Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sorority Challenges from an Alumnae Perspective

Confessions of a Theta
By Angela Rozas

I will not show you the secret handshake.

I never could remember the Greek alphabet, though I still can recite the names of our founders.

I have purged my closet of many T-shirts over the years, but I cannot give away the shirts that carry my Greek letters.

Confession: I was a sorority girl. In fact, I was president of my chapter, Delta Kappa of Kappa Alpha Theta, at Louisiana State University.

I wore Greek shirts to class, painted posters of support for my homecoming court sister to hang on our sorority row house, and yes, partied late into the night with the alcohol we squirreled away in flasks.

Every few years, some new crisis arises to give the nation a chance to lambaste fraternity and sorority life. This time it's the closure of the Delta Zeta chapter on the campus of DePauw University in Indiana.

The university recently evicted the chapter--which had been on campus 98 years -- after members charged that national officers forced 23 women from the local chapter into alumnae status. The women say they were kicked out because they didn't fit the model of a sorority girl: pretty, white and popular. Six more women quit out of solidarity with the members who were forced out.

The sorority's national leaders have denied those charges, saying they told the chapter they would close it if it could not improve recruitment. They insisted that image and race were not involved, though 12 women allowed to remain members were not minorities and were described as conventionally pretty.

From what I've read, it seems as if the Delta Zeta chapter, though small in numbers, was diverse and valued friendship and uniqueness over popularity and dress size.
If the women's charges are true, then the university was right to send a message of condemnation to the national organization. Telling women they need to be sexy and popular to attract the attention of fraternities and new members is archaic.

Instead, the women should have been congratulated for choosing members based on their character and distinctiveness. Perhaps the national officers should have done more to work with their existing members to help them recruit more women like these instead of giving them the boot.

Some might argue that the days of sororities and fraternities should be numbered, that organizations built on exclusivity, whose sole purpose is to "party," have no place in modern college life.

But there's more to sororities than parties.Supportive sisterhoodMy sorority--actually, it's a fraternity for women and never adopted the label sorority, a point of pride to this day--was formed in 1870 at, coincidentally, what is now DePauw University.

Four women who were excluded at their mostly male college formed Theta to support each other in their quest for a college education and university experience.

I was a small-town girl when I moved to Baton Rouge to attend Louisiana State, a campus of roughly 30,000 students. I knew almost no one at the school. Joining my sorority helped me meet ambitious, smart, talented women who wanted the most out of their college experience and gave me years of support. I loved being part of an organization that placed so much value on scholarship (we had a required grade-point average), service and simply being classy ladies. And yes, we had fun too.

Not that sorority life was perfect. The dreaded weeklong process by which members were chosen at LSU, called "rush," often felt just like that--rushed and superficial. With so many women vying for spots, a first impression could make or break you.

Like so many things in life, being pretty can make a difference. But so can being a leader in high school, a talented musician, a budding humanitarian.

Sororities often were labeled--the smart girls, the rich girls, the promiscuous girls. Sometimes a sorority got its label because its name rhymed with an adjective. Phi Mu was Phi Moo. Delta Zeta was Sleazy-DZ. It was stupid, kid stuff.

At DePauw, the Delta Zeta chapter was known as the "dog house," supposedly because the women were not conventionally pretty. But that label was as much a result of students' stereotyping and harsh ideas of beauty as it was a problem with the Greek system itself.

The smart girls--and more
At LSU, we were the smart girls, mostly because we consistently had the highest GPA. That inevitably also meant we were not the prettiest girls or the party girls. But the truth was that we had smart girls and pretty girls, average girls and arty girls. Nearly every chapter will tell you the same.

I regretted then, and now, too, that my chapter did not have any minorities, as was the case with all the sororities on my campus. But that is changing. A few minorities have joined my sorority and others on campus in recent years, and minority sororities have admitted white women. That change happened long ago in other chapters around the country.

That's why the DePauw incident, if true, is so disturbing. The national organization should be ahead of the curve, promoting more progressive ideals of sisterhood. You can be any shape, size and color and still believe in your organization's ideals and purpose.

In Delta Zeta's case, that is "to unite its members in the bonds of sincere and lasting friendship, to stimulate one another in the pursuit of knowledge, to promote the moral and social culture of its members, and to develop plans for guidance and unity in action."To look really hot for guys and new members isn't listed.

I don't regret my years as a Theta. Some people spend their whole life trying to fit in, with a group or ideal. With Theta, I got my chance to do that. But now, after years as part of a group with rules, ideals and traditions, I find that I prefer to be on my own.

I guess being part of the in group gave me the confidence not to want to be in one anymore. It may not have been the lesson my sorority intended, but I thank it for that anyway.

And I still won't show you the secret handshake.
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