A Self-Imposed Exile: Independents at W&L
Ben Whedon (’18)-
For years now, The W&L Spectator has been one of the most ardent defenders of the Greek system at this University. Ironic considering that the overwhelming majority of the current staff are actually independents. There are several reasons for this, but chief among them is that, despite not being a part of it, a few of us who are independents can see the substantial value that Greek Life has for the students that participate in it. From my experience, that places us in the minority within our respective demographic. In the three years that have passed since the rush season of my freshman year, I have had numerous conversations with both independent and Greek students about the supposed social divide that exists between these camps. Almost everyone seems to agree that there is a problem, but I’ve found no two people who agree on exactly what the problem is or how we might reasonably address it. It’s a complicated issue to be sure, but here’s my attempt to do exactly that. I do want to be clear that this is based on my experience and interactions with other independents and is thus just one man’s assessment.
I will start by outlining my experience with the Greek system and why I am not in a fraternity. The long and short of it is simple: I didn’t get in anywhere. During the Fall of 2014, I attended most rush events for three different fraternities. I made an honest effort and got to know the guys at these places, but they ultimately decided that I wouldn’t be a good fit for their social groups. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, they were completely right. Like many students who ultimately choose to remain independent, I came into W&L with some negative preconceived notions about fraternities and was not entirely comfortable with the drinking culture here. While I was still willing to go out and meet people at parties, but these notions restricted my view towards the whole thing. I only looked at fraternities based on superficial characteristics like their average GPA or what the drinking culture was like. How well I liked the guys was of course a factor, but a far less significant one than it should have been. You may laugh, but a lot more freshman approach the rush process this way than you might expect.
That Winter term was pretty rough. Many of my friends from the first term either disappeared entirely or just didn’t have time for me because of pledgeship. I was not content with the situation and wanted to try again. One fraternity reached out to me when pledgeship was over hoping to pick up a few recruits in the spring. I enthusiastically went to their events and they kept inviting me back. We all seemed to get along pretty well but, without much explanation, they chose to vote me down. Moving on to sophomore year, I still had rush in mind to some degree. I went out much more regularly and went to parties I would have never considered attending before. I got to know a wide variety of people and am genuinely better for those relationships. Whenever the subject of joining the fraternity came up however, I found that most places weren’t open to the idea of sophomore rush at all. I was not happy about it, but I eventually had to give up on the idea of being part of the Greek system. Instead, I chose to engage more with people and not to let my independent status hinder my social life.
It is an incredibly small proportion of students who try and fail to rush anywhere. Mine is an especially extreme case, having failed multiple times. No one has more cause to be bitter about this than me, but I quickly discovered that it was not the social death sentence I thought it was. While I got past it, I discovered that the bitterness runs thickest in those who never exposed themselves to Greek students for the same assumptions that clouded my first rush season. Most independents either make a minimal effort to rush and decide against it or never give it a chance in the first place. They remain entrenched in their preconceived outlooks on the entire social scene. As such, they don’t make a strong effort to meet other kinds of students and never gain reason to change their perspectives.
As I started branching out socially, I ran into some surprisingly vehement opposition from my independent friends. I’d constantly get asked why I felt the need to go out. Why did I want friends who would only talk to me while drunk? Why did I want to be a part of a system that excluded me? Why would I be friends with THOSE people? Those were some of the milder questions. I was truly taken aback by the hostility from my friends over this issue. I regularly found myself defending my Greek friends from the criticisms of my independent ones, and it became impossible to bring them together. In short, I had to keep my friend groups separate. How absurd is that?
While this a generalization I admit, there seems to be a pervasive mentality of victimhood amongst the independent community. Despite the fact that most independents make the choice to not go Greek, there is a common belief that the Greek system actively works to keep them from succeeding socially. With some, I’ve encountered the notion that abolishing the fraternities and sororities would suddenly render them popular socialites. The only barriers to this ascension are these artificial social groups that keep people from realizing just how awesome these excluded people are. This is wrong.
So, what are the tangible problems independents face? They all disagree but there are some common themes. Let’s take them one at a time.
1) They don’t have as many opportunities to meet people as the Greeks students do.
