The Oldest Sister

Lessons abound when a professor becomes a student of sorority life.

by Jana Mathews  |  illustration by Martin Haake

“But I didn’t have time to study! I had a gazillion midterms to grade,” I whined after failing the pretest a few weeks later.

Monica rolled her eyes and slid the study guide across the table. “I can’t help you if you don’t help yourself,” she said smugly. The pithy saying struck me as vaguely familiar. Later that evening, I remembered it was something that I say all the time to students who don’t put enough time and attention into my course assignments.

It’s slightly awkward, being schooled by a student.

Sadly, it wasn’t the last time I dropped the ball. I was so worried about passing the exam (which I did, eventually) that I completely forgot that I needed a solid white dress for the initiation ceremony. What I pulled together (I’ll spare you the details, but in my defense, what mother of small children owns anything white?) is probably why Monica insisted on previewing my dress for the spring formal.

It is also why, after bringing my husband as my date/co-chaperone, women started finding their way to my office when they needed to be reminded of the kind of romantic relationships they deserve. The college years are a wonderful, magical time when things begin to gel; but as we all know, before one’s life comes together, it usually falls apart. Having cultivated a trusting relationship with so many sorority women outside the classroom means that I can often help them muster the confidence necessary to ward off disaster before it strikes. These many inspiring—and sometimes heartbreaking—mentoring experiences have changed fundamentally the way I see my role as a teacher and serve as a poignant reminder that the most important work any of us will perform in our careers is often that which lies outside of our job descriptions.

An additional benefit of attracting so many people to my office is that they can’t help but see the inherent coolness of my collection of medieval artifacts. I’m thrilled to report that conversations about rat poison are on the decline.

One of the unexpected but happy gifts of joining a sorority is that it has provided me with a more nuanced perspective of my field. After going through the sorority initiation process, I now have a relevant vocabulary to assign to the relationship between Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice. Similarly, watching half a dozen women ditch their dates in order to spend their senior formal comforting a distraught sister in a hotel bathroom goes a long way in explaining why many medieval nunneries had extensive waiting lists.

I graduated from college at 19, was married at 20, and spawned half a basketball team before graduating from young adulthood. As a result, I will probably always be slightly traumatized by some of the things that fall under the rubric of the typical college experience. However, what has surprised me the most about the sorority experience is the strength of the bond between its sisters, a bond from which I naively assumed I would be excluded because of my age, my profession, and my personal history.


A week or so after I passed the dreaded sorority test, I arrived on campus to find a mysterious basket outside my office door. Unsure if it was meant for me, I didn’t touch it for half a day. When my curiosity became unmanageable, I brought the basket inside my office and lined up its contents on top of my desk. It was obviously a themed basket, but based on its contents—some 20,000 calories worth of edible goodies—it was hard to tell if the giver really liked me or wanted me dead. The answer came in the form of a sorority sister, who popped her head around my door. “It’s from your big,” she explained.

In sorority culture, family trees are formed by generations of veteran sorority members (“big sisters” or “bigs”) and new members (“little sisters” or “littles”). The role of bigs is to serve as stewards over new members and help shepherd them through the highs and lows of the collegiate experience. In their ideal form, a big is her little’s leader, mentor, teacher, counselor, ally, and most fierce and loyal advocate.

As I reflect upon my sorority family, my thoughts turn to my own daughter, who, at the age of 10, is bound up in that nasty strain of prepubescent drama in which one can never be pretty, smart, or cool enough. As I watch her struggle, I have thought more than once that what she needs is a sorority and, particularly, a big who will see her differences as strengths, not liabilities. Every woman, regardless of her age or position in life, needs a friend like that—one who will lift you as she climbs, one who will read you the riot act for not studying for the sorority entrance exam but then spend hours afterward tutoring you in the campus center.

Monica has done something more important than showing me the ropes of AOII; she has offered me her unconditional acceptance and support. There are not many people who would claim a middle-aged mom/college professor as her little, but Monica shows me off like a trophy. These kinds of acts of love lie at the heart of the sorority experience at Rollins.

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