The college search begins early: We are asked to evaluate who we are and what we value in an institution long before these thoughts have fermented. Columbia’s image as a global, bookish, and academic center with a flair for activism appealed to me. I’m sure that in the vague recesses of my mind I pictured an attractively multicultural, horn-rimmed-glasses-sporting horde dressed in black and reading Gogol. These were to be my people because they, too, would drink too much coffee and snobbishly reject online newspapers, and I would be happy in their company.
What I did not take into account in my search for a school was a sense of community. I just assumed we would all assimilate into a kind of generic college life. However, halfway through my time at Columbia, I feel it to be a campus of individuals with disparate communities. Through the semester, I hope to explore what exactly characterizes each of these seemingly isolated clusters we have come to identify ourselves by, and how and why they seem so immersive.
A fitting way to begin seems to be to examine my personal experience with community. Given the activities I listed myself as “likely to be involved in” on my Columbia application—things like Model U.N. and Debate—I’m sure that my younger self would be horrified to learn that the extracurricular I devote the majority of my time and energy to being involved in is Greek life.
Before going on, it’s probably pertinent to point out that my fraternity welcomes women as members, making it fairly atypical. Although our membership is unconventional, our brotherhood resembles that of many fraternities at academically intensive institutions, for we drink, we host parties, we have secret stories and songs. Every semester, we host an open rush and educate a class of pledges about these rituals. The result has been one of the few immersive communities I have come to count myself as part of during my time at Columbia.
Unlike many of the clubs and organizations I have joined, fraternity life is not bound by any singular interest or goal—rather, it is a community that is able to be selectively diverse. Excluding experiences about and within the organization, our membership has only one thing in common: We were selected by older members for initiation. This initial selection after a short period of self-presentation (and rush for any Greek organization is nothing if not performative) is something like a golden ticket that guaranteed us a spot on the inside. You are inside by sheer virtue of being chosen once—welcomed and obligated to participate in future decision making, cook in the kitchen, attend meetings, and generally inhabit the same space as people you may have nothing in common with at all.
Of course, no one remains the same person with the same feelings and ideals as when they are chosen for entry into the society—and yet the bonds of fraternal association bind this constant flux of personalities into constant association.
I don’t mean this as a glowing praise of fraternity life. As in a family, I am often frustrated with the society. And, like any family, our membership fights about dirty dishes, money, and what our values really are. The analogy of an extended family sometimes works a little too well: We have cousins from other chapters who make us laugh and creepy uncles we’d rather avoid once they’ve had a little too much to drink when they visit. We have siblings who are struggling, siblings who are mean, and siblings who we’re first to text when others misbehave.
I am acutely aware of the flaws and limitations of this system, but think I am drawn to it because it’s a mess I’m not allowed to walk away from. Fights often hit close to the bone because of what seems to be at stake, for we are linked by association to every member of the society. Their actions seem to speak for who we are because of the intimacy of a term like “brother.” Minutiae and gossip aside, the mantle of fraternal bond forces us to take ownership of one another in a way one does not feel obligated to when talking to a member of a club.
On a campus where we are all overburdened and overwhelmed, it is tempting simply to wash our hands of interactions we find too difficult or unproductive. It’s uncomfortable to confront someone’s actions and much easier to simply avoid them.
Salonee Bhaman is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. She is a member of Alpha Delta Phi. Points of Connection runs alternate Tuesdays.