I was walking from the university conference hall down to the town centre in Boulder, hoping to find a nice spot for lunch, I caught sight of this sweet little building across the road.
The sign by the steps grabbed my attention: I've heard of U.S. fraternities and sororities, mostly featured in some books I read as a child, but this was my first visit to an American university and this particular building was the first one I've seen.
As an outsider, it's intriguing. If you zoom the photo, you can also see the sign says that this is the "Christ-centred fraternity", which only made me more curious, since I'd basically heard of fraternities as social and/or residential entities, more to do with drunken parties than with God.
So, finding I had a few minutes to spare after lunch, I took a short walk through some of the roads near the university to see whether I could spot some more.
The next Greek building I saw had a much more impressive facade:
Indeed, it turns out that KKΓ even have an article in Wikipedia, but I didn't find that until I was writing up this post. All I could tell was that this one was huge.
Where does the money come from? Maintaining a building of this size can't be cheap. I found several streets where most of the houses had a couple of letters above the door, so the total number of people involved in these things must be huge.
I wondered what the letters stand for, but haven't managed to find any good answers. (And as an ex-classicist, if there is some actual Greek involved, I stand at least a chance of understanding it...)
I'll also confess to a woeful lack of knowledge about what these groups are for (except the aforementioned partying), or how they're organised. But, not willing to let ignorance get in the way of a good story, I decided to quiz the next Americans I talked to. Unfortunately, that turned out to be two girls who had both managed to go to universities which didn't have 'a Greek system'. This left me even more confused, because I'd assumed the fraternities & sororities were independent of the actual university - and therefore assumed that everywhere had them. Apparently not.
They told me what they knew: that students could choose to live in the 'frat houses' instead of renting privately, and that it was (as I suspected) good for getting beer because supplies would be bought by older students who were legally allowed to buy alcohol.
I wanted to knock on one of the doors to ask some of my many questions, but sadly it was the summer holidays and the neighbourhood looked a bit deserted. If I go back to an American campus in term-time, though, I'll certainly do some more investigating.
All I can tell you really are my impressions from outside. From the occasional stories of 'hazing' and initiations that reach the British press, they sound a bit Masonic. From the large blocks of living accomodation that some of them have, I get the impression it might be a bit like the non-academic side of an Oxford college; somewhere to live, with a ready-made social life if you want it (and, presumably, a handy alumni network). There's also, evidently, quite a lot of money involved somewhere.
I think my favourite of the Greek houses in Boulder was this one, which has a certain Old-English charm about it, and is suitably impressive while keeping its letters understated:
Have any of my readers been involved in one of these societies or know someone who has? Is there anything you're willing to share?