I’m not here to defend fraternities. I’ve found that people have largely made up their minds about the Greek system by the time they’re 18 or 19. But I do think the anti-fraternity chorus has grown overloud, the outrage in the court of public opinion disproportionate. Fraternity men are movie villains, the “frat bro” a national stereotype/punch line on par with “annoying hipster.” I sometimes meet judging eyes when I say, “Yeah, I was in a fraternity.” I think it’s ridiculous.
I’m not alone when I count my college years as the most formative of my life. Those years were dominated by my fraternity participation. Sigma Chi was the biggest and most overwhelmingly positive force in my life for those four years, and the lessons I took from it were every bit as valuable as anything I learned in a classroom. You go to class to study English or finance, but you go to college to study life, to continue becoming who you are.
I joined my fraternity almost immediately, a few weeks into my first semester at William and Mary in 2006. I picked it because I thought it was the best one on campus. I think anyone who joined a fraternity would say the same, or at least I hope they would. No, I didn’t have aspirations of accessing an alumni network for career advancement—I can’t think of anyone who seriously used that as motivation. Sure, after graduation a friend might give you a heads up about a job posting or put in a good word for you, but that’s friendship. There’s no list of benevolent CEOs willing to pull you up the ladder purely because of your Greek affiliation. If there is, someone please forward it to me.
The experience was a crash course in diplomacy. Never before had I been around so many intelligently opinionated people, many of whom had fundamentally divergent philosophies. I had always viewed disagreement as messy and unpleasant, to be avoided if possible. Here, good friends routinely looked each other in the eye and said, “I could not disagree more. I think you’re so irresponsibly wrong.”
Fraternity issues, like choosing a sorority to partner with during Homecoming or electing fraternity officers—so trivial in hindsight, but gravely important at the time—really did inspire hours of heated debate during chapter meetings. Sometimes you make your point and convince the crowd. Other times, you’re not able to, for whatever reason. Learning to come to terms with your defeat was just as important as figuring out how to get your way.
The 2007 controversy around our charity event, Derby Days, was another lesson, this time in activism. Many women on campus thought one contest in the weeklong event, the Lip Synch night of choreographed dances, was sexist, and were uncomfortable that events were held in the fraternity house, with winners determined by elder Sigma Chis. The dances I remember and participated in were choreographed by the sororities themselves, and high school pep rally-esque. If they were ever any more salacious than that, it’s because it was college, and some people like to push the envelope.
Still, we quickly implemented the changes recommended by the sorority council after a campus-wide survey. We moved the events into public forums, placed faculty on the judging panels, and Derby Days became more popular than ever. I don’t think the loudest opponents ever checked in to see their changes in action. Sometimes it seems reformers are really looking for eradication.
Mostly, though, being in a fraternity was about friendship. Not brotherhood—brotherhood is an ideal, and ‘ideal’ is an adult word for ‘fairytale’. It’s a lie you tell to guys looking to join the fraternity during rush, and to yourself during college, when you’re wrapped up in how important and significant everything is. Not everyone in the fraternity was a friend, and there was no blind loyalty and solidarity; respect, though, was nearly universal.
So was support, in tough times. Some of my most heartening memories from college involve fraternity brothers, guys with whom I was friendly but not close friends, being there when I needed someone. You could count on honest advice, and in the very worst times, a dry shoulder.
When I was deciding whether or not to write this piece, I surveyed a dozen or so friends from my fraternity, soliciting their thoughts. Their advice was almost universally discouraging—the PR battle was lost by fraternities years ago, they said, and there’s little to be gained. You’ll only throw gas on the fire.
To a man, though, the messages ended with some variation of this: “Whatever you decide to do, we support you. We know you’ll do us proud.”
Nothing in this world can be all things to all people. Not everyone likes fraternities, but joining one was absolutely the right choice for me, as it is for thousands of young men each year.
Almost a decade later, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.