Sorority sister act
I was ready to take the USA by storm. Instead I met the brutal reality of American student culture.
The guide to American «Greek» life:
- Fraternities and sororities are social organizations on American college campuses.
- The organizations are divided by gender: fraternities are for men, sororities are for women.
- Wikipedia lists over 100 chapters nationally and locally. Most sororities have a central organization with chapters throughout the US. The largest organizations have a national board and employees who work for them.
- Sororities are usually socially oriented, but can also be related to other interests. Sisters raise money for philanthropic causes, build organizations, and hold social events and parties. Chapters will often work together during «Greek Week» or sporting events. Joining can be helpful in work life after graduation, and yields many networking opportunities.
- Greek life is a long tradition in the US. According to Wikipedia it dates back to 1750, when the first fraternity was founded at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia.
- At Greekrank.com you can see the rankings of all fraternities and sororities in the USA.
- For more information watch «American Pie Presents: Beta House,» «Legally Blonde,» or «The Social Network.»
In autumn of 2012 I started my life as a college student in the US. On a campus in Washington, D.C. I was to share a nine-square-meter dorm room with Cate from Colorado.
My unbelievably smart, honors-student roommate had a bag dedicated to a hundred different essential oils, which she would rub on her body when she was feeling under the weather or thought something was brewing. When people visited our room they would exclaim, «Wow, it really smells like eucalyptus in here!» Cate spent most of her evenings in front of her computer in an essential oil daze. It became clear to me I needed to get out of the haze and meet other students.
Don’t miss: Confessions of a working-class girl in academia
In an attempt to get friends, I attended some of the many arrangements around campus. At one of them I met Cassidy, a Republican from New England who proudly showed me a picture of all the hunting rifles and pistols her father had mounted on their wall. She proceeded to give me a long lecture on gun rights. In Norway I would have written her off as crazy, but this was the United States of America, and I needed to be open to a new culture. Plus, I needed someone to party with.
We quickly found someone who could help us with that. Kimbo, who had been adopted from South Korea, picked us up on campus and drove us to a party his fraternity had arranged. It was only a few hundred meters away, but this was the US, and we had to drive. The fraternity was Delta Phi Epsilon (DPE), for guys interested in foreign service. DPE was full of nerds who discussed international politics and drank expensive wine. Still, they were surprisingly cute, and I liked how grown up they seemed, compared to the other fraternities which seemed more, well, fratty.
There I stood, in a basement obscured by the marijuana smoke that had nowhere to escape. I was surrounded by girls in microscopic clothes, with rap music thumping through the walls.
There were rumors that a fraternity had been banned from campus because of hazing – some of the «pledges» had gotten alcohol poisoning. Apparently they had also been violent toward someone who had dropped out of their recruitment process, and some people said there had been sexual assaults connected to the fraternity. I didn’t know any of that when I ended up at one of their parties. At Epsilon Iota (EI) a short guy stood blocking the exit. We weren’t allowed to go outside to smoke because there was such a high risk they police might realize EI was having a party with students under 21 (the American drinking age).
So there I stood, in a basement obscured by the marijuana smoke that had nowhere to escape. I was surrounded by girls in microscopic clothes, with rap music thumping through the walls. It seemed wise to keep my drink close to me, so the «jungle juice» in my red solo cup didn’t get roofied. I listened to the craziest stories: «Did you hear that during recruitment they made a pledge have sex with a goat? And the guys had to snort cocaine while they were locked in a closet!»
That was the last time I went to a party at EI.
For another take on student culture, check out The double life of a young Muslim in Norway
Sororities are tamer than fraternities. At my college the frats had houses, and were the ones who hosted parties. Sororities were more focused on philanthropy, and arranged constructive events like networking, or social gatherings that didn’t go completely off the rails. After joining a sorority, you would get a «big,» a kind of mentor who would take care of you from the start. Her job was to decorate your room, write nice things about you on Facebook, and teach you all about the sorority life.
Within my first semester I understood the key to social success was to join a sorority. I was ready when «rush week» came around, and took it with the utmost seriousness. If you google it, you can find all kinds of articles to guide you through the process, like «8 things you need to do before rush week,» from hercampus.com. They advise you plan your outfits beforehand, get a letter of recommendation, and practice being interviewed. I didn’t do any of that. But I did make sure I looked a little fresher than usual.
I was convinced I would get into one of the cool sororities. Kimbo was rooting for me too, saying to his friends, «She’s guaranteed Chi Omega, if not Alpha Chi Omega» while they all looked me up and down. I felt objectified, but glad he thought I would make it in.
I was pretty desperate at that point. My social life wasn’t going that well, and I felt like a sorority was my last chance to find friends a social network. During rush week I went to all the events, smiled, chatted, clapped. On the first day, all the sororities presented themselves to the potential recruits; plus they had all created shows. We were supposed to mingle with the «sisters.»
I still remember how elaborate the Alpha Chi Omega show was, featuring a rendition of Nicki Minaj’s «Superbass,» with coordinated dancing and a rap battle. I sat there like an entranced Eurovision fan and got goosebumps as I clapped along to the music. Earlier I had talked to an unbelievably beautiful, red-haired girl from Texas. As she danced we made eye contact, and she smiled and waved. I thought «I’m so in.»
Hello, I’m Julie Brundtland Løvseth. I partied every weekend and could make a whole room crack up at my jokes. Why didn’t they want me?
On day three we went to our group leader and received papers telling us which sororities wanted us back. All around me girls jumped up and down with happiness. I was cocky, and figured they would all pick me. But when I read the paper there was only one name there: Sigma Delta Tau. Their Greek letters spelled EAT, and they were bullied for the number of fat girls there. What?! This had to be a mistake. «No, there’s no mistake,» said my group leader.
My world was falling apart. Hello, I’m Julie Brundtland Løvseth. I partied every weekend and could make a whole room crack up at my jokes. Why didn’t they want me?
I wondered then and there if it was because I was an international student. But in retrospect I can see it was a culture clash that stood in my way. European coolness doesn’t convert well to American standards. Like Fahrenheit and Celsius, the scales are different. It could also be because I hadn’t been to so many parties the semester before. Some girls in AXO and XO knew someone there already, and were recommended. Online it said international students are underrepresented in the «Greek system.»
The semester went on, and I decided to head home eventually. Back I went to Europe, a continent that has always appreciated how awesome I am.