Growing up in England, I only came to understand American culture through TV screens. Of all the Americanisms I’d seen as a child, sororities were the most fascinating. I remember the first time I watched “Legally Blonde” with my friends. We sat in amazement watching Elle Woods drive past a row of fraternity houses lined by palm trees and swimming pools. I knew I wanted to be a part of Greek life when I saw her live in a huge mansion with all of her sorority sisters — it was my teenage dream.
The summer before I moved to Berkeley, I sat on my bed with my big sister and enthusiastically discussed sorority options, both of us thrilled at the prospect of me experiencing the life we had grown up watching. To us, joining a sorority was the epitome of the college experience, and every social opportunity stemmed from Greek life.
Weeks before I left for California, I spent my afternoon researching UC Berkeley and what clubs and societies there were to get involved in. Pictures of sorority houses and sisterhood events flooded my webpage, and it seemed to me like sororities were so essential to the American college experience that by not joining one, I was wasting my opportunity to experience American life to the fullest.
My first real experience with Panhellenic life was the campus Greek Life Festival, which is used to promote each sorority and encourage girls to rush. I walked onto Lower Sproul and saw girls holding up massive Greek letters and smiling, each group beckoning me to come over and talk to them. A girl in a glittery T-shirt approached me from her booth and initiated a conversation. She asked me questions such as “How are you feeling being so far away from school?” and “What drew you to Berkeley over any other school in California?” Each conversation that came after this one felt just as thoughtful and interesting as the first, and my impressions of these women pushed me to decide that a sorority was exactly what I was looking for. I couldn’t wait to start the process — I was sold.
When it came to recruitment week, I couldn’t wait to create bonds with the women I had spoken to the week before. But, each day I could never quite shake the nervous pit in my stomach as we waited for the door of each sorority house to open. The day before recruitment officially began, one of the girls in my group gave me the advice to “never discuss the four Bs — booze, boys, Barack (politics) and the Bible (religion).” It felt like a huge chunk of my personality was off limits to talk about.
The conversations I had seemed limited to questions such as “What’s your class schedule like?” and “Did you go anywhere nice for summer?” By day three, I had to ask a fellow group member what topics she was talking about, in search of inspiration for my own conversations. She confessed, “I’ve just been talking about my summer plans and what I hope to major in,” mimicking the same superficial topics I had already spoken about with every girl I’d met so far.
By the end of recruitment week, I was exhausted. The snacks I would pack melted the same way my feet did against the high heels I wore the last two nights of recruitment, blistering my feet. On the last night, I stood at the top of frat row for the third time in one day and laughed at myself for my ridiculously uncomfortable shoe choice. I began to feel hesitant about Greek life; I was already dressing a certain way to not appear like I wasn’t putting effort into my appearance, and it felt wrong that I was placing these other women’s opinions above my own comfort.
By Saturday night, I disregarded these mixed feelings I had begun to develop and went ahead with the final night of recruitment. I had already put in a week of my time and decided that perhaps I shouldn’t abandon the idea of joining a sorority without giving it a fair chance. On the evening when the recruitees found out the sororities we were in, all of us gathered to open our envelopes containing our invitations at the exact same time. After the envelopes were opened, I could hear a mix of ecstatic girls shrieking over their new sororities, as well as girls sobbing in disappointment from being rejected by their top choices.
That evening, I called my sister, gushing about how I had been selected for the sorority I wanted, her enthusiasm mirroring mine and fueling my eagerness to embrace this new part of my life. Looking back, I realize how oddly excited I was about being selected to be friends with girls I barely knew.
I was willing to put aside the contradictions I saw in order to have a tight-knit community, and going into this experience, I had hoped to gain best friends and greater insight about what it means to be a woman in college.
Today, I can say that joining Greek life allowed me to bond with women I may have never met otherwise, and it gave me my closest friends as well as my two current roommates. This isn’t about tearing down other women — this column is about an honest conversation regarding the Greek system, not the women within it. Loving something means uplifting the good and recognizing the faults.
Felicia Sharpe writes the Thursday blog on being an ex-sorority member. Contact her at [email protected].
A previous version of the tagline accompanying this column incorrectly stated that Felicia Sharpe writes the Friday blog. In fact, Sharpe writes the Thursday blog.