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Out Come The Greeks

They don't give a damn about their bad reputation--UCSC fraternities and sororities want you

By Rebecca Patt

LIKE EVERY first week of every quarter at UC-Santa Cruz, this week is rush week, which means the members of the Greek system are busy playing minigolf and partying at bonfires on the beach as they try to get to know and recruit potential new brothers and sisters.

What? You don't know? You don't care? You shudder in horror at the mere thought of it all? Well, then, you're among the majority at UCSC. Unlike many universities where the campus is dominated by Greek life, the fraternities and sororities at UCSC are on the fringes of the social scene.

"UCSC has always been a very liberal and free-spirited school, and the very idea that all the Greeks get together and wear the same sweatshirts and do the same things puts people off," says Milton Chiu, a third-year business management major from San Jose who is a member of Lambda Phi Epsilon and president of the Greek Council.

In the face of the bigger challenges the Greek system has been struggling with nationally due to the fallout from instances of hazing, alcohol abuse, date rape and negative media portrayals, a small, proud and steadily expanding group of Greeks at UCSC is working hard to break free from its bad reputation and become a respected part of the community.

"The general feeling around all the Greeks now is we are trying to get the respect we deserve on campus and not be seen as stereotypical Greeks," says Theta Chi member and senior Eddie Pech. "Slowly the attitude is changing, but not as fast as we would like."

Brand Spanking Nu

The Greek system at UCSC has been growing ever since the first frat, Sigma Nu, sprung up in 1986 and the following year converted into a chapter of the widely known international multicultural fraternity Theta Chi. The school's Greek Council currently consists of 11 fraternities and sororities with approximately 300 students--or two percent of the campus population--participating. And this fall, two new organizations are getting started and having their first rush week: the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and the Chicana/Latina sorority Sigma Pi Alpha. Another sorority, Nu Beta Omicron, is applying to become aligned with the national chapter.

By far, the largest Greek organization on campus is Gamma Phi Beta, which has a sisterhood numbering about 50. The largest fraternities are Theta Chi and the Asian-interest-oriented Lambda Phi Epsilon, which both have about 20 members.

I'll admit that going into writing this story, I was also harboring a strong anti-Greek bias and an ignorance about this whole breed of people. I graduated a few years ago from a tiny, crunchy, very liberal liberal-arts college in the North Carolina mountains called Warren Wilson College. There were definitely no fraternities or sororities, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go there in the first place. The closest thing we had to a Greek organization among the school's 600 students was a nonexclusive coed group known as the Bubbas, whose purpose was to organize a huge keg party known as the Bubba for the whole school in the woods once per quarter.

So I didn't know if fraternity and sorority members were really all sex-crazed Republican jocks who brush their teeth with beer and hitch lingerie to flagpoles. I just knew that I had a feeling deep in my heart during my college years that I would be as likely to join a sorority as I was to pledge membership to a fanatical religious cult.

Even now that I'm out of college, I had a twinge of intimidation upon approaching these people--were they really elitist snobs who might not even condescend to talk to me?

But once I did start speaking with them--and it took some coaxing on my part, for many were wary of becoming the targets of more media slamming--I realized that they're shockingly normal, except perhaps for their roster of extracurricular and altruistic activities rivaling that of Max Fischer in the movie Rushmore. I'd go so far as to say I liked the fraternity and sorority people I met at UCSC.

Bad Girls Doing Good Things

Matching monogrammed sweatshirts aside--or, as in the case of the Alpha Psi sisters, identical black and fuchsia T-shirts that read "Bad Girls"--these are fun, outgoing and hardworking people who are quick to tell you about all the community service they do for organizations locally and beyond, endeavors referred to in Greek-speak as their philanthropy.

Fraternity and sorority members at UCSC have devoted tons of hours to volunteering and fundraising for causes, including the SPCA, Jacob's Heart, Special Olympics, beach cleanups, St. Jude's Pediatric Hospital, the Asian American donor program and hunger-fighting organizations.

And many of them admit that they too were skeptical at first about joining one of the groups.

"Almost every single one of us thought we'd never be doing this," says Alpha Epsilon Pi founding member Tomer Kagan.

"In high school, I never would have thought of myself as being in a sorority. I was anti-Greek," says Mariko Blakemore, a former Gamma Phi Beta president who graduated this past spring. "I didn't really know that much about them. I just kind of checked it out of curiosity, and my first night of hanging out with these girls I realized they didn't haze. They didn't treat each other in a demeaning way. They weren't all about partying, and they seemed to encompass everything I was looking for in an organization. I was blown away by all these amazing women and all they had accomplished."

Blakemore says the sorority made her feel comfortable in a new place, allowed her to make friends easily and gave her opportunities for service and leadership.

The Greek members say that they will accept nearly anyone into their group who shows interest and who is willing to make the huge commitment. Blakemore says that hazing is an obsolete practice.

"Because the Greek population is always under such public scrutiny, we are very careful about what we do. We are so careful not to haze that if anyone thinks it could be hazing we just won't do it," she says.

"It's the biggest no I can possibly give you," says Chiu about hazing at his fraternity. "It's definitely not an issue."

