“That was a great first experience in my sorority—people took notice and cared about me,” says Feldmann, now a senior communication studies major. “It was emblematic of what the next four years would be like, and it made me realize that I wanted to be that girl who cared about my sorority sisters when I got older.”
What Feldmann experienced that weekend was an example of the types of interactions that inspire students to join the Greek community at Iowa. Characterized by a commitment to building relationships, encouraging public service, and providing leadership opportunities (and challenging old “Animal House” party animal stereotypes), fraternities and sororities on the UI campus provide a positive framework for many students’ college experiences.
All Iowa students have the opportunity to join sororities and fraternities the week before they start their first fall semester at the University. This formal “recruitment” week gives students the opportunities to visit all the chapters, and allows the new students and chapters to mutually decide on new members. While most students who do “go Greek” join chapters at the end of that week, many chapters also have “informal” recruitment throughout the academic year.
In addition to traditional fraternities and sororities, Iowa is home to several Greek-letter organizations that identify themselves as historically African American, Latina/o, or multicultural. These organizations do not participate in that same formal recruitment week; rather, they generally engage potential members in educational and social activities throughout the year before inviting new members to join.
Once a student is a member of a chapter, there are responsibilities that come with membership. Some chapters require students to live in the chapter house for a certain number of semesters, and virtually all members pay some type of dues to maintain the chapter facilities and activities. Members are also expected to maintain their grades and participate in chapter and campus activities.
Though only about 11 percent of undergraduate students are members of social fraternal organizations, the Greek community is still the largest student organization on campus. And while there are nearly 40 separate chapters, campus organizers and students emphasize involvement at many levels—campus, regional, and national.
Jason Pierce, an assistant director of the Office of Student Life, is the UI staff member who advises the Greek organizations on campus.
“When I tell people what I do for a living, the first question they ask is, ‘Do you tell them how to party?’” he says.
In reality, Pierce spends most of his time meeting with officers of fraternities and sororities, helping them lead their chapters in directions that foster learning and service. Whether it’s helping students brainstorm ways to improve their chapter grade-point average or plan a charity fund-raiser, Pierce provides students with just enough supervision to keep their chapters focused on the right things.
Helping the greater community takes many forms within the Greek community, just as it does in the general student population. Students in fraternities and sororities are part of a turn-key volunteering machine. When the entire Greek community held its annual “Make a Difference Day” in October, students were sent to the homes of elderly individuals and helped with outdoor chores. And during the annual “Greek Week,” calendars are full of opportunities to help others—blood and bone marrow drives, clothing and book collections, and reading stories at local elementary schools.
“Those activities are incredibly rewarding,” says Brian Fox, a senior communication studies and business major from Marengo, Ill. “The personal feeling you get when you’re done leaves you yearning for that feeling again.”
In addition to volunteer activities in which the entire Greek community participates, each chapter has one or more philanthropies—or charities—they support.
Greeks also come together as a community for educational programs. Events this year have included a Rape Aggression Defense program for women, a new voter initiative before the presidential election, and opportunities to learn more about the campus community through dialogues with the UI president, dean of students, and local law enforcement officials.
While it’s true that all students—Greek or not—have opportunities to become involved in myriad activities during their college careers, students who choose to join fraternities and sororities find the structure of the Greek community helpful.
“I wasn’t ready to go to college,” says Feldmann, the Alpha Chi Omega sister. “Joining made me feel like I had a place to belong.”
That same sense of belonging was important to Fox. “Being a pledge and a new member in the largest chapter on campus could have been overwhelming,” he says, describing his first days in Phi Gamma Delta. “It was amazing to join the chapter and instantly have 100 guys who want to get to know you.”
Brian Fox also has found that being in a fraternity makes it easier for him to become engaged in other activities. “There are so many leadership opportunities you can get a hold of [in a fraternity],” he says. “Otherwise, you really have to seek things out. It’s been a blast—I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“All through high school I was really active,” says Jade Silva, a member of Sigma Lambda Gamma, a national Latina and multicultural sorority that was founded at Iowa in 1990. “I thought I’d be bored in college. In high school, I had put a big emphasis on being Latina and being a leader for my community.”
As Silva got to know the members of Sigma Lambda Gamma before she joined, she felt a strong attraction to the organization. “The women were really nice—they were like me,” says the senior Spanish major from Muscatine, Iowa.
Silva looks forward to increasing the interaction between the “traditional” Greek chapters and multicultural-focused groups like hers. “We’re all Greeks, and we all need to foster the idea of community,” she says. “We offer good opportunities for community service, and you meet role models who can help guide your career path. You’re not just sisters in college—you’re sisters for life.”
While people involved in the Greek community are enthusiastic about the learning and service opportunities available to students, it’s inevitable that any discussion of fraternities and sororities involves a mention of alcohol abuse and hazing, a reputation that Iowa officials and students are hoping becomes a thing of the past. Stringent rules abolish alcohol from many events, and the Greek community drafted an antihazing policy that the University has now adopted to apply to the entire campus.
“I think it’s fair to say that as a Greek community, we don’t have any more alcohol-related activities than the general student body,” Feldmann says. “We are under a microscope and that forces us to be accountable and push ourselves to a higher standard. In the end, it forces us to better ourselves.”
Pierce, the staff adviser, is glad to be part of a movement to bring fraternities and sororities back to the reasons they were founded—scholarship, relationships, leadership, and service.
“The perception used to be that ‘Animal House’ [the infamous John Belushi movie] was Greek life—that drinking was the thing to do, that kegs were a mandatory part of the party scene. And at the time, that’s what students were looking for,” Pierce says. “But in the 1990s, the national Greek organizations took a fresh look at member development. Now they take recruits through a membership process that provides more education after initiation—about civic, academic, fiscal, and chapter responsibilities.
“Nationwide, students in college today aren’t looking for a big drinking environment. They’re looking for more civic involvement, and they’re looking for smaller groups of friends to be part of. This could be the next ‘greatest generation’—and they’re looking for organizations that can propel them to the next step in whatever they want to do.”