Elon Greek life creates communities, divides diversity

Elon's Greek Life residential area. Photo by Dalton Cox.
Elon’s Greek Life residential area. Photo by Dalton Cox.

by Dalton Cox

Fact. At Elon University in fall 2014, there were more White members of historically Black Greek organizations, than there were Black members of Panhellenic and Interfraternity organizations.

Fact. Both Elon faculty and fraternity members reported that even though fraternities frequently accept gay men, these organizations have avoided publicly advocating for their gay brothers’ civil rights.

Fact. A recent student survey, described by Elon’s Dean of Multicultural Affairs Randy Williams, included “a surprising number” of responses that characterized Elon’s Greek system as creating divisions and a more segregated approach to student life.

Fact. All students and faculty interviewed for this article reported their opinion that the benefits of the Greek system outweigh the potential negative consequences.

Digits depict system that dominates and divides

Over the past decade, Elon University has seen its enrollment increase by 23 percent. Like many other colleges and universities, Elon has also witnessed the percentage of students involved in Greek life rise as well. Approximately 40 percent of Elon undergraduates are currently members of a fraternity or sorority.

Click here for an interactive version of this graphic 

For Elon’s fraternities, disciplinary measures imposed by the university or an organization’s national administration have slowed the increase of student membership over the past decade; however, the percentage of women who undergo the sorority recruitment process has risen 55 percent since 2005. Currently, over half of Elon’s female undergraduates are involved in Greek life. For Elon’s female population, Greek life involves the majority.

“It makes Elon feel a bit smaller,” said Shana Plasters, director of Greek life at Elon. “Students are looking for a niche, a group with which they feel comfortable. There are a lot of different ways for students to meet that need. For many, a Greek letter organization is one of those ways.”

For others, the appeal to join Greek life comes from a desire to be inducted in to an exclusive social and professional network.

“At Elon we talk about being this community,” said Randy Williams, Elon’s dean of multicultural affairs. “It sort of shut people down if they’re not in Greek life; you can’t go to a party for example, if you’re not a brother or sister in an organization or don’t have a friend there.”

The diversity of Elon’s student population is not growing at the same rate as Greek membership. Though Elon’s Hispanic community has risen approximately 3 percent in the past decade, Elon’s African-American community has decreased by about 1 percent. In Elon’s current undergraduate population, approximately 82 percent of students identify as White, 6 percent as African-American, 5 percent as Hispanic-American, and 2 percent as Asian-American.

Though diversity is less represented in Elon’s Greek system, it does not appear to be exceedingly disproportionate to the demographics of Elon’s overall student population – not until one examines diversity across individual Greek councils.

According to statistics provided by the Elon Office of Greek Life, 91 percent of students in Panhellenic and Interfraternity organizations initially identified as White. Another 3 percent of these students identified as Hispanic-American, 2 percent as Asian-American, and 4 percent as “mixed race.” Only 1 percent of these students identified as African-American. These percentages exclude members inducted in 2015. These numbers also do not represent members of Elon’s National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), which governs historically Black fraternities and sororities.

Elon hosts six organizations that are part of the NPHC, which collectively have 48 members. In fall 2015, Elon expects to welcome a new sorority, Chi Upsilon Sigma, which will celebrate Hispanic and Latina culture.

Plasters. Photo by Dalton Cox.
Plasters. Photo by Dalton Cox.

In Elon’s NPHC organizations, 90 percent of students initially identified as African-American, 4 percent as “mixed race,” 2 percent as Hispanic-American, and 2 percent as White. According to this data, in fall 2014 there where more White members of historically Black Greek organizations, than there were African-American members of Panhellenic and Interfraternity organizations.

“The more that a group is homogenous, you run the risk that they’re homogenous in their thinking,” Plasters said. “There can be challenges in particular when you talk about having empathy for others who are not necessarily just like you. There are positive aspects to homogenous groups as well. A lot of people join fraternities and sororities to find somewhere they feel comfortable, and part of that is finding people who are like you in a larger community. So what’s the balance?”

Encouraging diversity and connecting communities, ‘what’s the balance?’

Brianna Moragne, Class of 2016, identifies as African-American. During her first year at Elon, Moragne embraced the Panhellenic recruitment process, which concluded in her initiation in to Elon’s chapter of Alpha Xi Delta sorority.

“It’s the place that I felt the most at home with the people who I thought would be most like me,” Moragne said. “I think in that NPHC is a lot smaller and makes things more exclusive. Elon already being a small school, I was looking for something bigger and more involved. One of the biggest benefits of being in AXiD is having so many people that connect with you, but also having so many people that are different than you.”

Nevertheless, Moragne observed that many African-American students approach Panhellenic recruitment with more hesitancy than she did.

“Most people who identify as African American don’t feel as comfortable trying something out where the majority of the population may not look the same as them,” Moragne said. “I think those people are discouraged because they don’t see a broad representation.”

