One of the more distinctive aspects of the student experience in the United States (and to some extent Canada) has to be… Greek life. It’s a phenomenon which is only widely observed in North America. So what is it?
On the edge of many campuses in the US in particular, you may well see some grand old houses, often rather dark in colour, and perhaps with a vaguely sinister appearance (some even have their windows blacked out). In fact, it’s hard not to see them: they’re very large, very prominent, and what is striking about them is the display of big signs with letters written in what may be an unfamiliar alphabet. The letters are in fact Greek, and they tell you that the house in question is the home of one of the university’s fraternities or sororities.
A fraternity is an association of male students, a sorority of female students. Together, they are known as ‘Greek-letter organizations’ (GLOs). Each organization is known by a certain combination of letters in the Greek alphabet. Why Greek? They don’t have anything to do with modern Greece, but the first organizations, set up around 1800, decided to give themselves Greek names – this was a time when educated people would have been expected to have some knowledge of ancient Greek. The practice became popular, and so today there are a lot of GLOs based at most university campuses.
By no means all students join a GLO – in fact, most probably don’t, and international students are probably less likely to join one than the locals. But whether you join one or not, you can’t mistake the houses – and the letters.
GLOs are a kind of secret society, with rules and procedures known only to members. You can’t generally apply to become a member – it’s more likely that you will be selected and invited to join. There is then some kind of initiation procedure, in which the new member proves his or her suitability to become a ‘brother’ or a ‘sister’, and this often involves serving the established members of the community. Some fraternities have been notorious for having quite unpleasant initiation rituals – this more extreme form of initiation is known as ‘hazing’, and is now banned, at least in theory.
Members of each GLO spend a lot of time at their house, which is usually known as a ‘lodge’ or ‘chapter house’. Many of them live there, so their whole life at university really revolves around their GLO. In most cases, there is a lot of drinking, often to excess. But there will also be various positive activities taking place – maybe social or sporting, and some activities may well be charitable. Membership continues for life, so even in the outside world ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ may keep in touch and help one another in various ways. Older members may make donations to the organization – and clearly over the years such donations have been very valuable, as the organizations have in some cases bought property worth millions of dollars.
It seems fair to compare the GLOs with the freemasons – the basic idea is very similar. Student clubs and associations are of course found the world over, but the intensity of the Greek life experience is not usually replicated outside North America. Certainly, Americans are fascinated by them, and over the years a substantial number of films and dramas have been based around Greek life.
If Greek life appeals to you… get to know as many people as you can, see if you can find out who the members are, see what they’re looking for. If it doesn’t appeal – don’t worry about it! Most of the people you meet won’t be members of a GLO, and those who are will leave you alone: the GLOs are actually quite inward-looking, and just get on with their lives in their own way. A uniquely North American way…