When Sumner Wooldridge ’21 was deciding where to go to college, she was not particularly interested in a university that emphasized Greek life. Once she arrived at the University of Chicago, Wooldridge was sure sorority life was not for her. However, for Kate Elliston ’22 Greek life, and all that came with it, was a must. And, in contrast to Wooldridge, Elliston joined a sorority at the University of Georgia.
The young freshmen pledges line up late at night to face the intimidating upperclassmen. Forced to recite the Greek alphabet and do various workouts, the boys push through the challenges. But even after all this hardship, when recent ESD graduate, Elias Rankin* looks over at his fellow struggling pledges, he feels closer to his brothers than ever before.
For many university freshmen, joining sororities and fraternities is an overall positive experience, despite the challenges joining one might bring.
“It was the best experience I would never do again,” Rankin said.
Greek life traces its genesis to the emergence of literary societies in the late 18th century, the first one being Kappa Alpha at Union College in Schenectady, New York in 1825. Their primary focus was creating a social and intellectual club of men, and later women, to connect, learn and have fun.
But as more and more fraternities occupied campuses, their intent shifted from literary and intellectual pursuits to running and sustaining a chapter house. The rise of these chapter houses increased the number of frat houses in the nation from 774 in 1920 to 1,874 in 1929 according to the Education Encyclopedia. To keep these chapter houses full, current members institute a recurring method to secure new groups of members. These new students were rushed or recruited to become new members commonly called ‘pledges.’
Even with its aged history, Greek life is still prominent in today’s college life and a hot topic among high school students. Personal stories about the various aspects of pledging and rushing emerge constantly on social media platforms exposing all aspects of Greek Life. On TikTok ‘Bama rush’ girls are seen doing dances in front of their houses or showing off their ‘OOTD:’ (outfit of the day). On Instagram or the new popular app BeReal, students may see pictures that depict college life, some even feature rushing or pledging activities.
These activities, sometimes referred to as hazing the more intense they are, can help bring some students together with their ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ by forming strong bonds. In Rankin’s experience, the connection between him and his ‘brothers’ were strengthened through those harder times. The relationships he made outweighed the somewhat negative experiences or activities he went through during pledgeship.
“When you are a pledge, you spend a large amount of time with the people in your pledge class,” Rankin said. “Through both fun and not-so-fun activities, you create really strong brotherships and memories that neither you nor the other people involved will ever forget.”
According to Rankin most of the activities were usually laid back and simple to do or complete.
“[Some] activities were harmless like going to play basketball with some older guys, going on a hike, going to lunches/dinners and yes, maybe doing a chore or two with them,” Rankin said. “I thought that this was a great way of really getting to know a brother rather than just talking to them at a party.”
Transitioning from ESD to college is a big step for a lot of students. Rankin said that they are in some ways similar, which can be comforting and not as intimidating, to an ESD senior prepping for the switch.
“In comparison to ESD, I think that joining a fraternity is a lot like joining a sports team at ESD because you spend so much time with the people around you,” Rankin said. “The preparation that it takes to be ready for the season requires bond development which is very similar to fraternity relationships.”
Price Johnson ’22 who currently attends the University of Georgia, has a similar view on the brotherly relationships formed during pledgeship.
“You are surrounded by a group of friends who will be there for you for the rest of your life.” Johnson said.
The outcome and feeling of the experiences all depended on the activities. Rankin compares the mix of good and bad, which he says were all just a part of it and a new way to create friendships rather than just talking. This way, the brothers get to experience things together that they would always have the memory of.
“Frats get a pretty bad rap for hazing, but most of the things I did that were considered ‘hazing’ actually contributed to the relationships that I formed,” Rankin said. “All in all, it was a beneficial experience for me because everything that we did was something that brought me closer to the guys around me.”
Elliston, who rushed at the University of Georgia, had an overall note-worhty experience as well.
“Rushing was stressful but it was also fun,” Elliston said. “I wasn’t expecting to meet so many people, and it’s really comforting because everyone wants to make friends and is going through the same process [and] feelings.”
Rushing was a lot different to anything Elliston had gone through. After joining Kappa Alpha Theta, she connected with her sorority sisters over the shared experience of the newness of rushing and college life in general.
“This experience is definitely different from joining a sport or another group at ESD because, especially coming from out of state, I really didn’t know anyone,” Elliston said. “The experience forced me (in a good way) to get out of my comfort zone. It’s also comforting to know that every other girl is feeling the same way. Now being in a sorority and having my sisters, we can look back on the rush process and talk about memories we have made.”
Mason Link ’22, who also attends the University of Georgia, had a similar experience.
“Pledgeship was a great way to get to know new people and friends my age and even other members of the fraternity,” Link said. “It definitely helps forming friendships in your pledge class because you are doing everything with them during pledgeship.”
Link also ties it back to ESD and how both places force one to spend time with new people and make life-long friends.
“It’s been similar [to joining sports or groups at ESD] in the way that it forces you to spend time with your pledge class and get to know them,” Link said. “It is definitely a positive experience because it’s been a fun way to meet a lot of new guys.”
Although the transition from ESD to college life can be difficult, for some joining a fraternity or sorority can be a social advantage.
