85% of Fortune 500 executives were part of Greek life. The first female astronaut was Greek. So was the first female senator. And college graduation rates are 20% higher among Greeks than non-Greeks.
Which begs an obvious question: Does being in a fraternity or sorority increase your chance for success?
Nine million college students are members of a Greek organization and whether they join to make friends, to build their resumes, to go to parties or to learn leadership skills, they each have an incentive to change some aspect of their life.
A common deterrent for joining are the sometimes-negative stereotypes associated with Greek life.
Fraternities and sororities are often associated with hazing, drinking and partying. Since 1975, there has been at least one hazing-induced death per year across college campuses — and 82% of these have come as a result of binge drinking.
But hazing scandals make headlines — and fundraisers and philanthropy events generally do not.
Historically, partying was not the reason to commit to Greek life.
In the 1820’s, less than 1% of white males went to liberal arts colleges and universities primarily trained their students to become ministers.
On November 25, 1825, five Union College students came together to form a private group to engage in educational debates and discussions.
Naming their fraternity the Kappa Alpha Society, members got together to prepare themselves for careers that their professors didn’t train them for, and to discuss topics that were not covered in class.
Fraternities were often referred to as “secret societies.” As these societies quickly spread to other campuses and the first sorority emerged in 1831, Greek organizations consisted of a network of supporters, with brothers and sisters vowing each other’s loyalty to the death.
Although Greek life has changed over time, students who take their membership seriously are still equipped with skills that can be used in their future careers. David Stollman, co-founder of CAMPUSSPEAK, said that Greek organizations can help students improve their leadership and interpersonal skills.
“I really see that there’s a great correlation between those skills being developed and the ability to be successful in any endeavor,” he said. “Not necessarily just famous-successful, like a president or CEO, but successful as a community leader or as a small business owner.”
What makes Greek life rewarding is that members are given the unique opportunity to interact with and lead their peers.
Sometimes members who don’t get along are forced to work together — skills that are vital in the post-college work force. And most importantly, members are given the chance to practice and fail in their endeavors, without losing their network of support.
“You get the opportunity to fail miserably and have brothers and sisters that love you and care for you pick you up and dust you off and challenge you to do it again,” Stollman said.
Curtis Burrill, American University’s Greek life coordinator, said sorority and fraternity membership teaches crucial social interaction skills. Making conversation with strangers and running weekly meetings are just two examples.
“If you can be the new member educator for 30 women, I’m probably going to hire you to run a team,” Burrill said.
Gaining from the tradition
But what makes Greek life any different from other on-campus organizations, like the debate team or a sports team?
“If you’re in the chess club, you don’t really have that 200 year history and the ritual and four million alumni,” Burrill said.
Although the university Greek advisor finds it unfortunate that particular members sometimes create negative stigmas through their sometimes-irresponsible actions while wearing letters, he still believes the negatives are outweighed by the benefits and that those who join for the right reasons will go far.
And social skills have been proven to take students down a successful path.
During his April 18 visit to American University, New York Times columnist David Brooks emphasized the importance of understanding others to become successful — a skill that former president Bill Clinton mastered and that all politicians have.
“What explains success in life, what should you actually be thinking about if you’re a college student?” said Brooks, “Well, you should think about IQ and studying and getting the skills, that’s obvious. But you should also think about traits like mindsight – the ability to look into other people’s minds and really tell what’s going on there. That’s the skill that politicians have.”
Students who join Greek organizations to build a network, make friends and develop leadership and social skills will likely graduate with useful qualities that could take them far. Students who join solely for the partying that Greek organizations are too often criticized for may end up leaving without much benefit.
“Unfortunately we all know people that wear letters and aren’t interested in the right kind of membership,” Stollman said.
And at the end of the day, it’s up to the students to define their reputations.
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