Fraternities and Sororities, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
Education in America
Colleges and Universities

Fraternities and Sororities
Though the terms “fraternity” and “sorority” (from Latin frater and sorer, meaning brother and sister) may apply to many general charitable and public organizations, these terms have particular significance in American college life. These are organizations of university students, usually restricted to one or the other sex, that band together to promote common social and intellectual interests, often arranging dining and residence services for their members. Since most of these organizations by tradition name themselves using two or three letters taken from ancient Greek, they are generally referred to as the “Greek System.” Many fraternities and sororities are national or international organizations that engender lifetime affiliation and loyalties. According to a University Wire news service story in 2002, 75 percent of the U.S. Congress and four out of five executives at top Fortune 500 corporations have fraternity or sorority connections. “The numbers are staggering,” the report states. “Greeks claim a large number of the most powerful people in the United States.”

The truth about fraternities in American university life sometimes diverges, both negatively and positively, from the image many people have. Popular films, like the iconic National Lampoon’s Animal House, portray fraternities as crass collections of fun-loving and irreverent young men interested in little more than rituals like “toga parties” and “gatoring,” binge drinking (primarily beer, with quantity prevailing over quality), and the sexist exploitation of attractive young women. The “frat house,” typically a rambling Victorian style building, will, in this stereotype, be notable for its lack of cleanliness. In actual fact, many fraternities are rather more conservative, remaining alcohol-free for example, or concentrating on academic, charitable or community pursuits.

Another image of fraternities is that they are elitist, secret societies that discriminate against homosexuals, minorities, and the socially graceless, un-athletic type of student generally classified as a “nerd.” In the popular film Revenge of the Nerds, the nerds band together to form their own fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, when they are denied admission to the popular Alpha Beta. The fact that black, Latino, Asian and gay fraternities exist today gives some credence to this view. Long established black Greek organizations have many traditions, rituals and terminologies all their own.

The process of declaring one’s interest in joining a fraternity or sorority and going through a process of consideration for membership is called “pledging” or “rushing.” Fraternities differ as to entrance requirements, academic standards, and the length of prior university experience a pledge must offer to be considered for membership. Membership may be conditional for a period until the pledge attains full status in the fraternity. All or part of the application process may occur, by tradition, in secret.

The process known as “hazing” brings some controversy to the Greek system. Hazing entails the request by fraternities that the prospective member accomplish some physically difficult, uncomfortable, humiliating, or even dangerous task in order to become one of the chosen. Current fraternity members have survived the process, which they then insist new recruits undergo, in order to prove their loyalty, toughness, and team spirit. Though hazing has been banned in the greater number of universities and among umbrella fraternity organizations, and is illegal in most American jurisdictions, it is still practiced in secret. Hazing incidents occasionally lead to injury and even death for the pledge, resulting in high profile criminal cases. In Maryland in 1998, for example, five fraternity pledges were beaten so severely over a two-month period that they had to be hospitalized, and the university shut down the fraternity for investigation. Every few years a pledge dies from being forced to drink too much alcohol in too short a time, or due to physical abuse. Parents and authorities sometimes find themselves up against a wall of silence when they try to investigate.

Because of hazing, and other issues like binge drinking, discrimination, and a movement away from community service, a number of private colleges and universities (including seven out of the top ten most prestigious private liberal arts colleges) do not allow fraternity and sorority organizations. Most American high schools of all types ban fraternities entirely.

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