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Greek Life: a System of Success, Social Identity and Serenades?

Greek Life: a System of Success, Social Identity and Serenades?

Thursday, May 9, 2024 community uw

By Nova Berger

A deeper look into the idiosyncrasies of fraternities and the social structure they provide, for better or worse

At 18, you're at the brink of it all. Brimming with wide-eyed wonder. You're faced with real identity choices for the first time. Coming into college you are moldable, a product of your parents' choices of environment, but coming out you will be the unique product of an environment that you design. It is now when you begin to develop your student social identity, and the choices you make within your first year set you on course for that final product. 

The plethora of paths and social opportunities may appear daunting and the burden of choice is real. 

On top of that is the importance of belonging during this developmental period.

“Identity development is the process by which adolescents and emerging adults search for answers to fundamental questions that surround who they are, including their political and religious views, career choices, and future achievements (Ole, 2016).”

Research shows that college students who feel that they belong at their institutions get better grades and fare better on persistence, engagement, and mental health. 

”A sense of belonging refers to the “...students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to a group (e.g., campus community) or others on campus (e.g., faculty, peers)” (Strayhorn, 2012, p. 3).”

Sense of belonging can be established by a connection with a minimum of one person (Heisserer & Parette, 2002). Membership in social communities on a college campus can foster a sense of belonging through the relationships that are built between members (Gloria, Kurpius, Hamilton, & Wilson, 1999). 

The first year of college provides emerging adults with time to explore their identity, but changes in exploration and commitment may differ across different aspects of identity. It was hypothesized that (a) exploration and commitment would be stable across the first year, but that fall exploration would prompt greater commitment in spring, indicating that individuals are moving toward identity achievement during the fall (Arnett, J. J., 2000). 

So where does that social identity and sense of belonging come from at the UW and what outlets exist for exploration of identity? 

If you lived in the dorms, you undeniably had a wide variety of social clubs, events and meetings to choose from. The greatest thing about this school is the sheer number of different niches one can belong to here and evidence of that is only too apparent during freshman year. From terrarium building to UX design, one needs only to wander by the campus dorms to see the somewhat ridiculous number of opportunities available to incoming freshmen.

While so many opportunities are wonderful, most of us fresh out of high school don’t entirely know what we like and don’t like. One thing that seems to be universal, is craving of a social community of some sort, as well as an outlet to exercise newfound freedoms. 

Enter the Greek system. Uniquely American, the first fraternities were geared to provide a sense of community and unique opportunities for students. Often seen as a way to get easy access to alcohol and partying, the 'Animal House' stereotype definitely still holds some truth. While the social calendar and guaranteed partying may be an initial draw to some freshmen, it also provides that connectedness and group identity that is so crucial during the first year.

An attempt to delve deeper, one can also view the Greek system in another light: a built-in social system, in which one has an idea of what college, and the years after will be like. A designed identity, based on values like leadership, scholarship and friendship doesn’t seem too bad. 

Early Greek organizations were modeled after European literary societies and sought to foster academic excellence and camaraderie among its members. The first Greek letter fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, set the stage for the proliferation of similar groups across the United States. 

Founded under the mission statement, ”To celebrate and advocate excellence in the liberal arts,” and translated to the motto "Wisdom is the guide to life", Phi Beta Kappa set the stage for the earliest social fraternities. Their mission was to provide a supportive environment for young men to grow academically, socially, and morally. Values typically included friendship, scholarship, leadership, and service, aiming to instill principles of responsibility, integrity, and citizenship in their members. Each fraternity had its own unique mission statement, but they generally revolved around these core principles.

Over time, Greek life evolved to include sororities, which began to emerge in the mid-19th century, providing women with opportunities for social interaction and personal development within the confines of predominantly male institutions.

Pledging in fraternities is a period of initiation and integration, during which prospective members learn and internalize the values and traditions of the organization. Each fraternity has a distinct set of values that they teach at pledging, which are unique to that chapter. They also all have a handbook, which outlines the rules, regulations and chapters of the fraternities. 

Bonding experiences like hikes and studying together can serve as a way to gauge other members' personalities. These are also a great way to identify growth opportunities within one’s own personality, as well as character traits in your brothers you may want to incorporate. 

It is through these shared experiences that frat members say they gain a sense of belonging and brotherhood amongst themselves. Should they make it through initiation, you demonstrate that you have exemplified these values, which could further a personal sense of belonging and pride in those ideals. 

In an optimal world, who wouldn’t want to choose an identity and community built on these principles? 

The Golden Era of fraternal life was characterized by a combination of decorum and good old fashioned cheesiness. Old school frat boys crooned to woo females as well as a practice known as stepping: synchronized dances to impress the ladies. 

Such traditions still exist today, but they go under a different name. Serenades, a way for younger frat members to meet the next generation of sorority girls. Each frat makes their own dance with individual choreography, offering roses at the end of their performance.  

Originally founded as the Interfraternity Conference of National Men's College Fraternities, the IFC served as a platform for fraternities to come together, share best practices, and promote unity and cooperation within the Greek community.

The structure of Greek systems is reminiscent of actual governmental bodies.  Six positions, reminiscent of Congress, all which must be voted in by members of the fraternity: President, Vice President, Corresponding and Recording, Treasurer, Health and Safety. 

Being voted into these positions of power may further instill a sense of belonging and validation in fraternal members. Having an executive team provides an outline for the organization as well as stability and a structure -- you know who to go to when things may go wrong (Calvin Williams, 21).

Being part of exec teams, many of which meet everyday to discuss reinforce leadership skills, while formal meetings occur once a week, as well as informal meetings every other week for IFC. 

Thus, accountability is also an important aspect of the Greek identity. Actions that demonstrate frat values win "house points", while not doing chores or house responsibilities directly have consequences. Academic standing is also essential. If grades drop too low, frat members must complete supervised study time in which they are watched for a certain period of time. This consequence sequence provides structure in a way that could be lacking from dorm life. 

Regional representatives from the overall frat organization visit three times a year, further instilling a sense of credibility. These representatives, often alumni or members of national fraternity organizations, visit chapters within their designated region to provide guidance, support, and oversight. During these visits, they may conduct inspections to ensure that chapters are adhering to organizational standards, policies, and values. 

As opposed to this structure, the typical college student may lack such credibility. When you leave the jurisdiction of the dorm room resident assistants (RA), you are kind of left to your own devices. 

Guaranteed future networks are also a massive draw of fraternal life. So much of our college experience and later in life is shaped by those we know, and having a built-in set of mentors would be a massive draw. Once you pledge, you have immediately gained access to that network. 

The regional representatives discussed above offer mentorship and resources during their visits, and job-prospect-wise, many Greek organizations hire specifically within that chapter. Alumni networks exist for every social house, often coming in to offer expertise and guidance on career paths as well as LinkedIn workshops. Access to that mentorship could instill a far clearer idea of the future than the typical college experience. 

So how do those values and authoritative structure, as well as network really shape your future? Does being held to a ‘higher’ standard, with real negative implications if you slip up, prepare you for the real world? 

Science says it just might: 

More than half of fraternity and sorority alumni said they had a job immediately after or within two months of graduating college compared with only 36 percent of unaffiliated college graduates. Greek alumni said they felt more engaged in their current jobs and more satisfied with their lives, too. 

So, by choosing Greek life, you're choosing stability. You're choosing a clearer ‘product’, based on a more structured environment. However in the end of the day, it seems to be all what you make of it. Yes, Greek life provides ample opportunities for betterment and career development. However, it’s up to you to take those opportunities up, and create an identity out of them.