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The Benefits of Students Acting UpAmy Baldwin, Ed.D.
Fraternities and sororities play a big role in student life at many American colleges and universities. Parents who’ve had their own positive experiences with Greek life often pass along enthusiastic traditions to their students. For other parents, the Greek system is a bit of a mystery, but they may be familiar with controversies that have enmeshed certain chapters on campuses in recent years.
If your student is considering Greek life, you’ll have questions. CollegiateParent has recently shared stories from two moms about their students’ positive experiences. Here, writer Robin Noble explores reasons why parents might consider cooling their students’ interest in rushing, at least during the first year of college.
Like many issues of college life, from both the student and parent perspective, there is no single “right” course to take.
Some parents I know have taken a clear-cut stand on their son’s impending college experience: under no circumstances will they support his membership in a fraternity.
I’m curious about black-or-white parenting decisions like this, and especially in this case. The student in question is very social, an academic leader and a joiner by nature. His outgoing and respectful personality seem to lend themselves toward the better nature of fraternity life.
But to his parents, the potential downside outweighs all. They are not alone in their thinking. Many universities have curbed or banned Greek organizations.
In the extreme, incidents of hazing, alcohol abuse, sexual assault and racism have moved schools to restrict Greek activity. Many other institutions simply will not have them. For these schools, the fundamental exclusivity of the Greek system goes against their policies of inclusion.
Journalist Hank Nuwer has made the topic of hazing his life’s work, chronicling incidents since the 1800s through his publications and website. A professor at Franklin College in Indiana, Mr. Nuwer’s research shows that, despite public outrage and institutional interventions, Greek hazing continues unabated with at least one death every year since 1975, the vast majority of which included serious alcohol abuse.
In the late 1980s, my close college friend Leonora Minai won a national journalism award for her investigative reporting of Greek hazing published in the TCU Daily Skiff. It was a disturbing story then, and if she went back to re-investigate she would find that, in the big picture, not much has changed.
To me, this suggests that Greek life is problematic at its core. While one university institutes new policies and sweeps out offenders, another sees the same old incivility rearing its ugly head in the same old ugly ways.
It starts with exclusivity. As invitation-only clubs, fraternities and sororities welcome the “we” and bar the “they.” Within a given university they tend to perpetuate likeness (of race, religion and socio-economic status). Their inclination toward superficial physical likeness is of particular concern for our daughters.
As I see it, now that I am the parent of a daughter just starting college, likeness is not a goal we have for our students’ education. I didn’t necessarily have that perspective when I myself was 18. I joined a sorority at Texas Christian University in the fall of my first year. Initially I enjoyed it, but I felt mounting pressure to look and act like the group. I couldn’t afford to keep up clothing-wise, which was demoralizing, and while I met some lovely women, the social situation felt forced and awkward.
At the end of sophomore year I decided to stop showing up for chapter meetings, and this was a positive turning point. I branched out. Connecting with people who were unhindered by the requirements of conformity, I made authentic, pressure-free friendships. I dug into my academic major. I got to know my professors and finally felt at ease in my own skin. As these better experiences took root, I realized that my Greek association had been holding me back.
There are many, many people who will talk about the incredible growth they experienced through the Greek system. They describe lifelong friendships, leadership practice, business networks, service opportunities and a sense of belonging. Many Greeks are true to their letters from the day they pledge until the day they die.
This is all good, and when they behave well, fraternities and sororities have every right to prosper. But personally, I wish I hadn’t rushed in my freshman year.
I recommend a straightforward approach. Prior to giving financial support for Greek membership (and it is pricey), require your student to attend college for one full year before pledging a fraternity or sorority. They owe it to themselves to be on firm ground socially and academically before toeing anyone’s line. In addition to the cost, participation in a Greek organization requires a big time commitment. By postponing rush, they have a chance to explore other involvements on campus.
Trust that they understand what they are seeking, but by all means broach the subject. Remind them that college is the perfect time not to fit in, to take some time to find their own way. If they are still interested in joining, have those very important talks about safety and encourage your student to make the most of the positive aspects of their membership.
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