Finding community on campusKelli Ruhl
When my oldest son was looking at colleges, he specifically told my husband and me that he did not want to join a fraternity and would prefer a school with “less Greek life.” The college he chose did in fact have a lower percentage of students in fraternities and sororities than others he considered.
You can imagine our surprise when, only a few weeks into his freshman year, he announced that he wanted to join a fraternity!
I understand that 17-year-olds change their minds a great deal, but beyond that, I didn’t think my son had the temperament to be part of a fraternity. Taking orders was not his strong suit — he was and is (in gentle terms) an independent thinker. The college my husband and I attended did not have Greek life so I had no personal experience to draw on. I had heard scary things about the initiation process (sometimes called hazing).
On top of everything, I started hearing mystifying terminology. Here is some basic vocabulary in case you are unfamiliar with Greek life:
The first step in identifying potential new members of the fraternity. It’s a mutual selection process during which many events are held so current and potential members can get to know each other and potential members can learn about the chapter.
Fraternities are typically national organizations with the branch at each school known as a chapter. Some chapters reflect the origins of the fraternity, others not so much. (Remember the all-jock Alpha Betas and the not even close to all-African American Tri-Lams from the “Revenge of the Nerds” movies?)
If the chapter members like you at the end of rush, you get a bid — an official invitation to pledge to become a new member.
If a student receives and accepts a bid from a fraternity, he becomes a pledge and begins a process to prove his worthiness to join. This is the part where young adult males (whose frontal lobes are not fully developed) may find themselves doing stupid and sometimes dangerous things. They may be asked to perform tasks they would never do at home, like clean the fraternity house bathroom floors. They are also expected to serve fraternity members, and help with charitable activities.
Each pledge is given a “Big” who is a mentor to him throughout the new pledge period and, in my observation of my sons, becomes one of the pledge’s closest friends. The pledge is referred to as the Big’s “Little.” I was amused to discover my son had an entire new lineage.
Greek life probably wouldn’t have been for me, but I’m glad my sons were able to participate in something that’s enriched their lives and, contrary to stereotypes, introduced them to a diverse collection of intelligent and supportive young men.
My oldest son identified the fraternity he wanted to join and started hanging out at the house well in advance of rush. He hadn’t been too happy at school up to that point and the fraternity seemed to change that. I remember having to send his suit and shoes since there were events that required more formal attire, and I recall his enthusiasm for the rituals and traditions he was becoming a part of as well as his worry that he might not get a bid.
Once he did get the bid, I became the one who was worried, mostly about the pledging process, but had to trust it would turn out okay. I’ll admit there were anxious and frustrating moments, such as when my son had to relinquish his phone during “hell week,” but he emerged unscathed and thrilled to be officially part of the fraternity. He was proud of his membership and brought home his certificate for me to frame. Because of his experience, we were calmer when our middle son decided to join a fraternity at his school several years later.
The amount of time and effort my oldest son spent joining the fraternity freshman year definitely had a negative impact on his grades. However, for someone who’d struggled a bit socially in high school, finding his niche in college was important. The friends I made in college are still among my closest today, although we didn’t have oaths and rituals to seal the bonds. But perhaps those rituals were something my son needed, and made the connections he formed seem more permanent. I got to know a number of his fraternity brothers and think highly of them. Three years after graduation, my son remains close to many of his “brothers” and we see the same deep relationships being formed between our middle son and his “brothers.” This summer we hosted my middle son’s Little and I was as impressed with this young man as I was with my oldest son’s fraternity brothers. I anticipate our sons and many of their fraternity brothers will remain friends for life.
In addition to the social angle, my oldest son became an officer of his fraternity and eventually the President of the college’s Interfraternity Counsel, a leadership role which came with tremendous responsibility. He learned a great deal from the fraternity experience, intangibles that may be almost as important as what he learned in class.
On a recent family vacation, my son wasn’t thinking about the fact that he was wearing his fraternity T-shirt until a young man approached him and initiated the secret handshake. At first my son was taken aback, but then warmly greeted the younger man. I smiled at the exchange. Their brotherhood is a nice thing, and has merits I didn’t understand when I first heard the word “fraternity.”
Greek life probably wouldn’t have been for me, but I’m glad my sons were able to participate in something that’s enriched their lives and, contrary to stereotypes, introduced them to a diverse collection of intelligent and supportive young men. Is your student interested in joining a fraternity? Do you have some concerns? By all means talk them over with your son but, from one member of the motherhood sorority to another, I assure you it will work out just fine.
Read more stories by Marlene at her blog, "Thoughts from Aisle Four."