By Mini Racker
This article is the first in a series examining how the challenges and concerns of on-campus housing affect student lifestyle and well-being at Stanford.
In Greek houses on campus, many students say they find close communities where they are able to share aspects of their identities — such as ethnicity or gender — that can be harder to explore in other spheres of their lives. However, many say they still experience the reverberations of Greek life’s decades-long struggle with diversity.
In the past two years, sororities like Delta Delta Delta (Tridelt) and Pi Beta Phi (Pi Phi) have added a diversity officer position to address these challenges. The Daily spoke to some of these diversity officers, as well as students in Greek life across campus to learn more about representation in Greek life today.
Several students discussed how being in a Greek organization has allowed them to explore and express their identities in ways that they could not elsewhere.
“I’m half Belizean and that national identity didn’t ever feel very strong to me,” said Zoe Solis ’19, one of the diversity chairs at Tridelt. “Even [during] my first year [at] Stanford, I couldn’t relate to a lot of people on that level. But there are a lot of people here at Tridelt specifically identifying with their nationality or where their parents are from, so I felt like I could finally have conversations about that.”
Similarly, Nikhil Aggarwal ’20, a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity, did not think much about his Indian identity until he came to Stanford.
Aggarwal said that he has learned from his discussions with fraternity brothers — particularly men of color in the organization — about diversity, and has connected with their stories related to culture and identity.
“A lot of those things that [other Sigma Nu affiliates] said that would make people feel uncomfortable are what happened to me in Indiana,” Aggarwal said.
He gave examples of incidents that did make him feel uncomfortable in retrospect, such as how friends growing up made negative comments about the Indian food served in his household.
Aggarwal also said that, though the values of a fraternity can be quite different from traditional Indian cultural values, he has noticed similarities as well.
“One thing that’s similar between Greek life and Indian culture is they’re both focused on community,” said Aggarwal. “My parents moved to Indiana, which is a pretty homogenous society, but they’ve really connected with the Indian community in our town there. They’ve created their own pocket community within this space, and that’s sort of what Greek life is too.”
Luke Soon-Shiong ’18, a member of Theta Delta Chi (TDX) who identifies as genderqueer, shared his experience living in the fraternity house during his sophomore year.
“I was able to feel comfortable messing around with more gender stuff there,” he said. “A big part of that is there are other people in Theta Delt that paved that space.”
Lizzie Ford ’20, a diversity officer at Pi Phi said, “I didn’t have the best freshman year dorm experience, so I’ve really loved feeling safe and supported in my community [in Pi Phi].”
However, Ford also said that she sometimes found herself uncomfortable in her sorority house as well. Although she identifies as biracial — Latina and white — she explained that she is white-presenting, and that others often perceive her as only white.
“Particularly presenting white, I have had a few times in which people in the house will say something that makes me feel uncomfortable, because they don’t know,” said Ford.
In particular, she mentioned the challenges of inviting family members to Pi Phi.
“I’ve certainly had times when I felt uncomfortable bringing my mom, who looks and is Latina,” Ford said. “She came for Parents’ Weekend and I brought her in the house, and I could immediately sense kind of a difference in the way she was talking and her body language, even though there are a lot of Latinas in the house, and my mom was rattling off Spanish to our chef. It was really fun, but I could tell she felt a little uncomfortable.”
Increasing ethnic diversity
The students who spoke to The Daily stressed how much their organizations cared about diversity. However, they saw common stereotypes and historical underrepresentation as barriers to recruiting members from various backgrounds to Greek organizations.
“A lot of my friends are people of color, and I was really excited about some of them rushing because I think they’re amazing,” Ford said. “I asked them, ‘Hey, are you thinking about rushing? No pressure, but if you are I’d love to talk to you about it.’ And they immediately were like, ‘Are you kidding me? Me rushing? Lizzie, you gotta be kidding me. I know that’s something that you do, but that’s not me.’”
“I want to respect any decision they’ve made,” Ford said, “But I think a lot of the things informing those decisions are outdated views about how much sororities, especially Pi Phi, care about diversity.”
Ford shared that photos of each of Pi Phi’s pledge classes are hung on the house walls in chronological order.
“As you walk down the hall, you slowly see more and more people of color and names that aren’t just ‘Jane Smith,’” she said.
Additionally, Ford said that it can be difficult for some students to see role models who share their backgrounds in Greek organizations.
“It’s hard to get a critical mass of girls who are willing to take the jump and be like, ‘I’m going to be a pioneer for this organization and I’m gonna be 100 percent myself so that, two years from now, once another girl who looks like me, sounds like me, has experiences like me is rushing, she looks at me and says, ‘Hey, I could be like her,’” Ford said.
In many organizations, students observed that having more members from particular ethnic backgrounds made it easier to recruit more students from those backgrounds. Soon-Shiong talked about a friend in TDX involved in the Native community.
“In his room, there would always be a huge group, at least once or twice a week, of 15 Native people hanging out,” said Soon-Shiong. “And from there, there was this establishment of this Native presence at TDX and the next year we got a few more Native people rushing and it turned into this whole lineage.”
Will Paisley ’20, one of this year’s rush chairs at TDX, who identifies as Blackfeet and Navajo, said he was proud to help represent the Native community community in the frat.
“I hope we can evoke further representation and respect for our indigenous identities in spaces where they have traditionally not been found,” Paisley added.
