by Tom Lee
What were the first thoughts that popped into your head? Alcohol? Drugs? Parties? Sex? A bunch of college guys wearing tank-tops and Raybans, ending every sentence with “bruh” (=”bro”), drinking beer and vodka instead of water, and always down to fuck but never to talk? Don’t worry; I’m not trying to chastise you. These were the exact preconceived notions that I carried with me as I stepped onto Frat Row my freshman year.
I am a male international student from Korea. I finished 9th grade in Korea and left to attend a small boarding school in Connecticut, but I still go back home to Korea every summer like other international students at Cal. I was always inherently shy, having difficulties talking to people in general, let alone girls. I was also a goody-two-shoe, never partying or breaking rules, focused on being a good student, and I had planned to stay that way even when I went to college. Whenever I watched movies or TV shows about typical American college life, there were always these buildings with two or three Greek letters on them where all kinds of debauchery took place, with no signs of remorse or regret from any of the characters. I cringed. The guys were douchebags. The girls were, um, let’s say, not “girlfriend-material”. I made up my mind: fraternities are full of horny, imbecile drunkards, and sororities are full of similarly deranged blondes showing a lot of skin but not much intelligence. I will not join them. EVER.
Just kidding: I pledged a fraternity my 2nd semester of Freshman year. Unlike most international students, I went “frat-hopping” every day of every week my first semester. Yes, I realized I loved partying. Yes, I realized that a little alcohol doesn’t hurt. And yes, I met some people who wholeheartedly embodied the idea of “disregard females and acquire currency”, but I also found out that there is so much more to the Greek system than what meets the eye – or the camera lens.
I will let the facts do the talk. Since 1825, all but 2 of U.S. presidents were members of a fraternity; all 11 of the astronauts in Apollo were Greek; Greeks raise more than $7 million / year for charity; 63% of all cabinet members since 1900 have been Greek; of North America’s 50 largest corporations, 47 are led by Greeks; and the all-frat and all-sorority GPA average is higher than the overall college GPA across the country. For my own house, Sigma Nu, we have chapters in 278 universities across the U.S. and Canada, with over 227,000 active members and famous alumni that range from actors like Harrison Ford, James Dean and Paul Rudd to CEOs such as Charles Schwab and Don Tyson, from sports stars like Eli Manning to musicians like Mike Posner. The fact that I am a Sigma Nu at UC Berkeley grants me access and connection to each and every single university chapter and alumni; what other collegiate organization provides you with a network like this? Then the question is… how are Greeks so successful if we are supposedly always drunk or high or having mindless sex at wee hours of the day?
Because we only choose the best of the best, the crème de la crème, who are and will be leaders in the future. Through a process called “pledging”, which lasts any length of time from 10 weeks to a year, every potential candidate is put through tasks that challenge you physically and mentally, both as an individual and as a unit called “pledge class”. Although the actual details of pledging are confidential and variable by each organization, the purpose is to form a lasting bond within the pledge class, instill pride as a future member of the house (Greek house), and sift out the flaky and unqualified ones. To put it in perspective, less than 3% of Americans are Greek, and even at UC Berkeley, only 3,500 are Greek out of over 25,000 undergraduate students. University organizations do charity events, professional development workshops, alumni networking event, and member socials, but add the pan-national network, the inseparable bond between members and with other houses, and the confirmation that you have gone through challenges and have established yourself, then you have a Greek house.
Greek system is unique to American college structure, and I know I’m only going to be in college once in my life. I don’t want to look back and think, ‘damn, I wish I could’ve tried out a frat and see what everything’s about.’ I know it is especially tough for international students due to cultural differences and the stress of juggling two different categories of friendship. However, I urge you to break out of your shells, go to a fraternity next fall during Football Gamedays when all the doors are open, music is bumping, burgers are grilling, beers and mimosas are flowing, jolly old men with their wives and children are chatting about their golden days, and introduce yourself. Soon you’ll find yourself playing a crazy game of rage cage or beer pong with the coolest guys you’ll ever meet and thinking of donning the hoodie with the bold Greek letters shining on your chest.
Disclaimer: I cannot speak for professional fraternities or sororities, as I have not had the first-hand experience with them.
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