Unfair as it may be, the bewildered look of Bluto Blutarsky, the infamous fraternity brother portrayed by John Belushi, has become the face of collegiate Greek life.
Kegs, beer pong, loud music, and toga parties, depicted in popular films like “Animal House” and “Old School” have forged a public perception of debauchery and immaturity regarding these traditional organizations.
All of this detracts, however, from what fraternities and sororities truly are, an avenue that provides their respective schools with leaders and a tremendous amount of community service and philanthropy.
Greek life at St. John’s University was instituted in 1956 and today serves exactly this purpose and so much more.
“We’re very good at social things,” said Amelia Barbagallo, president of the Panhellenic Council, the governing body of the school’s 10 sororities, “but that’s because we’re so good at everything else as well.”
“Because we’re so involved in everything else we’re also very involved socially,” Barbagallo said. “It’s just one of the aspects highlighted in our creeds, our missions, and our mottos.”
So what about the idea that frats and sororities are nothing but party animals with grade point averages that look like a barely legal BAC?
“It just doesn’t resound with me,” said Barbagallo. “People say that is all that they do, but it’s just not possible because if that was all we did there wouldn’t be so many accomplishments coming out of the Greek community. I do think that it has created somewhat of a double-edged sword. You are going to get picked on about the social aspect.”
In fact it would be ridiculous to expect the Greek population at St. John’s of over 700 to have a collective 9:00 p.m. bedtime and an affinity for milk and cookies instead of the usual college meal.
“I would worry if they didn’t have a social life,” said Mary Pelkowski, Director of Leadership Development. “That’s part of the experience. That’s college.”
Though Columbia and NYU both have housing arrangements for their fraternities and sororities, St. John’s continues to offer the University Center Commons as the main area where the groups congregate.
Though this is not an ideal situation it certainly has not hindered a very vibrant element of campus life.
“I used to think that it would be cool to have a sorority house,” said Barbagallo. “But as a member of a sorority I don’t think that it detracts from the experience because we actually get to leave some of our sorority stuff behind when we go home.”
Without the stereotypical houses, Greek Life at St. John’s has taken on a role more consistent with the school’s mission, a role of service.
“The amount of community service, not only money raised but also hours spent, amazes me,” said Pelkowski. “In this small community they’re always the first to show up. The Greeks live it. If there is an event that is philanthropy-based I find that it is usual Greek driven.”
Pelkowski, who has worked closely with Greek Life while at St. John’s, stated that with the Winter Carnival this year five out of the seven organizations volunteering are from Greek Life.
“There’s still room for improvement,” said Pelkowski. “It would be great if we had rocks on campus painted with Greek letters. I think it would be great if we had a University Center where the banners fly down over the Greek area like it does at Hofstra.”
Fraternities and sororities at St. John’s integrate exactly what organizations should be on this campus. Their members are dedicated, something that can possibly be attributed to the Rush process, and are also active in basically every part of campus life.
Greek Life has indeed received a raw deal thanks to negative news emanating from hazing issues, drunken driving incidents, and underage drinking problems. In my four years at St. John’s I have encountered a tremendous amount of apathy, and a concerted lack of pride, but not in the Greek community.
This past year Colgate University in upstate New York forced ten fraternities and sororities to sell their houses to the university. Now living in school-owned buildings, the organizations are forced to register all parties in advance, and the school’s private catering company, complete with ID-checking security guards, must run events where alcohol is served.
“We don’t care what students do outside the classroom, so long as that experience is educational,” Adam Weinberg, Colgate’s dean, told U.S News and World Report. “In the old Greek system, there were too many wasted educational moments.”
What Weinberg seems to forget is that Greek Life formerly had very positive relationships with university administrations as they assumed responsibility for feeding, housing, and entertaining students long before offices of student life and campus activities became part of modern colleges.
This deterioration in relationships and perception seems to correspond with the New York drinking age being raised to 21 in 1984, and how campus social life began to shift further toward Greek Life as a source of entertainment. When this occurred universities undoubtedly began looking for ways in which they would not be liable for any problems.
This is precisely why Colgate now offers theme dorms, including Peace Studies House, Ecology House, and Asia Interest House.
Many schools, including the University of South Florida, George Washington University, and the University of Connecticut, have built Greek villages with dorm-style living for frats and sororities, while others have banned private fraternal societies altogether.
Some schools have entirely eliminated their Greek system, just like Maine’s Bowdoin College did five years ago.
Too bad for Bowdoin and the others, they are most definitely missing out.