Note: This op-ed is in response to a petition recently promoted on Facebook, entitled “No Sorority at Swarthmore College” and its later extension, “Call for Referendum on Sorority at Swarthmore College.”
The students of the incoming class of 2016 will spend their first semester with smiles on their faces, priding themselves in being a “Swattie.” Still in pass-or-fail mode and not yet completely acquainted with the not quite happy-go-lucky intensity of work and “Mc-Cage” instead of “McCabe,” these freshmen will at least know that to be a “Swattie” means to be part of something special. In fact, for most of us, being a “Swattie,” irrespective of its specific application does have a common denominator: being in communion with others whose viewpoints and identities may differ from ours but share a passion for learning and a degree of open-mindedness and originality.
Prescribing sorority life as an attractor of “increased rates of binge drinking, eating disorders, negative body image, and rape cases” (from “No Sorority at Swarthmore College”) and therefore, a reason for banning it does not give those interested in reestablishing the opportunity for sorority life enough credit. Other organizations on campus – whether artistic, ethnic, athletic – have both implicit and explicit requirements, and it is unfair to claim that our establishment of Kappa Alpha Theta would usher in unfair practices to campus. Wouldn’t KAT members be the same respectful, open-minded, kind and diverse individuals that compose the Swarthmore student body and all of its organizations? Swarthmore’s website describes its students as individuals “to become leaders for the common good” and defined by a “diversity of perspectives…different viewpoints, identities, and histories [that] contribute to the community’s strong sense of open dialogue and engagement with ideas and issues.”
N.Y.S. (Not Yet Sisters), the group established last year to explore possibilities of fraternal life and affording women opportunities consistent with Title IX, has already bridged together a significant number of students from radically different experiences and backgrounds. When I walked into my first interest meeting, mind you as a junior, one of the things that kept me there was the number of people that I didn’t know in the room. A sorority has the potential to offer all those who identify as female to work together to create a force that is inclusive for a diversity of modes of expression – whether ethnic, academic, athletic, religious, artistic or philanthropic – rather than a community characterized by exclusivity. Last year provided students the time to voice opinions and concerns, which the women of N.Y.S. have received and honored in what will be core principles of our sorority: forbiddance of hazing (both physical and psychological), exclusion for financial reasons, and admittance to all students who identify as female.
For the freshman, within your first 24 hours on campus, you will be acquainted with the community’s running joke of the “mysterious mistake student” – that someone is the great mistake and got past admissions. Of course, the butt of the joke is that we all identify as the “mistake” student at some point but in reality, there is no “mistake.” Each student has something to offer – their unique self-expression. So, if a petition claims that “sororities attract a different type of potential student than Swarthmore traditionally aims to attract” does that mean the young women of N.Y.S. are the mistakes? Well, I guess the mystery is then solved. And further, if this petition really believes what it said, “Swarthmore College prides itself on being different, unique,” then why would a sorority established by Swarthmore women be any different?
These value judgements about the students who feel that a sorority would be a place of self-expression for them is unfair and participates in this same “mainstream” behavior of being judgemental and narrow-minded that this “No Sorority at Swarthmore College” petition critiques. If you do accept and identify Swarthmore as a special place with a credo of diversity and open-mindedness, it is not in the “Swattie”-nature to reject a community before giving it a chance for self-expression.
Take our spring pep rally, a tradition of just two years. For freshman, I’m confident that it will be your first pep rally complete with (amongst other things) a mariachi band, a “chubby-bunny” marshmallow contest and a rather large yet friendly dancing red phoenix. This dynamic blend of styles incorporates a tradition of what some students may prejudge as “mainstream” (from “No Sorority at Swarthmore College”) or “jock” and becomes a product of the entire student body.
A sorority has this same powerful potential as an extension of Swarthmore’s inclusiveness. Swatties do not temper self-expression. Our campus offers a haven for the creative: disguised students of the Pterodactyl Hunt and the black-attired ninjas of Ninja-Gram season; for the artistic: RnM dancers performing to Thriller on top of Sharples tables; and the athletic: the women’s rugby team dressing up for their traditional “fancy dress” game wearing prom dresses. These avenues of self-expression – again, whether ethnic, academic, athletic, religious, artistic or philanthropic – resonate with people differently.
For freshman, you probably remain clueless to these references just yet, but the beauty of being a “Swattie” is having the chance to discover them. What you find is that your discovery, regardless of the degree to which you choose to participate in these student organizations, creates a space for learning to appreciate different modes of self-expression.
In this spirit – the Swattie spirit, isn’t it much more powerful to engage with something and mold it into something of our own rather than wholly reject it? The members of N.Y.S. believe in creating a sorority that is free of hazing (both physical and psychological), does not allow financial circumstances to limit participation and creates a powerful space for self-expression for its sisters but also all students.
Swarthmore is a safe place for alternative ways of self-expression and the establishment of Kappa Alpha Theta will offer students that chance.