When my roommate first mentioned that she would be rushing sororities this semester, I didn't think much of it. It seemed fitting that she would want to join a sorority. And from what I knew about UMD and Greek Life, rushing wouldn't be some huge deal for her, or anything that would lead her away from the norm.
But I was wrong.
The "formal recruitment" process, the University of Maryland Panhellenic Association's term for "rushing," is a strict two-weekend ordeal that divides about 1,000 girls into 36 groups and thrusts them full-steam into sorority world. In the first round, each group visits sixteen sorority houses, and paired with one to three sisters from each, proceeds to have a twenty-minute conversation on a pre-outlined list of topics: where you're from, where you live on campus, what's your major, so on and so forth.
Maybe because of time constraints, and maybe because of the sheer number of girls who rush, these dull conversations are deemed good enough for the sorority to judge whether or not some girls should be dropped -- barred from ever visiting their house again. Meanwhile, the potential new members (PNM's) do the same: as they are being cast off by their (sometimes favorite) picks, they too are choosing which sororities they don't want to associate with.
In a practical sense, this add/drop system works. But joining a sorority can be a lifetime commitment. It will shape more than just your social life. It's characterized as one of the biggest decisions you'll ever make in college. Which leads me to the question: how can a group of sorority girls make such powerful decisions about the fate of their sorority (and likewise the fates of the girls who rush) based on twenty minutes of small talk?
At a large university like UMD, it seems that we meet new people everyday. We pair up with them on class assignments, we run into them in our dorms, we're introduced by mutual friends at a party. For all the people we meet, all our meetings are brief, they are transient in nature and chock-full of small talk. When it's all said and done, we do a run-through in our minds, and we use those traits that stick out to us most: their physical appearance, their disposition, and most importantly, those things we have in common, to decide whether we think we'll get along with them. The deeper stuff comes later.
Is it wrong to assume that sororities use an identical process when choosing which girls to keep and which ones to drop? Just as we take these superficial gestures and compile a mental pro-con list to determine if we want to pursue a friendship, so too do sorority girls when deciding which PNM's are fit to become lifelong members of their organization. The result: a recruitment group of girls indistinguishable from one another, even more indistinguishable from those already belonging to the sorority. And I don't mean that they are alike in their philanthropic values or their academic interests: I mean in looks and social standing.
My observations were confirmed by my roommate and other friends who had rushed. The sororities they admired most (it seems the most superficiality exists within top-tier sororities) had not felt the same way about them. They remembered having great conversations with members, but nonetheless, they were dropped -- something they attributed to their appearance. And looking at those few girls that were invited back -- just looking at them -- it was hard to argue.
One friend was a member of the lucky few invited back to a top sorority for the next round of recruitment. When she revisited the house, she made a shocking realization -- she was the only brunette that remained in a sea of bleach-blondes.
I'll state the obvious: certain sororities are discriminatory towards anyone who doesn't fit their clear-cut definition of a "sorority girl." They choose to alienate potential members because of their failure to be something they're not. It's unfair and biased, and for a panhellenic association that prides itself in the fact that there is "no one type of Panhellenic sorority woman," it's downright hypocritical.
But there's something else too. To those girls who are members of the sororities I'm talking about: is it really a meaningful experience when surrounded by people who are carbon-cutouts of yourself? I was under the impression that we left our hometowns to meet new people, to learn from those that are different from us. It was too draining being in our high school cliques, where we were forced to look and act the same as the rest of the pack. Why are we replicating this culture in college?
On February 10, my friends will receive formal bids from the sororities who want to take them in. They will scrutinize their offers (or offer) and decide which is the best place for them. They will agonize over the decision of a lifetime, while their prospective sororities will be busy securing their own reputations.