LIU: Greek Life is for international students, too

Corrine Liu

The door swung open, and, from then on, everything was a blur. Maybe my brain stopped functioning in the 30-degree weather. Regardless, it was not until the third night of recruitment week that I finally started to have vivid recollections. There was roll-calling, girls missing, girls crying after rounds, girls vigorously fixing their hair while balancing on 15-centimeter-high stiletto heels. And then there was me, confused yet curiously amused to see the level of energy and devotion unfreeze the January air.

With the swirl of rush concluding at the end of that week, joining a chapter came next. It’s supposed to be what dreams are made of – meeting people who would become lifelong friends and wearing date party t-shirts everywhere. But for someone like me, who grew up outside of the U.S., everything from the recruitment process to what Greek life is really all about seemed like an enigma. Even though I did end up receiving a bid from a Panhellenic sorority, in the first few months as a new member, I was too disoriented and overwhelmed to enjoy the company of my newfound forever sisters.

Was I clueless about what I was getting myself into? I wasn’t unaware that around 40 percent of undergraduate Vanderbilt students are involved in Greek life. But because the Greek system is a uniquely North American invention and I have spent all my life in China, I envisaged sororities and fraternities as your regular swipe-to-get-in, free-food-providing student organizations – which is, in some sense, true. But mooching food was not the reason I signed up for rush – at least, not all of it. I did so because almost my entire floor was planning to rush, which gave me the impression that if I hadn’t at least tried it, I would’ve missed out on something central to my college experience. While this might be true for many who have family and friends telling them all about Greek life from a young age, for international students like myself, it was shocking for me to see that so much work has to be done to “properly” enjoy life at Vanderbilt.

“I was oblivious to each house’s reputation. I couldn’t even remember their names when I was rushing, so I had to write everything down,” said Mine Müezzinoğlu, a junior from Istanbul, Turkey. “I mostly rushed because all my friends were rushing. It was very interesting to see how so many girls tried so hard that they actually network for this and get recommendation letters and such. That’s wild.”

For guys, while they are exempted from the arthritis-inducing dress code, structured lining-up and rehearsed small talks that are part of the sorority recruitment, rush is not easy. “All of the rush events I went to were objectively pretty fun, and people cut you some slack if you are international. But it was a semester-long process that required committing a lot of time as well as working up a more open mindset to challenge a set of preconceptions, such as hazing and binge-drinking,” said Ludwik Huth, a sophomore from Frankfurt, Germany. He added that while rushing his frat has led to an extremely rewarding experience, it involved enough uncertainties that he didn’t accept his bid until the very last minute. “There really isn’t a good way to understand how fraternities and sororities work if you’re not brought up knowing what they are.”

the idea of sisterhood or brotherhood outside of family is something international kids aren’t accustomed to.

Among many international students, there still seems to be confusion about the purpose of the Greek community. I remember reaching out to a potential roommate on Facebook the summer before my first year and asking her what sororities do. All I got was “groups of girls who party together and wear the same dress,” which only helped confirm my Hollywood-based preconceptions of Greek life – people in it are ditsy, superficial and all look a certain way.

Specifically, the idea of sisterhood or brotherhood outside of family is something international kids aren’t accustomed to. The frequently used term of forming an “eternal bond” sounds almost hypocritical to those who are still dealing with the cultural shock of adjusting to a new country, unfamiliar lingos (how was first-year me supposed to know that “tripping” means something other than field trips and that “Fiji” is not just overpriced bottled water?) and navigating life using a foreign language or dialect. Additionally, Greek life offers a one-stop, mass-produced package option that many see as paying for friends, which can be off-putting for students seeking genuine friendships to compensate for their separation from home. “I wanted to meet more people and be able to choose my own friendship experiences rather than having proximity friendships,” said Mine, adding that despite having met wonderful people in her sorority, immediately forming a close bond with a group of people you don’t know can be a strange idea back home.

The idea of a fraternity, however, isn’t a total stranger abroad. But such groups appear to be more in the family of the first American fraternities that emphasized academics and debate than the socially-focused ones of today. The root of the differences lies in the different roles college fulfills in a student’s life at Vanderbilt and abroad. “The German Studentenverbindungen are more firmly rooted in political engagement,” said Ludwik. “And they remain only a minuscule part of the university experience because students commute to school and campuses do not exist.”

being a part of Greek life offers more than just accessible drinks.

Thanks to legal restrictions on drinking on American campuses, which are much more centralized than campuses abroad, fraternities are able to use their alcohol-procuring power as a source of popularity and prominence in social life. This contrasts with the situation in countries with more lenient drinking laws: there, students tend to be more independent partiers.

For Gordon Xu, a junior from Beijing, China, being a part of Greek life offers more than just accessible drinks. “Spending time with my brothers has helped me learn more about American culture and appreciate how everyone can be different. More importantly, my actual Greek experience is drastically different from its portrayal in popular culture, which is predominantly negative.”

Ludwik echoed Gordon’s point “International students come in with the mindset that Greek life is a bad thing. But at Vanderbilt, it can definitely be a good thing.” Yet many international students lack this perspective, because, as Ludwik told me, “when it comes to understanding and participating in Greek life, international students are automatically at a disadvantage.”

It’s not hard to see why this is. From the moment we got accepted to Vanderbilt, we saw a social continuum. On one side, people who wanted to rush would connect way before they meet on campus, pick their roommates based on a shared interest in Greek life and form friend groups with people from similar backgrounds who are likely to join the same chapter. On the other side of the continuum, there is a large part of the campus culture that knows from very early on that Greek life isn’t for them and enjoys their own social circles completely uninfluenced by the Greek presence. International students are stuck in the middle of the spectrum and often don’t have the full cultural knowledge to decide which side of the spectrum is best suited for their personal and social growth.

we are underrepresented because the university is not doing enough to make us feel comfortable in a place we could be.

Currently, there are roughly 605 international students on campus, which makes up for 8.8 percent of the undergraduate student body. You can, however, name all the international students in Greek organizations in about 30 seconds. International students are underrepresented in Vanderbilt’s Greek scenes. But it’s not because we are intuitively against the idea of becoming a stereotypical “sorority girl” or “frat boy,” nor is it because members of Greek life are insensitive to other cultures.

Rather, we are underrepresented because the university is not doing enough to make us feel comfortable in a place we could be. For one thing, unlike during “regular” orientation week where a Greek life interest meeting is held, there is no such opportunity specifically tailored for international students who arrive on campus a week earlier, nor is any information on Greek life included in the iLEAD program all international students are enrolled in. At times it does feel like the school is reserving Greek life for those it feels are historically more “entitled” to it. While the goal is not to recruit international students, if international students choose to explore what Vanderbilt has to offer, they should know that the Greek community is a space that can be for them. With 12.4 percent of last year’s incoming students being international, the university should work with student-led resources like the Greek Inclusivity Alliance to make information on Greek life – as well as other opportunities on campus – equally accessible to one of its most diverse communities.

Studying abroad and being immersed in a different culture is an intimidating experience itself, and Greek life can definitely exacerbate that. For me, however, being in Greek life has helped me get out of my comfort zone. At Vanderbilt, I feel a bit closer to home every day I get to know more about my sisters. Ultimately, the decision boils down to where international students feel they can thrive. Either way, we’ll get to know ourselves better, which in the end, is part of why we go to college in the first place.

Corrine Liu is a junior in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at [email protected].