Updated: Jan. 25, 2016 at 7:10 p.m.
I chose to join a sorority because I wanted more girlfriends.
Two years ago, I participated in sorority recruitment, just like the many potential new members (PNMs) who will go through the recruitment process this weekend. At the time, I was excited; all I wanted to do was fast forward through time and learn which sorority I'd end up joining.
But once recruitment weekend started, my excitement waned. By the end of the weekend, I regretted putting myself through the process. I accepted my bid with reluctance. Within a year, I confidently turned in paperwork requesting my disaffiliation.
I was one of the few sisters who quit. But I want to make myself clear: There are many girls on campus who are unhappy with their sororities, but refrain from quitting anyway.
Sure, as with any student organization, there exists a range of people who have had differing experiences with sorority life. There are sorority sisters who love their sisterhood, and there are sorority sisters who choose to disaffiliate. Then there are those in the middle: The ones who post pictures on Facebook broadcasting their love for their sorority, but criticize it in private; the ones who want to disaffiliate, but fear the backlash; the ones who have made a few good friends, but are embarrassed to admit they are in a sorority; the ones who feel that their sisterhood is superficial, but stay on the periphery for the benefits of their sorority's formal.
There are clearly problems that plague sorority life, but nobody vocalizes them. Defenders of sororities will rush to declare that their sorority is a "home" filled with sisterhood, service, character, philanthropy, and a plethora of other buzzwords. In practice, however, this description is dishonest.
The root of the problem lies within the recruitment system, which relies on a weekend more focused on selling the sorority as a social commodity than on fostering an environment in which true friendships can develop.
On the first day of my recruitment weekend, I was brought to the Carman basement, where about 40 sisters were waiting for us in matching outfits and heels (it was supposed to be "casual attire" day). I was whisked away by a sister to whom I spewed out my hometown and major. Before I could say anything more, the sorority president gave a speech on the values of the sorority. While I found the speech to be largely unsubstantive, the other sisters cheered and snapped enthusiastically.
This charade went on four more times that day—only the Greek letters and outfit colors changed. I returned to my room that night feeling as if I had just finished the first round of a beauty pageant.
It's clear that the recruitment process is a superficial system that prevents sororities from forging the genuinely strong sisterhood that they so often trumpet. Instead of fostering real conversations and investing time to get to know PNMs, sororities put on a show of flowery speeches and overly edited slideshows of sisters at bars and beaches.
Furthermore, according to the sorority recruitment handbook, PNMs and sororities are matched fairly through a mutual selection process. However, because each PNM talks to only a handful of the close to 200 girls in each sorority, it's virtually impossible for the sisters to make an informed choice about the PNMs they select. What results is a process where sororities select most PNMs not on their tendency to demonstrate "sisterhood, service, character, and philanthropy," but, instead, on their ability to make small talk—and, well, on their looks.
The superficiality of recruitment weekend unfortunately is also present within Columbia's sororities themselves. Because sororities are so large at Columbia, I was able to grow close to only a few of my "sisters." Still, I was expected to pretend that I was close to all 200 of them. It was as if sharing the same hand sign and wearing the same letters—things arbitrarily determined by a failed recruitment system—meant we were all destined to become friends from the very beginning.
To be sure, the overwhelming likes and comments on Facebook were flattering at first. But there was an underlying sense of fakeness that came with religiously liking my sisters' posts. Even the weekly fraternity mixers lost their charm as I slowly realized that many of my sisters were simply girls with whom I attended pregames and parties on the weekends.
Speaking of fraternity mixers, "boys" and "booze" were two of the "4Bs" completely prohibited from discussion during recruitment weekend. For PNMs, mentioning boys, booze, bars, or brownstones is automatic grounds for disqualification. And yet, these words alone fuel more than half the activities in sorority life!
I voiced my frustration to other girls, both within my sorority and from other sororities—first about the hypocrisy of the 4B rule, and then about sorority life in general. To my surprise, I learned that many other sisters were unsatisfied for various reasons, too. The artifice of recruitment and sisterhood, the exclusivity of friend groups within individual sororities, the petty politics during sorority elections, and the focus on social media popularity. For the first time, I realized I was not alone.
Those unhappy with their sorority often remain silent out of fear of losing respect within the sorority or receiving backlash from other sisters, as I know I will after this piece is published. Ironically, the very thing that frustrates many sisters also prevents them from speaking out. In an environment where sisters should be able to comfortably speak their mind, there is a cultural expectation to keep quiet and complacent.
I am writing this piece not to criticize my old sorority or because I hope to eradicate sororities at Columbia, but because I think sorority culture needs to improve significantly—and that starts with acknowledging that there is a problem. The goal of bringing together girls to empower one another and foster lasting relationships is certainly honorable, but much of it is lost in shallow activities and mandated conversations. The way sororities conduct themselves devalues the meaning of true relationships—ones that are fostered naturally, rather than through social status.
With recruitment weekend approaching, I hope all sorority sisters on campus think about what their sorority truly represents. I chose to join a sorority because I wanted more girlfriends. I walked away from sorority life realizing I could gain girlfriends elsewhere, free of charge.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in biology.
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