Tips for Parents

Talking about Greek life with your student

A note from the Editor:

Fraternities and sororities play a big role in student life at many American colleges and universities. Parents who’ve had their own personal and positive experiences with Greek life often transmit enthusiastic traditions to their college-bound students. For other parents, the Greek system is a bit of a mystery, but we may be familiar with some of the controversies that have enmeshed certain chapters on campuses in recent years.

If your student is considering Greek life, you’ll have questions. Long-time UniversityParent contributor Priscilla Childress, who works in college parent and family programming and volunteers with the Kappa Delta National Leadership Team, explores the benefits of Greek membership in our article “It’s Greek to me.” Below, Robin Noble explores reasons why parents might want to consider cooling their students’ interest in rushing, at least during the first year of college.

Like many issues of college life, from both the student and parent perspective, there is no single “right” course to take. We look forward to talking about this topic and others with you in our college parent Facebook group.

By Robin Noble

A couple I know has taken a clear-cut stand on their son’s impending college experience: under no circumstances will they support his membership in a fraternity.

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I find unequivocal parenting decisions like this intriguing, and especially in this case. The student in question is highly social, an academic leader and a joiner by nature. His gregarious personality and respectful outlook seem to lend themselves toward the better nature of fraternity life.

But to his parents, the potential downside outweighs all. They are not alone in their thinking. Many universities have curbed or banned fraternities and sororities outright.

In the extreme, hazing, alcohol abuse, sexism and racism have moved schools like Penn State, University of Virginia, Clemson, Brandeis, West Virginia, the University of Oklahoma and Emory to severely restrict or prohibit Greek activity recently.

Many institutions simply will not have them. For these schools, the fundamental exclusivity of the Greek system goes against their policies of inclusion.

Journalist Hank Nuwer has made the topic of hazing his life’s work, chronicling incidents since the 1800s through his publications and website. A professor at Franklin College in Indiana, Mr. Nuwer’s research shows that despite public outrage and institutional interventions, Greek hazing continues unabated with at least one death every year since 1975, the vast majority of which included serious alcohol abuse.

In the late 1980s, my close college friend won a national journalism award for her investigative reporting of Greek hazing. It was a disturbing saga then, and if she went back to re-investigate she would find that, in the big picture, not much has changed.

To me, this suggests that Greek life is endemically disordered. While one university institutes new policies and sweeps out offenders, another sees the same old incivility rearing its ugly head in the same old ugly ways.

It starts with exclusivity. As invitation-only clubs, fraternities and sororities welcome the we and bar the they. Within the university microcosm, they tend to perpetuate likeness (of race, religion and socio-economic status). Their inclination toward physical likeness, especially along superficial lines, is of particular concern for our daughters.

And of course, likeness is not the goal when we send our students off to college. I joined a sorority at Texas Christian University in the fall of my freshman year. Initially I enjoyed it, but I felt mounting pressure to look and act in accordance with the group. I couldn’t afford to keep up clothing-wise, which made me feel awful day to day, and while I met some lovely women, the social situation felt forced and awkward. Looking back, it’s no wonder everyone was drinking so much.

story-icon-bar-convo-3Visit AddictionCenter.com for information and statistics about the connection between Greek organizations and elevated rates of binge drinking and substance abuse.

At the end of my sophomore year I decided to stop showing up, and this was a positive turning point. I branched out and began to meet people who were unhindered by the requirements of conformity. I made deep, pressure-free friendships. I dug into my major. I got to know my professors and finally felt at ease in my own skin. As these better experiences took root, I realized that my Greek association had been holding me back.

There are many, many people who will talk about the incredible growth they experienced through the Greek system. They describe lifelong friendships, leadership practice, business networks, service opportunities and a sense of belonging. Many Greeks are true to their letters from the day they pledge until the day they die.

This is all good, and when they behave well, fraternities and sororities have every right to prosper. But personally, I wish I hadn’t rushed in my freshman year. I recommend a straightforward approach to parents:

What should parents do?

Prior to giving financial support for Greek membership (and it is pricey), require your student to attend college for one full year before pledging a fraternity or sorority. She owes it to herself to be on firm ground socially and academically before toeing anyone’s line. In addition to the cost, participation in a Greek organization requires a big time commitment. By postponing rush, she has a chance to explore other involvements on campus.

If your student decides to pledge:

Trust that he can discern what he is seeking, but by all means broach the subject. Remind him that college is the perfect time not to fit in, to take some time to find his own way. If he is still interested in joining, have those very important talks about safety and encourage your student to make the most of the positive aspects of his membership.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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