I spent my junior year of high school touring colleges that proudly boasted to have abolished Greek Life decades ago—or, better yet, to never have had it at all. The extent of my contact with Greek Life consisted of driving past the University of Georgia’s eerily cavernous frat row when I visited my family in Athens, or spiraling down a sister-to-be’s Bama rush diary when a video appeared on my TikTok ‘For You’ page. I never thought it would permeate my experiences beyond this. Greek Life was at best the butt of my derisive jokes, and more often something I considered to be a nefarious plague pervading American higher education.
For several weeks following my acceptance to Yale, its Greek Life nearly deterred me from committing. It was only after I talked to past and current Yale students, who vehemently reassured me that Yale’s culture is decidedly not fratty, that I was emboldened to kiss my utopian fantasy of a fraternity-abolished university goodbye and embark on the first chapter of my panhellenic collegiate life. I was bewildered to find myself among the throngs of people jostling on High Street less than 10 hours after setting foot on campus, frantically hoping that one of the brothers at the door would take pity on a group of first-years and let us into the party.
Even more surprising to me was when I heard friends say that they were thinking of joining Greek Life in December of my first semester, as murmurs of rush began sweeping campus. And even more surprising was when a friend looked up from her work one night to ask me, “Do you think you’re going to pledge?”
“I don’t know what that means,” I replied.
“Pledge—like, rush sororities,” she explained.
I didn’t know whether to be amused or offended. Was this a sign that I had failed in cultivating my methodically constructed, esoteric, alternative, belongs-at-a-small-liberal-art-college-that-abolished-Greek Life-in-1970 affect? She probably asked everyone, I consoled myself as I went back to the Radiohead I had been listening to. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if Yale’s Greek Life is distinct from the stereotypes I had long associated with sororities and fraternities, and whether it provides something essential to the student culture. I wanted to find out what it was that compelled so many of my peers to rush. Moreover, I wanted to reconcile my prior aversion to all forms of Greek Life with my current ambivalence—because at the end of the day, who am I to judge people for rushing when I’m right behind them in line on Saturday nights when AEPi throws?
I heard Grace* before I saw her—the dull thunk of a deflated basketball hitting HQ’s marble basement floor echoed throughout the silent basement.
“It’s a pledge thing,” she explained sheepishly. “I have to dribble a basketball whenever anyone sees me for the whole day.”
Before this year, Grace would have been surprised to find herself subject to mild public humiliation in the name of pledge. A new member of Edon (a co-ed social group that disaffiliated from Sigma Phi Epsilon in 2020), Grace had always been skeptical of Greek Life, but her perspective shifted when she got to Yale. “I think from the beginning of being at Yale I had this feeling that Greek Life was a bigger part of social life than I expected and something important to people who I thought were super cool. I think, like many people, I came in with a negative view of what Greek Life might look like, and meeting people who I thought were really cool and finding out that they’re in Greek Life made me less averse to it.”
Grace signed up for sorority rush at the beginning of the spring semester in pursuit of a sense of community. “I was basically turned off from the idea of sororities from the first Zoom call I did with them,” she said. The process felt domineering in its enforcement of homogeneity. From mandated Zoom backgrounds (black and white marble), to dress codes (white tops), to seemingly innocuous questions charged with investigative motives (“What did you do this summer? What kind of school did you go to?”), Grace felt like the sororities were trying to evaluate how well the potential bids fit a predetermined mold. “I felt like it was a space super catered to cis and heterosexual women, and to a specific type—I hate that word—but type of person.”
A YDN op ed from 2018 describes a similar requisite of uniformity within sororities. Amelia Nierenberg writes, “Rush demands women fit into a conventional wealthy culture, sort of an accelerated debutante training course. You must dress appropriately for wealth-specific functions. You’re ‘classy,’ in the most fiduciary sense of the term. You have to be a certain type of pretty and, for the vast majority, you have to afford dues. It’s a grandiose performance of gendered wealth from the moment you enter the rush process. And it continues throughout your tenure in the organization.” With this in mind, the seemingly innocent rush requirements took on a more sinister light. Zoom backgrounds and shirt colors may be trivial, but I wondered whether the capacity to follow instructions—to conform—calculated a measure of your potential for success in a sorority. Grimly, I questioned whether this conformity was an even more insidious measure of one’s potential for success in a culture that rewarded female obedience.
