July 16, 2007

One-Third of the Big Red: The Greek System

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This article appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual Freshman Issue.

While studying in the musty cocktail lounge of Uris Library during the first few weeks of the “prelim season,” confident upper-class students will don their fashionable winter gear. As a group of students pass with skim sugar-free vanilla lattes in hand, many will notice the Greek letters stitched on the front of their hooded sweatshirts.
Freshmen may ask: what are those “symbols” anyway? Their meaning goes much deeper than the letters they stand for.
Cornell’s fraternities and sororities encourage students to become part of Greek life to make friends, promote community service, grow as leaders and continue on their path toward academic success.
Today, Cornell’s Greek system is strong, with over a third of the student population claiming membership.
The Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Association and the Multicultural Greek Letter Council oversee Cornell’s fraternities and sororities. There are over 60 chapters on campus — 45 fraternities and 18 sororities — making the Greek system the largest campus-wide group at Cornell.
Chapters work together in a wide range of activities, ranging from community service to social events.
The interactions of the various Greek chapters provide the Cornell community with a chance to develop friendships with people throughout the Greek system.
According to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, the mission of the Cornell fraternity and sorority system is to “cultivate the intellectual, social, and ethical development of our members in an environment where they practice ‘freedom with responsibility.’”
Suzy Nelson, former Associate Dean of Students, noted that C.U.’s fraternity and sorority system is acclaimed both regionally and nationally.
“Cornell’s Greek system is very strong and vibrant,” Nelson said. “In my opinion, it is an integral part of the student community at Cornell.”
Nelson attributed the success of Cornell’s Greek system to the dedication and enthusiasm of the student leaders.
In the past, the Cornell Greek system has won many awards at the national Greek Leadership Conference, which covers categories such as academic achievement, council management, leadership development, recruitment, multicultural initiates, community service, public relations and risk reduction and management.
“What sometimes happens is first year students come to campus and they ask: what is this fraternity and sorority thing about? There are many stereotypes that may come to mind, but our students at Cornell make ‘going Greek’ a positive, growing experience,” Nelson said.
Although some students may choose to believe the stereotypes that sorority members are just cheerleaders who wear skimpy clothing and gossip all day, or fraternity members just sit around drinking beer and watching Monday Night football, Cornell’s Greek members defy expectations.
Cornell’s Greek system allows students to emerge as leaders within their respective chapters. Elected officers must run meetings, organize events and handle finances. Chapter presidents must learn to motivate their members, treasurers must handle complex budgets and recruitment chairs must carry out strategic recruitment tactics.
But despite the leadership skills that the Greek system fosters, some incoming freshman may worry about how their academic performance will be affected if they decide to join a fraternity or sorority. Some may fear that their grades will decline if they join the Greek system.
But Nelson pointed out that the average GPA for all sororities is 3.4 and the average GPA for all fraternities is 3.2
In addition, many chapters hold study hours and give out awards to members for outstanding academic achievement. Each spring, individual chapters are honored for their academic excellence.
“We have some of the smartest, most hard-working students in the Greek system,” she said.
Besides academics, community service is also emphasized in the Greek community. Many chapters participate in Ithaca-based projects, such as the Tompkins County Task Force for Battered Women Shelter, as well as national organizations like the American Cancer Society and Prevent Child Abuse America.
“Cornell has made a real effort to support the Greek system,” Nelson said. “We hope that each year we have more and more people joining our chapters and engaging in positive Greek activities.”
Social events are also a large part of the Greek experience, with chapters planning their own parties, formals and football tailgates.
Formal membership recruitment or “rush” consists of a weeklong period in January before classes start, where prospective members learn about the chapter and meet members.
While all fraternities and sororities take part in spring recruitment, some chapters choose to participate in the less-formal fall recruitment, where recruits can meet members in a more relaxed and intimate stetting.
In spring 2006, the IFC registered 620 male students for recruitment and 534 accepted bids. 628 female recruits registered for recruitment, with 488 of them signing bids.
Because the University’s 13,000-plus student body population can seem intimidating at first to new Cornellians, many students immediately feel at home once they join a fraternity or sorority.
“The Greek system breaks down a larger campus to a smaller, more manageable size,” said Melissa Acker ’07, a member of the Sigma Delta Tau sorority.
“Being Greek means being part of a unified community. It is a great way to meet new people and experience a side of Cornell that is truly unique.”
Acker continue, “As a member of a fraternity or sorority, you feel as though members of your family are right here on campus. There is always someone to turn to, always someone to help you out with a problem.”