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Saving face vs. saving money in Greek life

I recently led a tour of around 50 low-income, Hispanic students from a high school very close to my hometown of Long Beach, CA. Among the other tidbits of myself and my extracurricular activities, I told them that I was part of a sorority — but quit. I shrugged it off as “a long story,” but it actually isn’t. I quit because I exhausted my share of my sorority’s scarce financial aid, because I didn’t want to spend my hard earned money on dues anymore and because I didn’t want to be more dependent on my parents than I already was. But I didn’t want to tell this to the students after just telling them about Stanford’s higher financial aid bar. I didn’t want to give them the impression that Stanford, in general, is inclusive of low-income students like them, but some of the (wealthier and whiter) students are not.

Looking back on my split-second choice to “protect” these students from the truth, I regret that I recreated the exact lack of honesty and transparency that has caused me frustration throughout my past year’s experience in the Greek community. This is the case, I have found, for many low-income women in the Inter-Sorority Council (ISC).

Some low-income students might come to Stanford thinking that the students will, in general, be willing to make room for them at the table, so to speak, because Stanford has done so at the institutional level. On the contrary, they will likely find few students willing to engage in discussions about class issues, and buckle under several other sources of stress, including microagressions about socioeconomic status.

Low-income sorority members might be subjected to even more of such disillusionment in the mainstream Greek community. In the words of one anonymous ISC member, “the $35 registration fee is immediately dwarfed by the actual cost of being in a sorority, by the general socioeconomic atmosphere of most sororities here (and the manner in which socioeconomic differences are discussed — or not discussed), and the fact that the ISC seriously misrepresents the availability of scholarships to help pay for sorority dues.” Indeed, I have discovered through an original survey I made that a handful of low-income women have found themselves in a bind once they realize that financial assistance and the breakdown of fees in ISC sororities are much more complicated than they were portrayed during recruitment. On the one hand, they might want to stay because they have already forged valuable friendships in their sororities and because they want to break the stereotype of “wealthy sorority girl.” On the other hand, they have to face a financial reality and may become disillusioned with the culture over time. This has all led me to believe that low-income women, and even middle-class women, might be hanging by their fingers to the mainstream Greek community.

Take the following fact with a grain of salt, since sororities vary widely on dues and fees: I paid an average of $427.25 per quarter over the six quarters of my sorority membership. It was originally $335.58, but I had to pay my financial aid awards back to the chapter once I deactivated, per the contract I signed as a new member. This may or may not be a condition for the other sororities that offer financial aid or will in the future. This includes the $59.25 I spent on apparel, and a $75 fine I was charged when I missed last year’s initiation. These expenses might seem like an insignificant amount of money to some, but a serious setback for others. Low-income students can work only so many hours while also balancing school and extra-curriculars.

Sisterhood is the foundation of sororities. I’ve been lucky to find a good group of friends in my sorority that are pretty much like sisters. However, invoking the term “sisterhood” to describe an organization of over 100 members is quite a stretch, especially when that instantaneous sisterhood — and assumed unconditional love — is actually conditional on family income. It has surprised me how gung-ho some sorority leaders can be about philanthropy, both at the local level as well as at the national and international levels, while also being resistant to developing financial aid programs for their own sisters. It is even more confounding to me that this is happening at the wealthiest, and one of the most financially generous, universities in the world.

I’ve seen good allyship, so I don’t think it’s a lost cause at Stanford. I am grateful to a former sorority president, now one of my closest friends, who used her position four years ago to establish the financial aid program from which I benefited. And I have many more friends in my sorority and in the general ISC community to thank for their support through this journey.

Although I’ve excused myself from the table, tired of trying to make room for myself and others, I don’t regret my time as a sorority member. I came out of it $2,563 shorter, but with invaluable lessons on privilege, and friends I love unconditionally. I hope I have the courage to be honest with the next batch of first-generation, low-income students that visit campus. Similarly, I hope the mainstream Greek community has the courage to be honest with itself about the disconnect it has with Stanford’s ever more inclusive goals.

Jackie Fielder ’16

Contact Jackie Fielder at jackie4 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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