The chanting starts a little after 10 p.m. It echoes past the row of sororities on Walnut Street near the University of Pennsylvania, where I scamper in my skirt and tights to join the line of girls shivering outside one of the houses
“Penguin huddle!,” suggests one of the girls with a shriek. She and her Canada Goose-clad friends converge and hug each other, perfume mixing and heels clattering against the sidewalk while they chat about the last house they visited. “They seemed really sweet, but they have such a Jappy reputation!” I overhear.
In a few minutes a Rho Gamma—an upperclassman girl assigned to help with rush—shepherds us into alphabetical order. I complain about the cold with the fellow freshmen sandwiched on either side of me, but there’s barely any time to talk before we’re crammed into the house. The chanting grows louder and louder—“S-I-G-M-A, Sigma Kappa, One Heart One Way!”—and I struggle to keep track of my thoughts, to remember why I am doing this.
I’m not a sorority girl; I have no interest in joining a sorority. But I don’t want to miss out on an experience I’ve heard described as everything from Disney World to hell on earth: rushing at Playboy’s number one party school.
I am one of 632 girls rushing Penn’s nine sororities. That makes me one of 632 PNMs (Potential New Members) who endure 30-degree nights in high heels, who flounce around from house to house and desperately attempt to seem interesting in the hopes their chosen sororities will invite them back.
It’s a “mutual selection process”, says Meghan Gaffney, the Associate Director of Penn’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and proud Phi Mu. During a convocation ceremony on the first night of rush, Gaffney offers us a wide range of advice, from avoiding colds (“If you get sick, it’s gonna be really painful”) to to letting go of sorority stereotypes (“If you think being in a sorority means going out every weekend, please leave”). We watch a cluster of girls on the Panhellenic Council, the Executive Board for sorority life at Penn, chirp on stage about the “magical journey” we’re about to undergo before they pull out a selfie stick, snap away, and say they’ll post the photos on Facebook.
Vaguely or ominously, the term “The Process” is repeated over and over again. We’re told we we will be “Released from The Process” if we talk to boys or consume alcohol during rush, rules which are broken by every single person I encounter. We’re also told some of us will choose to leave “The Process.” More times than I can count in my notebook, we are told we need to “T the P,” also known as “Trust the Process.”
Gaffney assures us that we’ll end up where we’re supposed to be, as long as we “spend as much time authentically being yourselves.” I am less certain.
Only about twenty-five percent of Penn students choose to go Greek (which is different from how many are offered spots). However, during the six days of rush, “The Process” is inescapable. All conversations seem to point back to how rush is going, how we’re liking it, how we never saw ourselves as sorority girls until now.
Even those who don’t rush get swept up in “The Process.” Caroline, a freshman from New Jersey, didn’t rush for financial reasons. At Penn, first semester sorority dues range from $550 to $900. Yet, despite the expenses Caroline would have incurred, she feels like she missed out on something. “I would have gotten to meet a ton of people,” she says. “I should have gone through with it.”
Finances aren’t the only factor that bar some Penn women from rushing. “I don’t think a lot of black people rush,” say Carrie, a black student from the Bronx who opted out of “The Process.” But, she also adds, “I kinda wish I did it.”
The overwhelming majority of girls I talked to throughout rush were white and relatively affluent. There are examples to the contrary, of course: an African-American freshman tells me on the night of her bid party that joining Greek life is one of the best decisions she’s ever made. Penn’s Panhellenic Council also introduced a scholarship fund in 2013 that’s helped cover sorority dues for 12 women, though that’s a relative drop in the bucket in terms of the Greek life community.
The flow of money towards sororities doesn’t end after rush. Greek life at Penn means being financially secure enough to order an outfit for the jungle themed bid party held at a club downtown, to buy presents for your little sister, and to pay for dinners, coffee, and froyo during “dates” with your new sisters. It means corresponding with the image your sorority perpetuates and matching your sisters dollar-for-dollar to achieve the status or identity that comes with two or three often-mispronounced Greek letters. It means, as Michelle, a Pakistani freshman, tells me, forgetting “just how bizarre the whole process is.”
Let me stress, it is bizarre. Over the course of rush, I repeat where I’m from, what I’m studying, and where I live on campus at least a hundred times. Midway through each conversation, another sister will walk over, ask what we are talking about, and step in as a replacement. I cycle through about four sisters during the hour at each house before someone flicks the lights off and on, and it’s time to tramp back into the cold.
Not every round is exactly the same—but there is a common expectation, or rather pressure, to simultaneously stand out and be likeable. After all, the sororities will only invite a certain number of girls back—and with six hundred some odd girls searching for their place at Penn, competition can be stiff. The Panhellenic Council and Gaffney did not respond to my request for information regarding what percentage of women who attempt “The Process” receive sorority bids by the time this story was posted.
The afternoon before Bid Night, Gaffney calls me to say I haven’t been offered a place in a sorority, something that neither shocks nor saddens me. Many girls at Penn rush but don’t pledge. Shelly, a freshman from Tennessee, dropped out the last night of rush because, “sorority life wasn’t for me,” she says. Like me, Shelly rushed for the experience—to understand why so many of my friends value the rush process.
And I do understand that now. As I scroll through a Facebook newsfeed of girls proclaiming “APhi for me!” and “Chi O’s the way to go!” and as one of my best friends tells me how she “came home” to SK, I understand that sorority life can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
But there’s an aura of fakeness and an inherent sexism involved with rush that make me uncomfortable. While I huddled with strangers to keep warm outside the sorority houses, clusters of boys stumbled by, drunk from beer pong with brothers at the frats they were rushing. Some were supposedly scurrying off to a casino on a yacht. An “elite” frat on campus was rumored to have taken rushes to Puerto Rico for five days. The guy friends I wasn’t allowed to talk to during rush were having the times of their lives. Meanwhile, I was constantly worried about how my hair looked.
The longer rush wore on, the more my aversion to “The Process” intensified. I didn’t want to sacrifice time with my real friends for “sisterly bonding.” I didn’t want to stress over which necklace to wear to prove I’m a worthwhile person. And I certainly didn’t want a handful of girls I’d just met determining whether my ponytail or cocktail dress or the way I said hello made me tier-one material. I’m happy for everyone who found a home during rush. But as I walk through campus, I know that Penn, a hub of both Greek life and intellectual discourse, is where I belong—just not in one of its sorority house.