After Grace’s truncated foray into sororities, I was curious what compelled her to pursue rushing Edon. “I still had this feeling that Greek Life plays a bigger role in this campus than I expected, and I hadn’t quite found a social space that I felt entirely a part of. I think I was someone who didn’t entirely click with my residential college in a way that many of my friends did, nor did I have a really all-consuming extracurricular,” she explained. Immediately, she found the experience of rushing Edon to be a vast departure from sorority rush. When you sign up to rush Edon, you are given names of three current members who you can reach out to schedule meals with. If the members like you, they give you more names of members to get meals with. If they don’t, you’re cut from the pool of prospective bids. “Overall, I genuinely had weirdly strong connections with the people I was getting meals with,” Grace recounted. “It was less of a sign to me that Edon people are cool, and more just a sign that Yale people are cool, and carving out time to get a meal with a complete stranger is one of the best things you can do here. I realized that if this space was going to introduce me to a cross-section of campus, that in itself is good for me.”
Edon rush seemed to place value on interpersonal connection, diversity, and individuality. And while I agreed with Grace that this felt like a more holistic and progressive selection process than sorority rush, it also exacerbated my question about what these exclusive social groups at Yale actually provide. A more charitable view of sorority rush suggests that its rigid guidelines are in the interest of cultivating a community of compatible individuals, whereas Edon intentionally crafts a pledge class that represents a microcosm of the Yale community. But how is this any different from, say, a residential college? What do you gain from admittance into this specific group when Yale naturally gives you access to a cross-section of campus?
Jennifer is a new member of Alpha Phi and one of 181 people offered bids out of the record 278 potential new members who rushed during this year’s sorority recruitment—nearly triple the number that rushed last year. Having grown up with an older sister in a sorority at a different college, she arrived at Yale expecting to rush, and she already knew a handful of upperclassmen in Alpha Phi when she began recruitment. “I already spend time in those sorts of circles and spaces on campus,” she explained, and she believed that a sorority would give her access to organized events with the people in her pre-existing social groups. “I think it’s a priority for me to enjoy my college experience and make some great memories outside of just going to class.”
Though joining a sorority was a natural decision for Jennifer, she repeatedly emphasized to me that being in Greek Life is not necessary in order to have a thriving social life at Yale. “I think that there’s so little impact of Greek life here, so it really just brings you closer to the people in that social group, but it’s not going to pull you away from anything else. What’s great about Yale is that people who aren’t in sororities and frats can still go to the sororities and frats.” For the most part, I’ve found her assertions to be true. Save for the handful of nights when my friends bemoan that everywhere is listed, and no one has an acquaintance from class hosting a birthday party we can crash, most weekends it’s very easy to find a party. It’s so easy, in fact, that it’s not uncommon to hear people quip: “Why pay dues when you can just mooch off of your friends in Greek Life? My suitemate is a brother so I can always get in for free.”
Perhaps more vital than access to parties is the community that I’ve found organically during my first year here. If I need not even put my shoes on to walk to the suite below mine where the door is always open, where I can drop in any time to laugh or cry or gossip or complain, then I certainly do not feel the need to pay yearly dues for a support network.
At the end of the day, people don’t come to Yale for its lively Greek Life scene. They do, however, come to Yale in pursuit of prestige and exclusivity, seduced by the cachet of being part of an elite group. Grace said, “Obviously there are many people looking to join these kinds of spaces out of a desire for institutional validation, which I think many Yale students have in general. We’re attending a place that is kind of structured around giving its accepted students the validation of being a part of the space itself.” In this sense, the appeal of exclusive social groups is undeniable. It can be jarring to arrive here and subsequently realize that all of your peers were hand-picked no differently from yourself, rendering your admittance to Yale a comparatively unremarkable achievement. And yet the feeling of being wanted, selected for some abstract quality that only you possess, is addictive. In recounting her initial desire to join a sorority, Amelia Nierenberger explained, “I liked the idea of being quantifiably cool.” It’s straightforward to quantify academic success at Yale. It’s more abstract to quantify social capital.
As I talked to Jennifer and Grace, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had rushed. Would I have had what it took to distinguish myself from a crowd of people who operate at a baseline of excellence? And though the thought of myself as a sister still makes me laugh, I can’t deny that it would feel good to know that I had proven myself worthy of being chosen by the people who were special enough to be chosen themselves. I wondered if, at the end of the day, I ultimately didn’t rush because subconsciously I didn’t want to face the possibility that I’m not quite good enough, cool enough, pretty enough, or smart enough to be granted admittance into an institution even more exclusive than Yale itself. But I’ve since decided that the validation of being accepted by the members of these select groups is really no more valuable than the affirmation and security I feel when I’m with my friends here, chosen by one another to laugh and learn and grow together.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.