When you’re still not at college, you imagine it as the best place on Earth. You expect crazy parties, pranks, beer pongs, and a lot of competition between different groups of students. Those are the expectations imposed by the way Greek life is portrayed in movies and series. Did you watch ABC’s Greek? That’s a nice example of how college life is being represented on screen: relationships, shallow people, keg stands, and bizarre pranks and rituals.
That impression is far from reality. So what is Greek life, exactly? That’s what we’re here for today. We’ll explain what it means to be part of a Greek organization. Why is the word Greek here, anyway? Does it have something to do with Greece? Will you have to speak Greek? We’ll get to everything.
What Is Greek Life in College?
It’s more than beer and togas, that’s for sure!
Greek life is consisted of club-like organizations, called sororities and fraternities. These organizations use two or three Greek letters as their name… hence the Greek part.
Let’s take the names of the organizations from the above-mentioned series as examples:
ΚΤΓ (Kappa Tau Gamma)
ZBZ (Zeta Beta Zeta)
ΩΧΔ (Omega chi Delta)
You get the point, right? Those were fictional organizations. However, the names are similar for the real ones. Here are few examples:
ΣΧ (Sigma Chi) – this is a fraternity with 200+ active chapters all across USA and Canada. Its purpose is to cultivate the ideals of friendship, justice, and learning.
ΚΑΘ (Kappa Alpha Theta) was one of the first Greek organizations for women. It was founded in 1870 with the purpose to provide support for women in the mostly men college world.
ΔΣΘ (Delta Sigma Theta) is one of the most popular sororities, which target the African-American community.
ΑΦΑ (Alpha Phi Alpha) is the first African-American fraternity.
AKA (Alpha Kappa Alpha) – this is a sorority established by African-American college women.
There can be only one national organization under a particular name. Most of these organizations are present in multiple colleges. Kappa Gamma, for example, has 134 chapters at different campuses throughout USA and Canada.
Let’s define Greek life clearly: it encompasses all activities these organizations are involved in. It refers to the lifestyle of the members of different fraternities and sororities. Yes, it also refers to the parties. The term is practically used for the social life of the members.
However, partying is not the focus of Greek organizations. Each of them has been founded on precise principles. The main point of such an organization is to provide support to a group of students. Each member gives back, so there’s a sense of community that makes college life memorable.
What Are Sororities and Fraternities?
The Greek system is based on fraternities and sororities.
What does fraternity mean? – Brotherhood. It’s a group of college men who bound to specific principles established by the founders of the organization. There’s another similar term, which confuses most people: fraternal order. The fraternity is organized as an order, similarly to a secret society. You know, like the Freemasons.
Do these real secret organizations have anything to do with college fraternities? If you watched any movie that featured weird rituals, you might assume there’s a connection.
Phi Beta Kappa Society, which is the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences in the USA, is surrounded with stories about the Freemasons. Ten of the founding members became Freemasons later. It’s unclear whether the original members created the organization to discuss non-academic topics or they meant it as revolutionary society where they would discuss politics. What we do know is that this was a secret society.
If you take a look at the fraternity system, you’ll see the elements of secret societies. You’ll notice the inspiration. However, you’re not becoming a Mason by joining a fraternity. Let there be no confusion about that aspect. These organizations have nothing to do with Freemasonry or any other secret society.
What does a sorority mean, then? – Sisterhood. As you noticed, Greek organizations are either all-male or all-female. When someone mentions sororities, the first thought that comes to your mind is a beautiful house. Yes, some sororities do have beautiful houses. When we say that they look like million dollar mansions, we mean it. Not all houses are that extreme, though. There are humble ones, too.
Besides the big houses, what other stereotype has Hollywood imposed when sororities are in question? Shallow girls. That’s not true. These are just college women. Some of them deeper and more intelligent than others. Shallowness is definitely NOT a precondition to enter a sisterhood. In fact, many of the activities these organizations engage in are noble.
Before sororities were founded, college life was dominated by fraternities. Female students felt left out. The first sorority was founded in 1851. It was called Alpha Delta Pi (ΑΔΠ).
Before 1882, the term sorority was not being used. The organizations were simply fraternities for women. When Gamma Phi Beta was founded, its adviser suggested the need for a more appropriate term to describe the bond of sisterhood.
What Do Fraternities and Sororities Do?
There are several things the movies and series are not telling you about fraternities and sororities. What exactly do these organizations do? You know, besides beer pongs and pillow fights.
Being part of Greek life means doing many things you don’t really want to do. When you’re in a sorority, for example, you’ll have to take part in volunteering activities even when you have an assignment due tomorrow.
These organizations change you. Their point is to make you grow. Holding a position in one of them is a privilege, so you’ll have to follow the principles. What are those principles?
Alpha Kappa Alpha, for example, wants to improve the social stature of the women who participate in it, but it also inspires them to be of service to all mankind.
Alpha Gamma Delta is focused on supporting personal development through the spirit of sisterhood.
Pi Beta Phi wants to promote friendship, cultivate leadership potential, develop women of integrity and intellect, and make a change in society through community service.
Sigma Chi is a fraternity based on the principles of friendship, justice, and learning.
Pi Kappa Alpha has a vision statement to “set the standard of integrity, intellect, and achievement for our members, host institutions, and the communities in which we live.”
Greek organizations are practically social clubs. By joining them, you instantly get friends. There’s a strong bond between the members. Yes, that means you’ll have to consider them all your friends, even if you don’t like some of them.
Being part of a fraternity or a sorority gives you access to a professional network once you graduate. The members of these organizations don’t end the bond once they graduate. When they become successful, they are willing to provide opportunities for their sisters or brothers.
Charity work is a big part of Greek life. Service is mandatory, and it’s the literal purpose of most organizations.
You’ll take part in several activities when you become part of such organization. In addition to participating in philanthropic activities, you’ll also have chapter meetings and all kinds of social events. This means that your active membership will take a lot of your time.
The students who participate in these group party. They also study. They don’t party or study more or less than other students. Although several incidents brought negative attention to the Greek system, there’s a misconception that these organizations are always linked to extreme alcohol consumption.
Since we mentioned the incidents, let’s be more specific about that. Since 2006, Sigma Alpha Epsilon had nine deaths (yes, deaths!) that resulted from hazing, drugs and alcohol. Since 2007, over 100 chapters have been disciplined, with at least 15 of them suspended or closed. What does hazing mean? It’s humiliating, strenuous challenge that’s often part of the initiation process. In the case of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, hazing meant the students were beaten with a paddle, being subjected to music torture while confined in a basement for hours without access to food and water, and forced to drink alcohol until losing consciousness. In 2014, the fraternity announced the elimination of the tradition of pledging.
Yes, there is a dark side to the Greek system. There were cases when things got out of control. However, there are also good things, such as UCLA’s Alpha Phi’s annual philanthropy event that’s raising thousands of dollars used to promote women’s health.
There are also talent shows, team building events, and a lot of social service. If you go Greek, you should be ready to make a big commitment of time and energy into the events your organization throws or participates in. However, you’ll also get tons in return.
The main point is to choose the fraternity or sorority that’s close to your own principles. Fortunately, most of them have websites that will get you informed on the values they stand for.
Let’s conclude this article with a question: you think that was it? It’s just the surface. You’ll keep discovering the layers once you become part of a Greek organization.