‘When I joined my sorority, I had to wear a white dress and swear on the Bible in front of 30 other girls’
Words by Phoebe Morgan, author of The Doll House (out September 14)
Rather than hopping off a plane at LAX, my arrival to America from North London was a little less glamorous. I landed at Willard Airport, a tiny place in the Mid-West, and took a cab to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my home for the next year.
U of I is a fantastic university, right in the heart of the Midwestern cornfields. The campus is beautiful, with a bright green quad surrounded by statuesque buildings, a seemingly endless supply of Mountain Dew and of course, one of the largest Greek systems in the USA.
I knew what a sorority house was – I’d seen Legally Blonde – but I’d always thought American movies exaggerated everything. After a year in Delta Zeta, I can tell you that they didn’t.
Joining a sorority was not easy. ‘Rush’ is the sorority recruitment process, and it’s exhausting. There are 36 sororities at U of I, and you go to them all, followed by three rounds of interviews where the girls judge you on your small talk and clothing, and only invite you back if they like you. Finally, there’s ‘bid day’ where you find out if your top house wants you. Everyone goes to the university quad and rips open an envelope with an invitation in. I saw girls running towards their new sisters screaming, and girls with their heads in their hands because they’d been rejected. A friend told me that the existing sorority members weren’t allowed to leave the house during rush – frat boys would guard the doors to make sure of it.
I was selected by my first choice, Delta Zeta, where I met some lovely girls who remain close friends today. But living in the DZ house took some getting used to. One of the strangest things about being in a sorority is sharing a mansion with 30 other girls, and sharing bunk beds with a stranger. No boys are allowed past 2am, and you get to hear everyone’s gossip. We all knew who the drunkest girl in the house was, who’d slept with the most frat boys, and which DZ girl had originally wanted to be a TriDelt. Because that’s the other thing – not everyone gets their first choice of sorority.
The houses are informally ranked into a tier system: you have the top tier houses, which are known unofficially as the ones with the prettiest, most popular girls, the middle tier houses, and then the bottom tier houses. This is one of the nastier aspects of the Greek system – it was well known which were the unpopular houses, and there was even a horrible website which would name and shame what the students thought of as the ‘ugliest’ sororities, as well as spreading gossip about individuals. I once found out that the guy I was seeing was also seeing someone else through that website – fun for all involved!
While I was there, I was actually seeing an English guy for a bit who was also in a fraternity, but you were allowed to date whoever you wanted. I ended up dating a couple of people (not at the same time) and it was all very campus based because we all went to the same street of bars nearly every night. I didn’t do any online dating – I don’t think it had become big yet. Most of my friends were dating fraternity boys or boys they knew from class. Lots of them would have gone to the same high school and then kept the same boyfriend through college.
Initiation was another odd night. When I joined DZ, I had to remove all my make-up and jewellery, wear a white dress and swear on the Bible (I’m not religious) in front of 30 other girls, with candles burning all around us. It felt almost cult-like. On another night, all the new recruits were led into a pitch black room, made to line up against the wall and shouted at by one of the sorority committee. Now, I don’t scare easily, but I was honestly terrified. On campus, rumours were rife about hazing – which is illegal. One girl I knew was made to sit on top of a washing machine, while her sisters circled the places on her body where her ‘fat’ jiggled. A fraternity boy was made to drink himself to death in front of his brothers. Another guy was made to run through a field in the dark, with fraternity brothers grabbing him by the legs to try to trip him. Coming from Leeds University, it all seemed bizarre.
The actual house was beautiful – they all were. It had a huge sweeping staircase (good for Instagram photos with our hands on our hips), a big dining hall with free bagels, and there was always someone around for a chat. We often all had dinner together, studied together, then went out to barn dances, mixers or the bars together.
The whole thing felt like a whirlwind of weirdness; there was always someone dragging you out of bed to go bake cupcakes for a fundraiser, or someone who was crying in the hallway having been hospitalised through drinking the night before. One thing’s for sure – it was never dull.
And frat parties? They were almost exactly how they’re depicted in films! The houses were mansions, there were red cups, beer pong games and people everywhere, spilling out into the gardens where you’d usually find people making out and/or vomiting into bushes. They’d usually go on all night and occasionally be shut down by police. Sometimes they would be themed so everyone would come in fancy dress. We went to several a week when we first joined the university and you always knew which would be the best ones, run by the “most popular” fraternities. I stayed over a few times but boys weren’t allowed to stay at sororities.
I’d say frat culture is similar to how it’s reported although of course the media takes the absolute worst cases and magnifies them – I didn’t hear of any rape cases to my knowledge. A lot of frat boys were absolutely lovely guys, but there was definitely a pack mentality and I think boys felt the pressure to be part of a cool house because it meant they’d get to have socials with the popular sororities, so your frat house was definitely linked to your social status.
I’m still very good friends with a couple of my sorority sisters and I spoke to them about this piece. We all agreed that some of the things that went on now seem ridiculous! I do think after college, most people end up getting jobs in the city (Chicago, in this case) and yes, growing out of the sorority culture.
Three of them are now married or engaged too. I know a few really strong friendship groups that have come from sororities – that said, I know a couple of girls who had a hard time in the Greek system and are very against it to this day. They remember the bitchiness of other girls and that’s something that stays with them – a bit like a bad high school experience that carries on into four years of college.
I do think the culture is a sheep mentality situation – you perhaps don’t question it as much if you’re from the US but as an outsider I did find it very strange. Looking back my American friends agree with me, but at the time, the Greek system is just such a huge part of the college experience and students have often heard all about it from their parents or grandparents, so it’s really more like an institution. Everybody goes along with the crowd and those who didn’t join a sorority were definitely subjected to a few raised eyebrows.
Despite the strangeness of it all, I made some amazing friends in my sorority. I’ve flown back for two of their weddings, we’ve been on a trip to France together, and they saw me through some difficult times when I was in the US. Sororities have their problems, but I was lucky enough to meet some wonderful girls, and for that I’m very grateful.