The Oldest Sister

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

by Jana Mathews  |  illustration by Martin Haake

The Oldest Sister

Like many women at Rollins, I joined a sorority during my first year. In most ways, my experience in the Greek system has been typical: I have a “big,” I participate in service projects and chapter events, and I attend all the crush parties and formals. The only difference between me and the rest of the members of my pledge class is that when I joined Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII) in the spring of 2011, I wasn’t an 18-year-old freshman but a 30-something college professor.

Those aren’t the only reasons why I am the last person you would expect to find hanging out at a sorority house—I am also a soccer mom who embodies all of my genre’s stereotypes: My purse is littered with candy wrappers and arcade tokens; I know the location of every McDonald’s PlayPlace in the greater Orlando area; and, on school nights, I am in bed by nine. As one of my former students wryly put it, my personal life is where fun goes to die.

While the unlikelihood of my sorority membership makes for a good chuckle, the irony of it is precisely why it works. When I roll into the sorority house in my snazziest pair of mom jeans, no one accuses me of trying to be 19 again. And when I ask what’s up with the monogrammed pins, finger snapping, recruitment skits, and excessive use of glitter, everyone knows that I’m not pretending to be stupid—I really am that clueless. I did my undergraduate work at a university without a Greek system. The upside is that my ignorance of fraternity and sorority culture renders me completely nonthreatening. While I run the show in my classroom, I am clearly the student in the sorority house. Needless to say, this role reversal has given rise to circumstances that bear all the trappings of a television sitcom.

Of course, I didn’t come to Rollins desiring to hone in on my students’ extracurricular activities. My interest in sororities stemmed from an unexpected surge in one of the most primal of human emotions: jealousy. As a new assistant professor, the first thing I noticed about Rollins students was how much of their personal property was embossed with Greek letters. Fraternities and sororities are a big deal on campus, but I wondered what exactly about it is so appealing that it attracts a whopping 35 percent of the student body at Rollins—especially when 10 percent is the national average.

As a teacher of medieval British literature (a subject that doesn’t exactly sell itself to the masses), I couldn’t help but fantasize about a world in which 35 percent of the Rollins student body clamored to study Beowulf and Chaucer. After one particularly rocky class during which half of my students basically confessed that they would rather guzzle rat poison than read another poem written in Middle English, the horrible truth dawned on me: The problem wasn’t with my students; it was with me. I couldn’t expect my students to care about something that was important to me if I didn’t show any interest in what mattered to them.

That’s when I decided to become fraternity and sorority life’s biggest faculty fan.

Unfortunately, I am pretty sure that is also how I introduced myself to the sorority member who I encountered in the basement of Olin Library one evening. The woman—who was using a laptop with an AOII sticker plastered across the front—did not see me coming until it was too late. Monica would tell me later that she found it slightly weird when I slid into the chair across the table from her and began asking her the same set of questions that one would pose to a spaceship full of aliens: Where did you come from? How many of you are there? What do you want?

Fortunately, Monica was able to overlook my lack of social grace. The two-hour conversation that followed culminated with an invitation to attend one of her sorority’s upcoming chapter meetings. My attendance at that meeting—and several other chapter events in subsequent weeks—led to an invitation that took me by surprise. The Rollins chapter of AOII had solicited and received formal approval from their national headquarters to initiate me as an alumna member of their organization. Usually, these kinds of membership requests are processed by a local alumni chapter of the sorority, but since I was affiliated with Rollins and knew so many of its active collegiate members, I had been given special permission to join the chapter’s current pledge class.

“Are you in?” she asked.

Once I stopped laughing, I realized that she was serious. As I weighed the choice before me, I found myself hovering between thinking “Why in the world would I do this?” and “Why not?” Ultimately, I was swayed to acceptance by a combination of burning curiosity and the faint hope that some of Rollins’ undergraduate population would be inspired to step out of their academic comfort zones if they saw me orbiting so far outside of my own social universe.

“Despite what you think, joining a sorority is not all fun and games,” Monica warned. I didn’t know what she was talking about until the next morning, when she dropped a 3-inch binder on my desk.

“What’s this?” I asked, casually flipping through the pages.

Monica explained that before any woman is eligible to join a sorority, she has to learn about the organization’s history, values, and traditions. What she had given me was a study guide that would help me prepare for a sorority entrance exam.

At the mention of the word “exam,” I grimaced. One of the things I have learned since becoming a professor is that I like administering exams significantly more than I like taking them. Monica, as it turned out, was not interested in my personal preferences or my excuses.

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