For some schools, Greek life is almost synonymous with college life. At Columbia, nothing could be further from the truth. Although approximately 12 percent of the student body is involved in Greek life, events that occur outside of the Greek sphere are more numerous, more vibrant, and more engaging. No one exists only within entirely isolated sororities or fraternities. Despite Greek life's rapid expansion at Columbia since the early 2000s, its organizations still play a minimal role in campus culture.
This should not be the case. The problem here is not those individuals in fraternities and sororities, but instead the empty and isolating social bubble they perpetuate, intentionally or not. Every club, residence hall, and publication group at this school has its own associated clique, but somehow these seem more welcoming than the great wall of Greekdom—and simply because they try to be. Columbia is the polar opposite of an “Animal House” fantasy with a school and social sphere built for and around Greek life.
Even as more students each year join the ever-increasing ranks of sororities and fraternities, there is simply no way we can sustain this cultural division. This school is too small to allow for a divide between Greek life and non-Greek life, and Columbia can't afford to get rid of the Greeks at this point—they're simply too big to fail, no matter how much controversy and rupture they might cause. Instead, existing fraternities and sororities should try to better anchor themselves within Columbia. Not by expanding their membership, but by reaching out to their fellow undergraduate associations—or perhaps not alienating those outside of their inner circles.
Some groups have already tried to schedule joint events. Sigma Nu, for example, has hosted several events at its house in partnership with other groups on campus—a karaoke night with Community Impact, a trivia night with GlobeMed, a Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop rap cipher, and an open mic night with Quarto. But frequently, these events end up being more isolating than socializing. What is the point of offering to host a Ramen Night with the Columbia Japan Society if none of the actual fraternity brothers even bother to show up? Postcrypt has reportedly reached out to host gallery-style events at Sigma Phi Epsilon, but even that has led to some tension with regard to the content of shows. Of course, some of the resistance must come from the outside groups as interlopers in the Greek circle. Cooperation has to go both ways.
How many non-Greek students (myself included) would mark down fraternity-run events on our monthly calendars? Beta Jam was fun and all, but I never thought to look into the other events the fraternity puts out there—like supporting community food programs and a lecture series hosted at the house.
It is incredibly unfair to put the onus entirely on Greek programming to create new connections. Even more important to note is how much those outside of Greek life assume about insiders. I instinctively judged a freshman suitemate for planning to pledge, and I often think of my close friend in the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta as a kind of exception to the rule. But why should I judge an incredibly intelligent and talented student who will be an amazing addition to an amazing group of women?
It seems that everyone at Columbia buys into some subconscious idea of Greek life—the kind perpetuated by movies and spring break. But it doesn't have to be, and isn't, all about the frat parties and tailgating—no one at Columbia is able to exist only as a sorority or fraternity member. Maybe it's because their houses are too small to accommodate their population. Or maybe it's because Greek life at Columbia is unique, and its members are accordingly nontraditional frat guys and sorority girls. And as for the rest of us, we should at least try to be as welcoming to the Greeks among us.
Britt Fossum is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in chemistry. She contributes regularly to The Canon.
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