Students consistently said that recruitment processes could be revamped to better promote diversity. They focused particularly on the brief conversations fraternities and sororities use to determine who might be a good fit for their organization. Aggarwal mentioned that, when these conversations focused on more superficial subjects, he did not feel as engaged with the fraternity members.
“Where I found myself fitting in with Sig Nu was more on a deeper level,” Aggarwal said. “When we were just talking about music or things like that, I felt there was a lack of connection. I feel like maybe that happens to a lot of Indian kids when they rush.”
Additionally, Aggarwal noted that the types of conversations held during recruitment can sometimes favor people from more privileged backgrounds. He discussed how current members can become particularly interested in potential members who have had certain experiences, such as international travel. This, in turn, could make it more likely for students with the resources to access those opportunities to be ultimately recruited, Aggarwal postulated.
“Maybe a reason that Greek life ends up with on-average [people of higher socioeconomic status] is because those people have had the money to have amazing experiences,” Aggarwal said.
In an implicit bias workshop before rush, Solis and Tridelt’s other diversity chairs, Ashley Song ’20 and Sruthi Raguveer ’20 raised awareness of the specific ways this phenomenon could appear.
“One question that may seem innocuous is, ‘Where did you go over spring break?’” Song said.
Aron Tesfai ’19, Sigma Nu President, said he was asked exactly this when he joined his fraternity.
“During rush, I remember being put off by the question, ‘What did you do over spring break?’ and having people describe their trips to Cabo … because I, as a low-income student, would stay on campus because it was cheaper,” Tesfai said. “This made me slightly uncomfortable, and we’ve since been sure to be intentional about things like these at rush and beyond.”
In their implicit bias workshop, Tridelt’s diversity chairs encouraged members to reflect on not only what they asked during recruitment, but also on how they internally reflected on potential new members.
“We gave an example of, after meeting someone, thinking ‘She reminds me of my sister,’” Song said. “We caution our members to ask themselves, why does this person really remind you of your sister or your friend? Is it because of how she looks or what she’s wearing or is it because of her personality or her humor?”
As members have become more aware of implicit bias around socioeconomic status, Greek organizations have been working to increase participation among those of less privileged backgrounds. In certain organizations, like Pi Phi, some members receive full financial aid.
“I myself am on a payment plan, because I pay out of my [Teacher’s Assistant] salary,” Ford said. “But it’s doable.”
Gender and sexuality
Students also discussed the varying degrees of queer visibility inside their organizations. Ford, for example, mentioned that she does not know anyone who is openly gay in Pi Phi.
“We’ll talk in rush and someone will only mention the possibility of someone having a boyfriend, not a girlfriend,” she said.
As a diversity chair, Ford has helped institute “Woke Wednesdays” in her house to make space for conversations around issues like sexuality. She said that topics related to identity can be hard to discuss in day-to-day contexts.
“Just like it’d be strange if I woke up in the morning and went downstairs and was like, ‘Hey guys, I’m straight,’ it’d be weird if someone went downstairs and was like, ‘Good morning, hope you’re enjoying your toast, I’m bi,’” Ford said.
Tridelt’s diversity chairs said they have found space for deeper conversations about sexuality in their organization.
“One person was able to come out after joining because she felt so comfortable in this space,” Solis said.
Indeed, Tridelt’s diversity chairs said that their sorority members identify with many different sexualities. Tesfai said that Sigma Nu is diverse in terms of both gender and sexual orientation.
But members of sororities and fraternities sometimes face a challenge in navigating the gender norms created by their organizations. Ford, for instance, said she thinks that the Pi Phi national organization is more conservative than its Stanford chapter.
“Let’s say … a trans woman rushed and decided Pi Phi was right for her, I guarantee that [Stanford’s chapter] would [say] ‘yes,’ if she was the right fit,” Ford said. “The problem which has been discussed a lot is that it’s hard for people who identify as trans to deal with the national organization.”
In TDX, members who identify as genderqueer say they have found a sense of belonging.
“While I cannot speak on behalf of other Native peoples, people of color or queer-identifying individuals,” Paisley said, “I myself am a two-spirit individual comfortable with male identification and pronouns. I have never found issues with being in TDX as an openly genderqueer individual and hope that the increased presence and acceptance of individuals like myself in Greek life can help promote productive discussions of how [fraternities can become] more inclusive spaces.”
In TDX, some such discussions have examined whether the organization’s classification as a fraternity makes the most sense.
“There’s a whole spectrum of identities in terms of gender and sexuality that exists in Theta Delt,” Soon-Shiong said. “And a lot of people have had strong thoughts about, ‘Should Theta Delt, at the end of the day, just become a co-op and not have this exclusivity that’s based on gender?’ But the reason that we stay a fraternity is that’s how we have our house and that’s how we secure our ability to be a presence on campus.”
Change from the inside
Regarding issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, several students mentioned that they were motivated to join Greek life or become diversity chairs so they could enact change.
“[Greek organizations] are kind of the face of heteronormativity and to a certain extent, whiteness,” Soon-Shiong said. “Our greatest role could be [listening] to concerns and … actually working against systems that we are reproducing but can fix from the inside.”
Ford expressed a similar desire to make a wide variety of people comfortable in Greek life.
“How I saw it, I had two options,” said Ford. “Either I could sit over here on my soapbox and complain about it for four years and be like, ‘Sororities are inherently bad and Greek life should stop,’ or I could try it out, give it a chance and see if I could change something.”
Contact Mini Racker at mracker ‘at’ stanford.edu.