November 5, 2019

SULLIVAN BAKER | Greek Life and the Exploitation of First-Year Vulnerability

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The Saturday before last, I woke up to a flood of Facebook posts depicting a smiling young man, Antonio Tsialas ’23, an 18-year old freshman who, according to one of the posts, had just been hired as a campus tour guide. Antonio had been missing since Thursday night, when he attended a fraternity event, and the posts implored anyone who knew his whereabouts to contact the authorities. As the hours passed and more “missing student” posts appeared in my timeline, the pit in my stomach grew and grew, and I braced myself for a tragedy.

Late Saturday evening, my fears — Cornell’s fears — were confirmed with a brief mass email that told us Antonio’s body had been found in Fall Creek. I had never met Antonio, so my entire knowledge of his personality, of his humanity, came from three lonely adjectives in the mass email: thoughtful, smart, outgoing. And yet, his death felt like a personal loss in a way that other campus tragedies haven’t. That night, I found myself driving aimlessly around campus blasting Kanye West’s “Selah,” a powerful song whose “hallelujah” chorus appropriates the comforting familiarity of Handel’s Messiah, as I processed the loss, reflected on the hauntingly familiar circumstances of his death and questioned how our community could allow this to happen. The tragedy of his loss, I soon concluded, should lead us all to reckon with Greek life’s exploitation of some of Cornell’s most vulnerable students and our failure as a community to prioritize their well-being.

Three years ago, around this time of year, I’d also found myself at Phi Kappa Psi, the West Campus fraternity where Antonio was last seen alive. I’d ended up at the frat party not because I actually wanted to be there, but rather because it was where my floormates decided to go. I had no close friends yet, so where my floormates went, I went. If I followed them around enough, I thought, maybe we’d find something in common, or maybe I would finally figure out how to enjoy a frat party. Neither happened that night (or at any frat party), and I soon set out for my North Campus dorm, making the walk up the hill and across Fall Creek gorge — just as Antonio would have.

Though the frat party itself was uneventful, this walk from West to North, which I made many times afterward, became something of a ritual. My hikes up East Hill were opportunities to reflect on the failures, disappointments and opportunities I had found at Cornell, and they helped me to come to terms with the insecurity I felt as a new student struggling to find a home here. As I look back on my first year, these treks represent the vulnerability that characterized that time in my life. Antonio’s death during one such post-party trek makes his loss a potent symbol of Greek life’s exploitation of first-year vulnerability.

Antonio may have been confident that Greek life was for him, or he may simply have felt social pressure to participate, or he may have been somewhere in between. What we can be sure of, though, is that Antonio was striving to anchor himself at Cornell. He was forming relationships, he was finding spaces where he could contribute and he was beginning the journey of academic discovery that defines students’ time at Cornell. As countless others have done, he was well on his way to defeating the loneliness, the uncertainty and the inescapable sense of vulnerability that accompanies the transition into college life.

We know that toxic elements within Greek life take advantage of freshman loneliness, uncertainty and vulnerability to force pledges to risk their own health, their safety and their emotional well-being. Pledges endure this because Greek life promises a home on campus. It promises friendship. It promises support. It promises fun. It promises professional connections. Fraternities know that pledges will suffer humiliation, psychological abuse, extreme physical exertion and alcohol poisoning to be deemed worthy to enter the “home” Greek life advertises.

These practices aren’t just harmful; they’re predatory. The first-years they target are the Cornellians who are most likely to feel they have nowhere else to turn to find a campus niche. Fraternity membership often seems like the only option for these students, many of whom just haven’t spent enough time on campus to learn that communities outside of Greek life can make their college experiences just as meaningful and enjoyable, if not more so. For such students, it feels like they have no option but to endure abusive hazing.

Because much of campus knows that chapters within Greek life operate this way, the student consensus seems to be that whatever happened to Antonio at Phi Kappa Psi contributed to his death. This past weekend’s suspension of frat parties and Panhellenic President Maya Cutforth’s ’20 call for a sorority boycott of mixers sound a lot like admissions of guilt, or at least complicity.

Even if it turns out that Antonio’s death was completely unrelated to Greek life, we as a community must still demand action, as Maya has done. Because we already know that toxic manifestations of Greek life culture can and do kill Cornellians. As recently as 2011, a Cornell fraternity brother died after being kidnapped, zip-tied and forced to drink.

But we shouldn’t expect only institutional changes, or changes that only affect Greek life; we should also work to create a more welcoming environment for new Cornellians. I urge upperclassmen like me to engage in the sort of reflection Student-Elected Trustee Jaewon Sim ’21 called for in a recent column; think back to how you felt as a first-year student. Remember your hopes, your fears, your struggles. What did you need from the Cornell community? How did upperclassmen help you find your place here?

Once you’ve done this, consider your privilege of experience: experience adjusting to this institution’s demands, experience developing close relationships, experience getting your footing, experience carving out a place here for yourself. Identify how you can use this privilege to support new Cornellians and ease their transition into what is often an intimidating and high-stress environment. Upperclassmen must resolve to support new students, not prey on their vulnerabilities.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.