May 2, 2011

Positively Greek

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Perhaps like many of you, I was a serious sell-out in high school. My one and only goal during those days was to get into an Ivy League school, and, after doing so, I realized that my ambition had been misdirected. So the summer before my freshman year, I decided that I was going to spend college making a positive impact on other peoples’ lives and not just my own. Often to the detriment of my GPA, this is the principal theme that has determined the allocation of my time and effort over the past four years.

(Way, way) back in 2008, though, I was not nearly as enthusiastic about Greek life as I was about service. I didn’t even participate in rush my freshman year. But by the following fall, I had grown tired of eating dinner alone and decided that I wanted to find a group of friends to be a part of. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I surveyed the scene and figured a fraternity might be a good place to start. Still, I saw this aspect of my life as a different thread of my college experience. I would do service and I would be in a Greek house, but I didn’t think that Service Nate and Frat Nate would ever meet. Greek life, I figured, would be something to occupy my time when I wasn’t busy volunteering or raising money.

As has often been the case at Cornell, I was completely wrong.

To be honest, it took me a while to get over my surprise at Greeks’ level of dedication to the community around them. It just doesn’t fit the stereotype that we all know so well. When I became a vice president on the Interfraternity Council responsible for Greek service and philanthropy, I expected a great deal of my job to involve coaxing, forcing and begging masses of bros to do something besides keg stands and beer pong. As it turned out, the hardest part was managing the incredible magnitude of Greek service that happens week in and week out.

Between 2008 and 2010, the IFC contributed nearly 70,000 hours of service to the Tompkins County community and over $230,000 dollars to local, national and international nonprofit organizations. This does not include equally impressive contributions from the Panhellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Letter Council.

Those are big numbers any way you slice them. But to give you an idea of what it really means, consider this past Saturday’s Day of Demeter, the annual Greek day of service. Prior to 350 Greeks volunteering at nearly twenty community service sites throughout Ithaca (that’s $9,510 worth of service for those of you keeping score at home), a $1,000 check was presented to James Brown, the President of the United Way of Tompkins County. Secluded on our bucolic campus, we are often blind to the overwhelming need that exists in Tompkins County, but not everyone in Ithaca has a professor’s salary.

The $1,000 donation made by the Greek Tri-Council could provide food for 416 people at a local pantry, healthy snacks for twenty underprivileged children in an after school program for an entire year or basic kitchen setups for 83 victims in a domestic violence shelter. This is real impact that it is impossible to dismiss offhand as a “PR campaign” or “sucking up to the administration.” The Greek community at Cornell continues to make a noticeable and much-needed difference in the Ithaca community.

Fraternities and sororities are institutions, and institutions invariably breed cultures. The culture of Greek life is multifaceted, and sometimes things happen that I am not proud of as a fraternity man, but it is impossible to argue that service to others is not a prominent aspect of what we do. As I prepare to graduate, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the future of Greek life on this campus. In pointed debates such as this one, there are usually an abundance of opinions and few absolutes, so I choose to offer two of the latter. The first is that Greek life at Cornell has had an incredibly positive impact on my college experience and on the experiences of an overwhelming majority of both my Greek and non-Greek friends. The second is that Greeks provide significant and meaningful service to those in need through both volunteerism and philanthropy. Our Greek institutions, like all institutions, are not perfect, but I am and forever will be proud of the amazing difference we make in the Ithaca community. I urge students, faculty, alumni and administrators to bear this in mind as deliberations over the place of fraternities and sororities at Cornell continue to swirl.

Nathaniel Houghton ’11 is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He may be reached at ndh8@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Nathaniel Houghton