April 16, 2020

GUEST ROOM | A Senior’s Take on Greek Life

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For me, one of the only upsides of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a surplus of time to spend reflecting on memories of the past four years at Cornell. One of the biggest parts of my college experience, and the experience of about a third of the Cornell undergraduate population, was being a part of Greek life. I find myself thinking back to the FOMO I had about three years ago in the spring of my freshman year as I watched most of the people I knew join Greek life. It was this same feeling of missing out on some major part of college that pushed me to join a sorority in the fall of my sophomore year.

At first, I unequivocally loved it, despite not having many meaningful friendships. But, as time went on, I became close friends with a few other girls in my sorority. This was that “sisterhood” I’d been promised, and these were the types of girls who I knew would be my lifelong friends (and even though half of them have already graduated and all of us have now separated because of Coronavirus, we do still talk daily).

Although I was beginning to forge more meaningful friendships, I also became more conscious of the problems present in Greek life. Although Cornell’s Greek system is admittedly more progressive than that at many other institutions, it is still sorely lacking. I became acutely aware of the reality that this was a system built by and for wealthy white folks, with little space for anyone else.

This marked the next phase of my Greek life experience: I thought I could “fix” this broken system. At this point, I was somewhat disillusioned with the overall idea of Greek life, but I thought I could help my own chapter break free of the confines of an outdated system. I applied for an executive board position, and soon was put in charge of finances. This gave me an up-close look at the wealth disparities within my individual chapter, ones which I believe are fairly representative of the system at Cornell.

I regularly met with many of the women who were part of the comparatively small population who had to earn their own money to cover their dues. In the library, in their apartments, between classes, over the phone; slowly, my quest to “fix” Greek life began to take over my life in many ways as I realized that the scope of the problem was far greater than I could handle alone. But in my mind, it was okay: I was doing my (small) part to help close the wealth gap in Greek life, at least in my own chapter.

One of my closest friends — in my sorority and in life — brought to my attention another interrelated problem with Greek life: its overwhelming whiteness. She expressed great discomfort with the decreasing amounts of diversity in our chapter with each new member class. I had always been aware of this to some degree, but my own privilege as a white woman blinded me to the severity of the problem, particularly within my own chapter. I again thought that I could fix the problems from the inside-out: by joining the recruitment team, I thought I would be able to help recruit a new member class diverse in backgrounds, experiences and thought. And, in a thought process which I now realize was woefully naïve, I thought that the rest of the chapter (or at the very least, the rest of the executive board), would be in agreement with this sentiment.

An unrelated incident at a chapter meeting revealed the underlying biases of several fellow executive board members. Tearful testimonies about the realities of racism and sexism in Greek life were met with disgusting levels of racism by women I was supposed to consider my sisters. This strayed so far from my own set of values that I decided I could not possibly be associated — much less consider myself a sister — to these people.

As a result, I suspended my active membership at the end of the semester, and I helped many like-minded women do the same. Upon returning to campus post-recruitment (and, for the first time since I was a freshman, unaffiliated with Greek life), I noticed a stark change in attitude from many of my former sisters. From as minor as unfollowing on social media to as brazen as pretending not to know me in public, I felt — and still do feel — shunned by many of the still-active members of my chapter.

With all this newfound free time for reflection, I’ve started to think more deeply about this. Was it really a set of Greek letters that bound me to these women in sisterhood? Personally, I’m not inclined to think so.

I have surrounded myself with kind, empowering women who I would consider my sisters, regardless of Greek affiliation. But I learned the hard way that I alone do not have the power to create significant change in a system so irreparably broken. It is time — in fact, it is far past time — for the system to undergo significant change.

I will say that I do not think my individual sorority was the problem; rather, I think it was symptomatic of a far larger problem in Greek life that has persisted since its very inception. Furthermore, I don’t claim to be perfect. It was my own choice to be part of an organization that, at some level, I always knew was problematic. And, although I know this line of thinking may be hypocritical, I don’t regret this choice. Without it, I would have missed out on some incredible experiences and lifelong friendships.

My point is that I should not have had to be complacent in a system that tolerates racism and sexism in order to have these experiences. And it shouldn’t take such drastic non-complacency to realize that for many, the bond (and allure) of a few Greek letters supersedes basic human decency. Those who seek this experience should not have to endure nor bear witness to bias because of their race, gender or socioeconomic status.

Amanda Kosich is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]Guest Room runs periodically this semester.