Upon entering Ball State University in the fall of 1975, I found myself lost within a large system called a "university." As the first member of my immediate family to "go away" to college, I was intimidated by the mere size and complexity of college life. Where would I fit in? How would I find my niche? What was Psych 101? And where in the world was the freshman parking lot? Nevertheless, my lifelong dream of attending college had begun, and my search for independence and maturity was just ahead.
During this journey of self-discovery, I heard about a process called "rush" in which women in sororities recruited new members. My image of sororities was bleak; however, in my quest for independence and discovery, I decided I could not fault the sororities unless I had investigated them for myself. So onward I went into the rush process.
When I learned about sorority women, I found that my impressions had been very wrong. Sororities stood for much more than I ever could have imagined. High academic standards, promotion of leadership and service, good citizenship, honor, trust, cooperation and the pursuit of excellence were embraced in their founding principles. The members belonged to their groups because they believed in the same principles and ideals. They had a common purpose and came together to promote that purpose on the campus and in the community.
Before I knew it, I was wearing a sorority pin that signified my commitment to Alpha Chi Omega. I was proud to wear my pin and my letters because I believed my sorority stood for excellence. Since we had been founded in 1950, we had been the top organization in campus scholarship. Our service projects and leadership involvement were impressive. The sorority also taught me much about the world around me. This was where I first learned about eating disorders, breast cancer, domestic violence, alcohol abuse and other women's issues. Along with my sorority sisters, I felt empowered not only to learn about these issues, but to do something about them. By educating me, Alpha Chi Omega gave me the confidence to want to learn more and make a difference. Our sorority motto, "together let us seek the heights," reminded me to seek only excellence in all of my endeavors.
Today, as assistant to the vice president and dean for Campus Life, I supervise the Office of Greek Life and am often questioned regarding Emory's commitment to Greek life. "Why is the administration 'out to get the Greeks'?" I am often asked. And for me, it is ironic that the very institution that I truly valued has become a source of pain and frustration.
There are more than 20 sororities and fraternities on Emory's campus, and 30 percent of undergraduates are members of Greek organizations. At one time, the figure was 75 percent. If sororities and fraternities stand for cooperation, honor, unselfish service, leadership and scholarship, why aren't students racing to join our chapters? I do not know the answer, but perhaps I can pose some questions that can help us examine the issues and determine why Greek life is often under attack.
What is the public image? What does the public believe Greek membership stands for? How do fraternities and sororities represent themselves? Sororities and fraternities are supposed to stand for something special. High academics, dignity, wisdom, integrity, honesty, respect for one another and trustworthiness are all part of the sorority and fraternity rituals. But are they practiced? If they are, then why do we have the problems we currently do? Why are our chapter memberships down and our retention rates low?
If Greek membership offered what it truly is supposed to offer, wouldn't almost every member of the University community want to support sororities and fraternities? Students would show respect for one another as sisters and brothers are supposed to do. Sorority and fraternity members would be on the forefront of educating one another on crucial campus issues such as alcohol abuse, eating disorders, sexual harassment and substance-free living environments. Sororities and fraternities, if living up to their founding ideal, would be above scrutiny instead of continually under it.
Do sororities and fraternities have a place at Emory? I believe they do. Although holding students accountable for their actions has been difficult at times, education must occur. We must continue to hold one another accountable and work together to make each of us at Emory proud. We are members of the University community first, and Emory stands for excellence. Sororities and fraternities were founded on many of the same ideals and principles that would best suit the Emory community: honesty, integrity, high ethical standards, human dignity and the pursuit of excellence. If we continue to hold one another accountable and remember that we all must stand for values such as these, sororities and fraternities can and should be an integral part of the University community.
Bridget Guernsey Riordan is assistant to the vice president and dean
for Campus Life.