Members (PNMs) visited each of the houses and cycled through frivolous conversations with sorority members, until it was time to move on to the next house.
At the end of the first day, PNM’s had to rank their bottom three houses. I remember finding the situation disconcerting. How is anyone supposed to have firm impressions on a house after making small talk with about three girls over a rigid time schedule that is broken down to the minute? Conversations began to feel robotic by the end of the day – “What’s your major?,” “Where are you from?,” “What do you do on campus?” These surface-level interactions were what PNM’s had to rely on to inform their decisions. Granted, the conversations grew in depth and duration as we progressed through rush. Yet, the first day still left a sour taste in my mouth.
I couldn’t help but feel that the entire process of getting to know a house would be far more effective if it was spread out more reasonably over a longer frame of time. Ten-minute conversations with three different girls aren’t enough to truly get to know individuals. It also meant that PNM’s lost whole days to the process, and most of the girls I rushed with have fallen behind on schoolwork. The rapid-fire pace also made most conversations blur together, leaving PNM’s without a chance to reflect on each experience. “Which house was that again?” was the most common question that would crop up at the end of each day.
On the other hand, I found that I had been overly-judgmental. There really was no mold for what it meant to be a “sorority girl.” Each of the girls I spoke to was distinct, both between and within houses. More importantly, none of the girls I spoke to were defined by their sorority. They each had unique passions, senses of humor, interests and priorities. I began to question my assumptions on all sorority girls having homogenized personalities. I had been hasty in slapping on a stereotype to an arbitrary label. In fact, in my dismissal of “sorority girls,” I had indulged in the very same behavior I pretended to be above when considering Greek Life in the first place – superficial judgment.
As we approached the final days of rush, I found myself strangely excited to have conversations with certain houses. They felt more natural and relaxed, and I even felt comfortable enough to openly express my skepticism towards Greek Life with the girls. Funnily enough, a significant proportion of the girls I spoke to said that they had never predicted that they would be a part of Greek Life either.
I’m glad I chose to give Greek Life a chance and to challenge my stigmatization. There are most certainly problems with the system: the robotic process, demographic diversity and the sense of obligation are certainly factors that require work. Yet, my rush experience saw that the houses were open to having such conversations as opposed to ignoring them. Greek Life may not be for everybody and can certainly feel isolating and uncomfortable at times. However, the process of belittling generalization that often occurs when one utters the word “sorority” is just as much of a problem.
I know that like me, most international students are reluctant to join Greek Life because of these stereotypes. It’s a cultural barrier that holds a heavy presence in the international community. I think it’s a shame that these generalizations discourage a more diverse array of students from rushing. Some of my most meaningful conversations over rush week were with fellow international students who related to this disinclination. Some girls even shared with me their sense of intimidation over being an “outsider” in an inherently American system. Yet, my experience has shown me that joining a sorority doesn’t necessitate that you have to conform to a rigid caricature. Nor does it strip you of your personal identity. I can only hope that these conversations continue to encourage greater diversity in the Greek Life presence on campus.
Thumbnail credit: Northwestern Panhellenic Association.