Imagine this "icebreaker" game: Participants sit in a circle of chairs, and when a characteristic that you possess is shouted, you run to another chair. Whoever is the last one standing loses and must stand in the middle of the circle.
Where are you? The first day of preschool? No, the University of Richmond, training to be a Rho Gamma — a sorority sister tasked with leading a group of impressionable underclasswomen on the quest to their Greek destiny.
But because a certain Greek Goddess — the university's head of Greek life — observed that you took the shortest route to the other chairs throughout the practice icebreaker game, you have apparently betrayed your true colors as "[a threat to the Rho Gamma program, your sorority and the entire Panhellenic Council]." Umm, wasn't the point of the game to not get stuck in the middle?
Apparently not. The game, like the sorority system, isn't so straightforward, which is one reason I chose not to rush. Well, that and the $3,500 price tag and probably similar number of hours of nonsense meetings. And some nasty meetings as well ...
A close friend of mine — the "you" in the icebreaker scenario — wanted the game to change. She wanted to be a Good Gamma. Because, in my opinion, she had been screwed by sisterhood in the past, I thought she was crazy to want to spend another minute on top of the mandatory marathons.
But I sincerely respected her decision to become a Rho Gamma when she told me she wanted to use the position to make the younger girls' experiences with Greek life better. She wanted to make sure they were making the right sorority choices for them and that shyer girls like herself didn't get lost in the fray as she had felt during rush.
But when she contributed these suggestions at Rho Gamma meetings, she said the Greek Goddess shot her down. When she was called into a meeting two weeks ago questioning her commitment to the Rho Gamma program, she politely suggested that these rejections may have been the reason for her questionable silence at later meetings. Goddess told her to grow up — 21-year-olds should not get intimidated.
Well, I'm 21, and I would probably be pretty intimidated by a staff member who once hit a student in the face with a cardboard box at a fraternity party and has garnered such a nasty reputation on the Greek scene that a past opinion editor dedicated one of his columns to her, titled "______ ______ is the devil," according to The Collegian archives.
Goddess characterized Gamma as untrustworthy and malicious for caring enough about her position and persona to seek a second opinion about how she had been doing at meetings from other Rho Gammas, who happened to be her friends. The only reason I know about this is not that she posted it on Gossip Girl or that I caught her looking up atomic-bomb instructions online in the dark of the night as part of her plot to annihilate the Greek system, but because she respected the program enough to be upset about it and tears are hard things to miss.
A few hours after the commitment-questioning meeting, Gamma was kicked out of the program, although to my knowledge she was allowed to keep her Rho-Gamma-monogrammed raincoat and bag.
All because she took the shortest route to other chairs during icebreaker practice, took minor notes during meetings when the important information was e-mailed to them anyway, and wasn't vocal enough when her suggestions usually got shut down and some others in the group spoke even less. Oh, and she forgot to make herself a nametag and decorate it with flowers and rainbows for the fifth meeting, by which point the all of 17 Rho Gammas should have known each other's names anyway. Especially because half of them had been friends to begin with, and, as Goddess said, they are 21 years old, not 4.
Just my criteria for a terrorist too: a "high-risk" person who would endanger the lives of her Rho Gamma group. At 5-foot-6, 120 pounds, this even-keeled, sensitive and sensible girl was the first in her sorority to sign up to be a Rho Gamma and one of the first selected. Sounds like quite the threat to the Greek system to me.
Well, spun a different way, maybe she was. Gamma could be a threat to Greek Life — as it is currently run. What's wrong with the Greek system is people like Goddess who make themselves feel important by excluding others and making them feel bad about themselves.
Giving a leadership position to someone who actually wanted to change the system to make it more inclusive, diminish its cattiness and upgrade its integrity, I guess is a threat. But a threat to Goddess, not to potential new members who would have had a good guide and eventually, with more girls like Gamma, a Greek system they could be proud to join.
According to another article from The Collegian archives, "[Greek Goddess] explains that in her 20 years at Richmond, the most rewarding part of her job has been when she is able to witness students developing from the beginning of their college careers to well after they graduate. She said she tries to help students work out issues for themselves."
By kicking someone out without warning instead of encouraging her to improve by pulling her aside at the first sign of danger — especially when that sign was an undecorated nametag or overly efficient icebreaker route — her rewards must be infinitesimal. Unless she counts the pressure — I mean, help — she gave to the student leader of the program by telling Gamma that it would be up to this peer whether to kick her out. Writing this might add me to the terrorist watch list, but I think the wrong GG got the boot.
When contacted about this incident, Goddess said it was wildly inappropriate to discuss and e-mailed the Rho Gammas instructing them not to talk to me. While continuing to try to get both sides of the story, one question I received was, "What if a Potential New Member picks up The Collegian and reads this?"
Well, that would be the point of a newspaper: to give people the information they need to be self-governing. With rush the first week we get back next semester, I'm not discouraging girls from joining a sorority. I've considered myself better off without it, yet also can't discredit something most of my friends are a part of and have enjoyed.
What troubles me is the discard of the crucial values of independence and empathy, and the rejection of open discussion through intimidation and excommunication. Because it's not just this one meeting — according to another sorority girl, most Greek members dread meeting with Goddess but can't challenge her because they need her approval.
"I don't know anyone who's challenged her and it's worked out," she said. "It's very much spoken about but not in public, and that's not how things should be addressed."
Strong organizations and leaders don't fear and repress opposition and innovation; rather, they thrive on the diversity of ideas and members. So, potential and present members, accept bids and new members as you must. But have the courage to shape the system before the system shapes and silences you, and demand leadership that supports this.