January 31, 2012

Free to Be … You and Greek

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Before landing in Cape Town, South Africa for my semester abroad, I spent six exhilarating days screaming until I had no voice, wearing miserably uncomfortable shoes, making occasionally awkward small talk and drinking unhealthy amounts of coffee and sugarfree Red Bull. Sorority recruitment seems pretty terrible (and at times, it is), however, six days spent with — as cheesy as it may sound — my sisters, helped to remind me of how incredible my experience in a sorority at Cornell has been. I remembered how much fun I have had, how many incredible women I have met and how I could no longer imagine college without them. As I got ready to board a plane and move to South Africa for six months, the dancing and screaming, even the weather-centered conversations during recruitment, served as a reminder that no matter what was up ahead I’d always have a home in Ithaca.I felt comfortable as I carried this new appreciation for sisterhood with me on my trip. However, once I got here, I realized my understanding of “sorority” was far more complicated.I am currently on a study abroad program with 200 American college students, all of whom are either interested in South Africa, unable to speak a foreign language, eager to avoid winter or, like me, some combination of the above. On the first day, I admittedly spent a bit of time making sure I looked presentable, as I was anxious about making new friends — something I hadn’t been forced to do since moving into my single in Dickson a few years ago. I was therefore surprised when 30 (or more) students strolled into breakfast in their respective sorority and fraternity tank tops. At first I felt overdressed in my cardigan, but it eventually dawned on me that I wasn’t the only anxious one in the group.The more conversations I had with these students, the more I realized: Those who felt the need to wear their Omega Omega Omega shirts on the first day of study abroad orientation in South Africa were probably using their affiliation with an organization as a crutch, an automatic marker of cool. It was therefore natural that these same kids’ first questions all seemed to be, “are you in a house at Cornell?” And then, after responding yes, “What’s that one like there?”While some of these students no doubt asked about my sorority to play the inevitable (and seemingly endless) game of “Who-Do-You-Know,” it seemed a lot were inquiring in order to figure me out. Joining a sorority at Cornell — a huge school in the middle of New York state — helped me create a niche for myself. Now that I am outside of Ithaca and that niche, my letters are meaningless. The experiences I have had because of them have influenced me, but my affiliation with my sorority itself should mean nothing. While my sorority and the experiences I’ve had with the girls in the house have helped shape my (fantastic!) three years of college, I am not shaped by my sorority. The kids who proudly wore their Sigma Kappa Epsilon lacrosse pinnies to tour the townships of Cape Town seem to define themselves as Sigma Kappa Epsilon members and, once outside the often hierarchical social structure of college, their definition of themselves was lost.If any New Members of sororities or fraternities are reading this (although I assume you’re too deeply engrossed in New Member bliss to be actively engaging in real life): I am envious of you. Greek organizations on Cornell’s campus are a blessing, if used correctly. Greek life allows us to make a huge, at times overwhelmingly intense place, accessible through friendship and yes, I’ll say it, fun. However, I’d encourage you, if only after seeing these kids in Africa, not to lose sight of who you are. Greek life isn’t all there is, and while it will no doubt help shape your college experience as much as you want it to, it doesn’t have to shape you. When some girl was trying to explain how her sorority was in the “holy trinity” at her Big Ten school, I really couldn’t understand what she was talking about because I wasn’t a part of that. The status she had gained from joining her sorority meant nothing to me, an outsider. Not to mention I walked away deciding I was entirely uninterested in hanging out with anyone for six months who used the term “holy trinity” to describe a sorority. But I can’t say I blame her. It is tempting to fall prey to social categorization; the niche that I created for myself was due to the Greek system introducing me to people who were, by default, attached to Greek letters. But the letters “Sigma Kappa Epsilon” are only important because of the experiences and friendships that come with them (especially if you’re six thousand miles away). Before I interviewed for a summer internship last year, my (wise) older sister told me: “Be yourself, but cooler.” That’s the challenge we face as “Greek” students at Cornell. So, new members, and old members if possible — and I say this to myself as well: Be yourself, but in your sorority. We all need to try to wear our letters and avoid let our letters wearing us.

Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected]. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler