Joining: Why Go Greek?
Behind the gate, the party raged. Jake had carefully timed his arrival: 11:00 p.m., not so early as to appear eager but not so late as to miss peak capacity. He was glad he had come with the three freshmen he knew from high school. Once they had walked through the double-arched white Gothic gates that flanked the campus entrance, and past a few bars and a gas station, the town became sketchy. Jake didn't know whether to be intimidated or comforted by the hordes of students streaming from various directions in groups of 10, 20, even 30. His first-ever fraternity party was going to be a memorable one.
When Jake's group reached the front of the line at the Delta Rho house, two fraternity brothers manning the backyard gate let the girls right in. Jake and his good friend Arjun tried to follow them, but a brother held up a hand. "Girls can stay but guys have to pay," he said.
That's terrible, Jake thought. Arjun and Jake each pulled out the five dollars they saw the older guys in front of them pay. That's so arbitrary. It's a party! Why should gender matter?
When the guys attempted to hand over their money, the brother stopped them again. "Guys pay ten dollars now." No one's questioning how messed up this is, Jake thought as he gave the brother another five. Why do guys have to pay more the later the party goes? The long line of students fidgeted behind him. Jake hurried through the gate without protest.
Thirty minutes later, Jake was packed elbow to elbow with hundreds of students gathered among the three bars set up around the yard. Most people seemed to be drinking Delta Rho's signature jungle juice, a strong, unidentifiable concoction. In a corner, a DJ spun loud dance music. The air, sweltering thanks to body heat and the August humidity, reeked of alcohol and weed. Standing next to Arjun, who was already on his third drink, Jake quietly surveyed the scene, holding a red Solo cup from which he planned to take one sip every half hour for appearance's sake.
In high school, Jake and Arjun had been straight-A students who were heavily involved in school activities and did not party. The two girls from their competitive high school who had also been accepted to the selective Town College (TC) were similarly inclined. All four of them had sat at the same cafeteria table, where they usually did their AP homework or played trivia games. On Friday nights, if they went out, they saw a movie or chilled at someone's house. On Saturday nights, Jake usually stayed home with his family. He was known in high school both for being the class overachiever and for his long blond sideburns. Classmates liked to joke that, at five foot eight, with wire-rimmed glasses and a smile that seemed to light up half his face, Jake resembled a bespectacled teenage Calvin without a Hobbes.
Arjun came from a staid Pakistani family that prioritized academics and shunned alcohol. When he had moved into his dorm last week, his parents asked Jake, whom they knew was not a drinker, to watch over their son. Unsure whether they were kidding, Jake had so far tried his best.
But how do you police friends who do not want to be policed? Already, Jake could sense the dynamics changing among his high school friends. Last week, his classmates had partied out of control. Arjun specifically had become almost a burden, drinking to excess until he transformed into someone whom Jake thought embodied "the stereotype of a frat bro." Jake would walk him home, even when Arjun didn't want to go, half-carrying him for blocks.
"Woo! Party! WOO!" Arjun yelled now, to no one.
A gorgeous girl approached Jake and Arjun. "Hi! I'm an Epsilon sister and the girlfriend of the Delta Rho president," she said. "So are you guys interested in Greek life?"
"Hell yes!" Arjun said. He was dead set on rushing, lured by the hookup to parties, drinks, and girls.
"Which fraternities are you interested in rushing?" she prodded.
"Uh, I don't know if I want to talk about what fraternities I'm interested in while I'm at a Delta Rho party," Jake half-joked. He hadn't expected to have this conversation so early in the semester.
She waved him off. "Oh, no. It's fine."
"Yo, def D-Rho," Arjun said, and listed a few other fraternities. Jake's eyes widened. Arjun had named only top-tier fraternities. Jake didn't have the heart to tell him he'd heard that top-tiers at TC rarely gave bids to minorities.
On many campuses across the country, students unofficially ranked fraternities and sororities, labeling them as top-tier, middle-tier, or bottom-tier chapters. Jake knew this because, like everything else in his life, he had researched it extensively. He had spent hours over the summer poring over message boards about TC fraternities, taking copious notes, as if familiarizing himself with campus Greek life were his first and potentially most important college homework assignment.
The sorority girl turned to Jake. "And you?"
"I have a few ideas. Kappa Tau, and this party's got me interested in rushing Delta Rho," he lied, to be polite. Jake was too intimidated to rush Delta Rho, or any other top-tier fraternity, because he wasn't, as he put it, "a party-hard, sports-playing dude who's like a total bro all the time." He planned to aim for middle-tier fraternities because he assumed they weren't as intense or competitive as the top-tier groups, he'd be less likely to get hazed, and he'd have better opportunities to meet kindred spirits.
He didn't tell the sorority sister why he was rushing K-Tau-or why a guy like him, who didn't consider himself "the fraternity type," wanted to go Greek to begin with. Jake's father, a former K-Tau chapter officer, had told him fraternity tales for years. He was over-the-moon excited for his son to be a part of his fraternity so they could share the secrets, that legacy, those stories. Jake was already close with his parents and his two younger sisters; he'd been surprised that he didn't cry when they said goodbye after moving him into his dorm. For Jake, the prospect of becoming even closer to his father through their shared K-Tau membership was irresistible.
If not for his dad, Jake might not have chosen to rush. He was scared of hazing. No matter whom he asked about which fraternities hazed and what kind of hazing they did, he couldn't get a straight answer. ("It's apparently a well-kept secret," he told me.) The idea of forced drinking terrified him. He had never been drunk before, didn't like the taste of alcohol or the way it made him feel, and didn't want to lose control of himself. He couldn't begin to fathom how he would handle being forced to do something against his will or to participate in activities that would make him uncomfortable.
But Jake's father, who wasn't a stereotypical frat bro either, believed Jake could benefit immensely from the lessons and friendships that fraternities had to offer. He often said that his time in K-Tau was his most valuable college experience. At TC's prerecruitment meeting, Jake was reassured by the Interfraternity Council's statement that hazing was not a part of TC's Greek community. At TC, as at most schools, the IFC governed the predominantly white social fraternities. (Service, honors, professional, and religious fraternities are separate organizations.) IFC officers assured the TC recruits that they could choose how much time to spend with their chapter. It was like another class, they said, but a casual one. And much of that time, the IFC insisted, was spent on study hours and tutoring opportunities.
Jake liked the IFC officers' description of campus Greek life. Fraternity brothers had higher GPAs than non-Greeks, controlled the student government and some other major campus groups, were responsible for most of the college's charitable funding, and, as the officers kept hammering home, developed students into "better people." Jake had three goals for college: Get good grades, get involved in activities, and meet a variety of new people. A fraternity seemed like a great way to accomplish all three at once.
Even more, Jake craved the bonds of a brotherhood. For him, "the biggest allure of an all-male group is the idea that you have guys you could depend on for whatever, to be part of a solid group of people you can relate to and keep in close touch with." He wanted to feel that there was somewhere he belonged.
Jake also hoped that joining a fraternity would improve his social confidence. He called himself "the textbook definition of an introvert," prone to "awkward conversations and cringe-worthy displays of social anxiety." He winced when he thought about his first-ever college social event. It was his second day on campus, before his high school friends had moved in and before he had met anyone at TC. (He had arrived early to give himself time to get acclimated and to claim the lower bunk in his dorm room.) A dorm on Central Campus was holding a pizza party open to all freshmen. Figuring he had to eat anyway, Jake psyched himself up for the chance to meet people and score some free food.
Because the dorm was farther across campus than he'd anticipated, he was 20 minutes late. Fifty students were already there, chatting in small circles. Jake took a slice of pizza and awkwardly stood alone in a space between groups, munching quietly while dozens of unfamiliar people mingled and laughed. For a while, afraid to make eye contact, he stared down at his phone, pretending to look preoccupied.
Then he mustered the courage to attempt to join a group in mid-conversation. Hesitant to interrupt, he didn't introduce himself. The students were gossiping about mutual friends and last night's parties. Jake didn't volunteer his Saturday night activities, which had consisted of calling his parents and messing around online. He ended up uneasily listening to the group and occasionally laughing along with everyone else, until he understood that their odd glances at him signaled that he couldn't possibly get their inside jokes because he turned out to be the only person at the party who didn't live in that dorm. Somehow this level of social awkwardness was not unusual for Jake. He had made similar gaffes between then and tonight's Delta Rho party.
In the yard at Delta Rho, Jake was nervously chatting with Arjun when, without warning, the music stopped and the lights went out, leaving little visible save a third-story window of the house. Three brothers climbed out the window, shimmied onto the roof, and posed. "ARE YOU READY TO PARTY!" they yelled. The crowd erupted.
The brothers shot firecrackers into the air, raining ash and soot on many of the partygoers, who mostly seemed too wasted to care. Whoa, whoa, what's happening?! Jake thought, starting to panic. He didn't think the firecrackers had hit anyone, but he wasn't positive. A brother on the roof shook a champagne bottle, popped the cork, and poured champagne onto the students below. The crowd cheered again, the music resumed, the lights flicked back on, and the party raged even harder than before.
Wow, college is going to be interesting, Jake thought. What am I getting myself into?
An hour and a half later, he dragged a resistant Arjun out of the party. After downing five cups of jungle juice and who knew how many shots, Arjun was mumbling and could barely stand.
"Don't wanna leave," he muttered. "Party!"
"Okay, Arjun. All right. Time to go, man, time to go," Jake said.
A few blocks away, Arjun veered toward a bush and puked. Unfazed by the disgusted reactions of student onlookers, Arjun rallied, raising his arms in a victory sign. "PARTY!" he shouted, delighted. A minute later, he retched into another bush, then continued walking, beaming beatifically at everyone who passed by.
"Oh man, you're not going to like this in the morning," Jake told him.
Arjun stopped short at a lamppost, happy as could be. "Yo, man, I'm gonna climb this pole. Watch me!" Unaware that he hadn't left the ground, he humped the lamppost.
The next night, Jake again tried to party with his high school friends. Arjun again drank until he barfed. One of the girls drank herself out of her mind; she continually told anyone within earshot that she was ugly, and then tried to make out with the first guy other than Jake to disagree with her. "My friends have already changed since coming to college. These aren't the same people I knew," Jake told me later. "I'm not having a good time at these parties because I have to watch over these guys, and they're making no sense. I'm trying to meet new people, but I feel lonely because I'm the most sober person in the group."
He yearned for real friends more than ever, for confidants who viewed friendship as a two-way street, who would make this new, bewildering stage of schooling feel more like he was on a grand adventure with buddies than like he was peering forlornly through a window into a club full of people who knew better than he did how to have fun, how to be cool, and how to fit in.
Jake was, he now knew for sure, ready for fraternity rush.
Introduction: A Different Kind of Story
About Boys in College
It's a tough time to be a college-bound teenage boy. Surviving an increasingly competitive high school environment is hard enough; today's young men are doing it during what has been called "a collapse in the American construction of masculinity." Unsure about what's expected of them, they're growing up in a world where women can be doctors, but men still face stigma for becoming nurses; where the majority of high school dropouts are male; and where experts point to "toxic masculinity" as a driving force behind everything from mass shootings to international terrorism.
With their support networks often reduced to the size, and depth, of a smartphone, boys may need some sort of "fraternity" more than ever. According to an American College Health Association survey of 28,000 college students, more than 50 percent of college guys "felt very lonely" in the last 12 months and more than 20 percent in the last two weeks. It's not always easy for boys to make friends. Worse, those who don't find the socialization and connections they yearn for could face dire consequences: Boys comprise 75 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds who commit suicide.
Greek-letter fraternities have long promised brotherhood and community to college boys, and in recent years, students have been signing up in record numbers. Between 2005 and 2015, the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC), which governs 66 fraternities, including all but four of the major historically white fraternities, reported a 50 percent increase in the number of new pledges. Today, there are about one million current undergraduate members of campus Greek-letter organizations, and one out of every eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a fraternity or sorority house. When those students graduate, they will join a group of alumni more than nine million strong.