Courtney Vaughn, Class of 2015, joined the NPHC sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha as an alternative to Panhellenic organizations.

“I didn’t necessarily agree with the Panhellenic rush process, which is based on first impressions,” Vaughn said. “I didn’t feel they were not targeting me as a perspective member, but I didn’t feel I would meet the expectations required in the rush process.”

Elon's Greek Life residential area. Photo by Dalton Cox.
Elon’s Greek Life residential area. Photo by Dalton Cox.

Vaughn eventually came to admire the women in Elon’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, as well as the values that the organization aims to embody. She was initiated in to the sorority during her sophomore year.

Vaughn remarked that all of Elon’s Greek organizations are attempting to incorporate diversity more across councils by encouraging collaborative projects and events. Vaughn also expressed the common misconception that historically Black Greek organizations are exclusive to one ethnic group.

“We have a White girl in our chapter, and she lives by what AKA stands for,” Vaughn said. “It’s just a matter of understanding what we stand for. If that rings true with you, then why not go ahead and join?”

Growing up with a younger sibling, Vaughn understands sisterhood. She has come to value the connections that she has made in Alpha Kappa Alpha, both on-campus and worldwide. When Vaughn studied abroad in South Africa, she had the opportunity to bond with a local Alpha Kappa Alpha sister, who was culturally dissimilar but shared a common connection.

To many students that identify as an ethnic minority, NPHC organizations provide a sense of commonality and sanctuary, and reflect a past of minority accomplishment in the face of a historically segregated education system; however, to what extent does this historic segregation create divisions in contemporary academia?

Williams. Photo by Dalton Cox.
Williams. Photo by Dalton Cox.

“In a recent survey, I was surprised by the number of respondents who said that one of the salient roles of Greek life at Elon is that it creates divisions and a more segregationist approach to student life,” Williams said.

Williams is an alumnus of the NPHC fraternity Omega Psi Phi, and a supporter of NPHC organizations in Greek life.

“You can’t dismiss the relationships are formed,” Williams said. “There are some people who are just seeking that. We want to be in a setting where we can just be authentic and genuine. There’s some comfort there and some movement toward better growth and development. I think there is certainly a place for that, just like I think there’s a place in society for historically Black colleges and universities.”

Greeks shun stigma of ‘gay fraternity’

Unlike ethnic minority groups, it is impossible to determine the precise representation of LGBT students within Elon’s Greek system; however, Shana Plasters knows that this demographic is represented.

“In terms of our work in diversity, that’s probably one of the biggest areas for us,” Plasters said. “I will hear from students, ‘I’m out with my brothers, and they’re really cool with that, but my fraternity doesn’t want to be known as the gay fraternity – so they’re not going to publicly take a position – so they’re not going to publicly advocate – so they’re not going to let me be the public face of my fraternity.’ ”

Elon’s Gender and LGBTQIA Center is currently leading “ally training” workshops for Greek organizations, enabling Greek students with the skills to effectively consider the issues of LGBT individuals who are involved in Greek life or who may participate in the recruitment process.

Gianelle. Photo by Dalton Cox.
Gianelle. Photo by Dalton Cox.

Sophomore Zachary Gianelle joined Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity during his first year at Elon. Gianelle underwent the recruitment process not being entirely open about his sexuality; however, his boyfriend at the time was close to several members of the fraternity, and had recommended Gianelle participate in recruitment.

“I found out later that all the guys knew already,” Gianelle said. “I can talk about it with them. They all knew my ex. While we were dating it was all right for him to show up at a party and for us to make out in the corner or the middle of the dance floor. It didn’t matter.”

Despite finding acceptance among the members of his brotherhood, Gianelle knows that not all LGBT students may find such tolerant in Greek life.

Students must deliberately seek diversity

Caroline Anderson, Class of 2015, joined Sigma Kappa sorority during her first year at Elon.

“I don’t think that sororities discriminate based on minority groups,” Anderson said. “But what’s a sorority at Elon? It’s usually a bunch of White girls that show up to a meeting once a week.”

Anderson. Photo by Dalton Cox.
Anderson. Photo by Dalton Cox.

Anderson has intentionally made an effort during her time at Elon to bond with her peers outside of her sorority. She believes this is something that can only be achieved intentionally.

“I’ve looked for opportunities to make friends outside of Greek life,” Anderson said. “A lot of my friends in my sorority only have friends in Greek life. You don’t have to break out of that circle to have a social life, but if you want to make friends outside of that circle you do have to try.”

Shana Plasters agrees with Anderson’s statement.

“We are naturally drawn to people who are like us or to whom we see similarities and experience,” Plasters said. “You have to be intentional to break out of that. Some of our groups are better about that than others. For some, it may be about really exploring their own biases or privilege around race or sexual orientation.”