You may have heard the term ‘Go Greek’ in reference to American college life, but what does it actually mean? If you’ve seen Hollywood films depicting fraternity and sorority life as a non-stop toga party of debauchery and alcohol, you may have an idea about US college life. However, that couldn’t be further from reality.
‘Going Greek’ refers to the process of joining a fraternity or sorority while studying at a US or Canadian university. The terms fraternity and sorority translate to brotherhood and sisterhood, respectively, and refer to both social and academic groups of like-minded people, committed to common goals and values.
Today, Greek life plays a huge role on many college campuses, providing an opportunity for students to form lifelong friendships, network, partake in philanthropy, and keep the traditions of their organization alive.
Greek life has been present in the US college system for hundreds of years, going all the way back to 1776 when the first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded. Fraternities, which came first, began as secret societies within colleges, acting as debate clubs for academic and literary works. College curricula used to be more critical to free thought than it is now, so students had to go underground to speak openly, free from university oversight.
Sororities, originally known as women’s fraternities, came later, with the first sorority founded in 1874.
Fraternities and sororities use Greek letters to represent their names in a nod to their literary origins. Over time, the Greek letters have remained, but Greek life has expanded into social, academic, and philanthropic activities as well.
Today, most fraternities and sororities are national, meaning they have outposts, or chapters, at many different colleges across the US. Their activities are overseen by a national governing body. However, other chapters may be local, meaning they are the only of their kind.
If you’re thinking of getting involved with Greek life, fantastic choice! Many members consider their brothers and sisters lifelong friends and it can add enrichment and value to your college experience.
At the start of each semester, the school’s Panhellenic Council (the governing body of Greek life), will organize a rush week. Potential students sign up to rush, and over the course of the week, they visit each fraternity or sorority to learn more about its values and morals, get to know current members, and tour the house or facilities. This helps each chapter get to know the interested parties, and the rushees can decide which Greek house would be the best fit for them.
After the week, rushees list their preferences of which houses they’d like to join. The houses then decide who they’d like to offer a bid to—a bid is a formal invitation to join. After a bid is accepted, the students who have accepted a bid come together, and that group becomes known as a pledge class.
Pledging can be very competitive, especially in universities in the south where Greek life is extremely popular. Although you may not be offered a bid to your first choice, most rushees do find a house that’s a good fit for them.
Each semester, the pledge class bonds with one another and with current members. They participate in Greek life activities and traditions and get to know the history of their organization. Each pledge is assigned a big brother or big sister, an older member of the organization who will act as a mentor and support person through the pledge process. At the end of the pledging process, which usually takes most of the semester, the pledges are formally initiated into the organization as full-fledged members. They are then given their ‘letters’, usually an item of clothing containing the chapter’s Greek letters, which members wear with pride.
When thinking about the process of joining Greek life in the USA, many people immediately think of hazing. Although this was very common in the past, especially regarding alcohol use, universities now have very strict anti-hazing rules, with offending chapters punished or even banned from campus if they don’t comply.
Note: the above is in relation to social Greek life organizations, but many campuses also have academic organizations that also use Greek letters. They are more like academic or honor societies, usually with a minimum GPA required to join.
Many people join Greek life as a way to make friends—if you’re a freshman on a campus of tens of thousands, joining a chapter can make campus feel much smaller and you’re likely to make friends for life. The friendship also extends well past graduation, thanks to the networking advantage it brings.
Many Greek organizations have a strong and active alumni network, making it one of the best ways to find job openings.
Greek lifestyle in the USA also offers leadership opportunities, which look fantastic on a resume. Most chapters also have involvement with charities and regularly host philanthropic and fundraising events, a good way to give back to the community.
Other advantages include social events and gatherings, the fun of living in your chapter’s house with fellow members, and the pride of helping the traditions of your organization live on.
However, that’s not to say there aren’t some considerations before joining. Members are required to pay membership dues, which can be in the hundreds of dollars each semester. Other costs may come up each semester as well, such as tickets to social events, t-shirts, and merchandise.
There can also be a negative stigma around Greek life, especially when it comes to parties and alcohol. Although this is less so now than in the past, you still may get some raised eyebrows when you mention to friends or family that you’re thinking about joining.
Greek life can be a big time commitment, especially during the semester when you pledge. Expect to attend weekly chapter meetings, study sessions, social events, and charitable days out.
Over time, most students find a comfortable balance between Greek and academic life, but if you find it’s impacting your grades, it may be time to take a step back—academics should always come first, even if the party is more fun.
If you think Greek life in the USA might be for you, check out the Panhellenic Council of your university. They should be able to tell you which chapters are on campus, when and how you can sign up for rush week, and what to know before getting started.