“I think that being a part of any group is important for a student to enjoy their college experience because these groups provide connections that can get you through tough times,” Link said. “And for me, joining a fraternity helped me shape friendships that will last a lifetime”
Placed randomly into different resident halls, students like Sumner Wooldridge ’21, a current student at University of Chicago, find a sense of relief and comfort in not having the pressure of rushing or pledging and the absence of consequences that come with it.
“While it can be a way for some students to socialize and hear about events, I believe it is an outdated concept that perpetuates gender stereotypes and sexual assault cases,” Wooldridge said. “I would rather not take part.”
Some students choose not to participate in Greek life in college because of the overall infamous reputation houses have accumulated over the years. These students may not want to be associated with those ideals, or know they can find friends through other programs in college.
“I’ve heard of the strong toxically masculine culture inside frats and the protection of perpetrators of sexual assault,” Saish Satyal, who graduated from Cistercian in 2021 and currently attends Washington University in St. Louis said. “[And] I honestly didn’t like the idea of trying to prove to a fraternity that I deserved to be friends with them based on a few interactions.”
Former ESD students who have chosen to opt out of Greek life often do so out of fear of the culture that some think Greek life perpetuates and the stigma around it.
A 2019 report done by the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Margaret Klawunn, Ph.D, concluded that joining a sorority is correlated with an 80 percent increase in sexual assault amongst its members compared to the general student population.
“Girls call it SAE ‘Sexual Assault Expected’ because of the type of men that rush that frat, both at WashU and across the nation.” Satyal said. “It’s a bit concerning seeing so many movements surrouding sexual assault and fraternities.”
John D. Foubert, Ph.D., dean of the college of education at Union University and Principal of Dr. John D. Foubert, LLC conducted a study that concluded that fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape than the general student population.
“What was particularly remarkable about our study is that we found that it was the fraternity experience that led men to be more likely to rape,” Foubert said. “We traced entering freshmen from the time they got to campus through their first year of college. We asked them whether they committed acts of sexual violence before they got to college, [many had]. We then compared the rates of sexual assault among men who joined fraternities to the rates of sexual assault among men who did not join fraternities”
Satyal said that fraternities are rumored to hide sexual assaults and subject prospective members to brutal hazing.
“I didn’t want to support a system that has encouraged that kind of behavior,” Satyal said.
The downfall of Greek life’s popularity on social media is that it does not portray all of the events that take place during rush or pledgeship. It displays fun outfits, fun activities, meeting new people and forming relationships. However, it does not display the hazing they may go through to be a part of the houses and groups. Some have started to view Greek life as toxic because so much of pledging for college girls surrounds the superficial: the city they come from, how much money they have, how they look, etc.
In the past, pledgeship usually required pledges to do a variety of tasks and chores. However, as time went on these ‘jokes’ escalated into hazing. With drinking games leading to injury and even deaths, colleges have sought to limit the role fraternities play in social life.
According to The Guardian, over the past two years the incidents of hazing have increased. Since then, 44 states have enforced laws against hazing, but only 10 explicitly made it a felony in the event of death or serious injury.
All the while, deaths from hazing have leapt from around one a year between 1969 and 2000 to two and a half a year over the last two decades. And nearly all of those incidents tie back to excessive drinking at a fraternity concluded by the same study.
An 18-year-old at the University of Missouri student named Danny Santulli was dared to down 1.75 liters of vodka, then force-fed bottles of beer and had to pregame for two hours beforehand. Near the end of his night, he had a blood-alcohol percentage of 46 percent. He lost conscience and was rushed outside while the other boys told no one to call 9-1-1. He was later rushed to the hospital and luckily survived, but lost the ability to walk, see and speak.
“It’s abuse. It’s abuse of power, abuse of an individual physically and emotionally,” Laura Perino, an independent mental health care professional whose son, Tyler Perino, narrowly survived a hazing incident said. “In any other environment it would be called abuse.”
Greek life has a strong chokehold on college kids by making it seem as if there is no other way to make friends and the pressure to join it weighs on the students.
Wooldridge, like other students at UChicago, opted out of Greek life and was placed in a house system. These houses are sometimes dependent on the classes students take, but they are also chosen at random.
“I’m glad I tried a sorority out, but it was an experience I’m okay with only having once,” Wooldridge said. “I was placed in Yovovich house last year, and I liked it so much I decided to stick with it.”
In these houses, students focus mainly on education and participating in beneficial field trips, study sessions, and exploring the environment around them. They mainly focus on what the originality of fraternity houses were supposed to be.
“My resident advisors were fantastic, organizing trips to museums and restaurants and parts of the city I wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” Wooldridge said.
Wooldridge went into orientation week with high expectations and a good mindset about the houses.
“On the last day of orientation week, I met my house for the first time, and we all walked to Jackson Park together for introductions and games,” Wooldridge said. “On that walk, I was having a conversation arguing that utilitarianism is a stupid ethical model, and Tony from Ohio overheard and joined in to support my side.”
Though views may vary depending on the person and what their aspirations are, Greek life will always be embedded into college history, may it be for good or for bad. For some it allows opportunities to branch out and meet new people, while for others it may not be their thing; however, it’ll always be an option for incoming freshmen to rush and pledge to their destined fraternity/sorority house.
“This may just be because I attend a school that doesn’t prioritize it, but Greek life has played so little a role in my college experience,” Wooldridge said. “It’s insane how little a role it’s played.”