Friday, 12 June 2009

All Greek To Me!

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.

AΓΩ - University of Colorado at Boulder

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:

KKΓ - University of Colorado at Boulder

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.

ΣN - University of Colorado at Boulder

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.

ΦΚΨ - University of Colorado at Boulder

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:

ΔΓ - University of Colorado at Boulder

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?


A Scattering said...

Rachel, this was really interesting. I live in Canada and the "greek" thing here is nothing like it is in the States - very curious stuff.

flower said...

I love looking at all the different buildings, especailly homes when I go abroad, I find them much more interesting then English ones

jenny2write said...

I have never managed to find out about this either. They've always seemed as if they're meant to make their members feel very exclusive. There must be more to it, though, so maybe someone will post what it's all about on your blog!

Strawberry Girl said...

I am not sure either, I was invited to become a member of Phi Betta Kappa (the letters are related to these words and probably alpha as well, whatever the club is called). They seemed to think that it would be to my best interest to join them, it would cost $70 dollars to become an official "member" and there would be a network of other Phi Betta Kappa members to seek references and mentors from (I guess) I never had the money, so I didn't join... Neat "frat" houses. :D

erin - heart in ireland said...

I am in a sorority. I am a Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA). It is sooo hard to explain, when I was in Ireland I was always asked, and I never had a perfect answer. It is a social organization, based on sisterhood, philanthropy and ritual. You go through a process in which you find a sorority that wants you and you want called recruitment and you have to be invited to join one. You can't just say I like Delta Delta Delta and join. Most in the US were started in the late 19th century by a small group of people and then they spread to other colleges.
The best thing to do is google different ones and check out their websites, mine is
I loved my experience, my college was small and we didn't have houses. But houses like the ones you saw usually have about 70 people living in them! They are owned by the sorority and you pay dues and part of that is rent and your meal plan.
I loved my sororities rituals and ceremonies and being able to meet women all over the world who know it. Mine was founded in 1898 by 9 women, and I had a great experience in college with it. If you have other questions let me know, I'm more than glad to answer them :)

And Phi Beta Kappa isn't a traditional fraternity, it is the most prestigious honor society in America. It is a HUGE deal. Honor societies in colleges also go by Greek letters, I'm in two of them as well. They might do a few things, my History one - Phi Alpha Theta did like movie nights and a conference. You had to have certain grades and also be invited to join. But it is nothing like the traditional sororities and fraternities.

Chris said...

Hey, I can answer any questions you may have about fraternities. I was in one. And yes, we have rituals (at least my fraternity does) that are based on the Masonic Rituals. Yes, there is hazing. Yes, you pay member dues. And yes there is a lot of drinking etc. But each fraternity has its own flavor. And each fraternity is different at every school. Mine was basically the athlete fraternity-everybody was on a one of the college teams. we had swimmers, baseball players, soccer players, water polo players, golfers and cross country guys. Kappa Kappa Gamma is a sorority. Sigma Nu is a fraternity. Phi Kappa Psi is a fraternity. Delta gamma is a sorority (and as you can see they have a symbol-the anchor). At my school the Kappas were the pretty blond girls. The DG's were the fun girls. The Sigma Nu guys were kind of geeky at my school. And I dont recall if we had Phi Psi's at my school.

Chris said...

Oh and Strawberry girl was obviously a smart one... Phi Beta Kappas are the academic fraternity (one that allows girls in as well).THey dont do the normal fraternity thing and there genreally is no hazing.... I certainly was never asked to be one.

Kate Coveny Hood said...

I'm surprised Chris hasn't commented on this. He was a frat boy at GW in DC. I went to a Jesuit college in NY (Fordham) and we didn't have a Greek system. It's just as well. I'm sure I would have ended up doing the sorority thing just because my friends were and it was a way to meet people...but I just don't think it would be me. I hate exclusionary stuff!

Anonymous said...

Love the buildings, but have no knowledge of the frat system either...

Chef E said...

Well, seems like you got some answers, and they are right...the symbols are letters, kind of like being on the football team and you get your letters in high school, a big deal, to you, and a job someday. I have also read the negative sides to these 'clubs' depending on what campuses, and in the south racism is a huge deal. I will not go there I guess, but I survived college without joining...and had just as much fun!

Hope you are doing well Rachel...August is around the corner :)

Rachel Cotterill said...

Thanks, especially Erin & Chris, it's so interesting to hear from people who really know what it's all about :) One thing I really hadn't picked up on was that these entities exist across universities, i.e. that the same letters mean the same thing even at a completely different university.

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