The size of the denial hints at how much this issue has dogged Greek organizations nationwide. Hazing--the practice of humiliating and abusive initiation rites often involving alcohol--has caused the deaths of nearly 60 fraternity and sorority members on U.S. college campuses over the last 30 years, according to research published by professor and journalist Hank Nuwer.

What's the Rush?

So if they're not all running around wearing diapers in public, drinking rum punch out of toilet bowls and puking on the lawn, then what is rush week all about?

"During rush week, we learn about the history and make sure we want to make a lifetime commitment," says Blakemore. "It's a very, very serious pledge when you join a sorority. You vow to be good to these women at all times."

"The bottom line is that a fraternity is a brotherhood," says Chiu. "If you want to do something, there's always 20 people to support you."

A tone of true respect and reverence comes into his voice when he speaks about "the bros."

The Greeks do have some secretive meeting and initiation practices, but as to what they entail, I couldn't get a word out of them on the subject.

Membership to a fraternity or sorority is also a financial commitment to the tune of about $500 per year, but Kagan says, "We don't ever turn people away because of money issues."

Greek rivalries are supposedly another classic bit of tradition, but fraternity and sorority members say that at UCSC they are a close-knit group who all hang out together, with rivalry limited to intramural sports competitions.

"I don't think you can find a Greek life like this at any other university," says Pech. "We all get along and we all talk to each other. We all go out and have fun together."

"I love those girls just like my other sisters," Gamma Phi Beta member Rachel Stower says of the other sorority members.

This raises the question: With the same 300 people partying and hanging out all the time, doesn't it get to be incestuous?

"I know a few people who are dating, but not many," says Delta Omega Chi member Paul Stanfield.

Shedding a Bad Rep

Another one of the ugly problems to have surfaced from the fraternity/sorority scene is reports of gang rapes, date rapes and other assaults, but according to Gillian Greensite, UCSC's director of rape-prevention education, as far as she can tell it hasn't been an issue among UCSC's Greeks.

"I haven't got any complaints," says Greensite. "In fact, Theta Chi fraternity each year raises quite a bit of money for rape-prevention education, and the sororities invite me to give workshops, so my experience has been pretty positive."

The Greek system at UCSC is also atypical in that the fraternities and sororities don't have a Greek Row where they all live together in houses, and Santa Cruz city ordinances prohibit the displaying of Greek letters. The closest thing to a fraternity house is the historical three-story, eight-bedroom Victorian home next to the Santa Cruz Mission occupied by members of Lambda Phi Epsilon, a surprisingly tidy place that retains its original flowery drapery and wallpaper and where the brothers occupy bedrooms with monikers like "The Princess Room."

With all the stereotypes prevalent about Greek organizations, members say they are subject to much discrimination, as they go against the grain of the majority of the campus population. They say their fliers get torn down. They have trouble getting permission to use rooms on campus for events, to the point where one group almost filed a hate-bias report. Blakemore said that students would mutter curses at her as they walked passed her sitting at the sorority's recruitment table. Pech said that one professor even commented offhandedly that he was a "socialist bastard" when he showed up to class wearing the shirt and tie that new Theta Chi pledges traditionally wear on Fridays during their first quarter.

"We are constantly defending ourselves," says Stanfield.

None of this seems to be seriously deterring the Greeks, and in the midst of it all, one of the most striking things about the Greeks is their high morale and the pride and deep belief they have in their organizations, evident in every single Greek participant I talked to.

"I don't know what my life would be like without one," marvels Lamba Phi Epsilon member Brian Standen. "I'd be just another student."

"Everything you could ever want and every good thing you could want to do for the world is done at a fraternity or a sorority," says Blakemore.

Bucking the Trend

The past couple of years have also seen the Greek organizations make several strides in becoming more of a fixture of campus life and gaining the support of the school. In 2001, the school administration and the Greek Council wrote an official Greek policy, the first such policy created in the university's 37 years of existence. The Greek Council has office space in the student union for the first time this fall, and this past spring the school paid for three students to attend the Western Regional Greek Conference.

"It meant a lot that they paid for registration and expenses," says Chiu.

The administration also handed out the school's first Greek Service Award last spring; the brothers of Lambda Phi Epsilon were the honorees. This past June, the fraternities and sororities held the school's first Greek Week, in which the groups compete against each other in events like powder-puff football and a raucous and risqué lip-syncing contest. The Lambdas again won the title. (And did I mention that I've got crushes on the Asian-interest fraternity boys? They're so cute and high-achieving!)

Although no good, definitive data exists as to the number of students participating in the Greek system, studies suggest that UCSC is bucking the trends, as Greek populations overall were on the decline during the 1990s, according to Dr. Richard McKaig, executive director of the Center for the Study of College Fraternity in Bloomington, Ind.

He says that the tendency of college students during the '90s to be less of a "joiner generation" than in the preceding decade combined with the growth of lawsuits and the impact of all the other negative incidents, the time and money factor, and parents being anxious about hazing were all reasons causing "the more serious minded students to think twice about joining these organizations."

"The unanswered question right now: is it going to flat line or begin to increase," says McKaig.

The answer is being played out right now in the middle of rush week, and members don't really care anymore if you're offended or apathetic.

"We've gotten over defending ourselves," says Stanfield. "We're having fun. That's all that matters."

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From the September 25-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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