This is a complaint that I hear a lot from independents and it is entirely unfounded. Maybe they don’t want to hop on Traveller and socialize at a crowded party. I can understand that but that’s not the only way to meet people. There are plenty of extracurricular activities on campus that are conducive to making new friends and creating social groups, not to mention classes. Ultimately, a person’s success socially on W&L’s campus depends entirely on his or her own efforts. If you don’t reach out to other people, you can’t be surprised when they don’t come to you.
2) They aren’t welcome at the events put on by fraternities.
I can understand why people might think this, but it is entirely untrue. When people bring this up with me, I always ask if they have ever tried to attend a fraternity party or if they have been thrown out of one. The answer is always “no” to both. When I started going out, I had a simple MO: get on Traveller, get off where the bulk of people do. It works pretty well to find the fun place that night. It also has the effect of taking you to a totally random location with a different fraternity almost every time. I have not been thrown out once.
The only officially exclusive events are the first two hours of a mixer and formals. Everything else is open and even those “closed” events are flexible. I’ve been to plenty of mixers before 10:00 because friends invited me. Even for Fancy Dress this year, I went to the pre-dance cocktail party at one fraternity because a friend texted me to come over. I came in without a date and without a member of the fraternity with me. Not one person said a thing about it.
3) Date functions and major weekend events are more difficult.
This I understand completely and consider fair. It’s of course easier to invite someone to a big weekend or a dance when you have a built-in social venue or event to which you can take your date. I’ve certainly sat around bored on an event weekend before the band party (again, an open event) started. For that though, things like Homecoming or Christmas Weekend are still rush events. Independents who chose not to go to these events chose not to participate. As for dances, this is pretty easy to get around. Go with a group to a restaurant beforehand.
4) There isn’t enough for independents to do on campus on their own.
I’m really amazed by how often this comes up in discussion. There isn’t enough for independents to do in Lexington?! I’m not going to give a long list of suggestions here but the suggestion that there is a dearth of activities available to independents is absurd. Moreover, let’s talk about the considerable effort the school expends on creating alternative social programming for independents like Friday Underground or the HUB. Remember the band party at Third Year that no one went to? Independents are the target of more expended dollars and effort than any other group on campus.
There is a really big problem with this approach though. First, most of these events are seriously underattended. When something is marketed as an alternative option or targeted at independents, it is immediately billed as being like an “anti-prom” which does not appeal to Greeks and discourages any mixing between the groups. When I talk to independents about these scheduled events, they pretty consistently claim to want more of them while simultaneously lamenting that they never mix with Greek social groups.
These types of programs have a crucial flaw: they assume that independents are a cohesive group, that they all know each other and are all friends. It doesn’t work like that. When the school creates these venues for independents, they only reinforce the notion that they are a distinct yet separate group from fraternities and sororities. More of these events will not solve the problem. They will exacerbate it. The more independents consign themselves to venues where there is next to no chance of mixing with Greek students, the more they consent to being labeled as “others.” Yet, not only do they seem okay with that, they clamor for more. Many appear content to seclude themselves from the Greek community while remaining bitter about its exclusivity.
I am not unsympathetic to these concerns. I just think that most of them are based on false assumptions that many independents have not tried to challenge. Ultimately, it takes one’s own conscious effort to improve his or her social standing. It is entirely possible to become socially successful as an independent. Just follow the example of our recently-elected EC President. Moreover, you do not even have to jump into the party scene if you are not comfortable with it. I can think of one very well-known and well-liked gentleman who leads the Sunday Night Worship program here. I can’t claim to have ever seen him out a party yet, but by simply walking through school with him the esteem with which the community regards him becomes self-evident.
There is not going to be any magic solution to the gap between independents and fraternities. It’s certainly not going to be an administrative effort to create alternative program. It is going to be a very slow process that requires effort from both camps and frankly, a lot more from the independents, if intermingling is what they want. Almost every social event that occurs on campus, be it Greek or independent, is open to anyone. On the part of the Greek system, they could admittedly do a better job of making that known. They also might consider opening rush to more sophomores. Some people, admittedly few, change their minds the following year and would love the opportunity to rush during their sophomore year. On the part of the independents, its going to require them to take social risks and meet people who are wildly different from themselves. Whether an independent student ultimately joins a Greek social group is up to him or her, but the opportunities are there. They are incredibly welcoming people who would love to get to know you. Give them a chance. To those independents who say that the Greeks never reach out to them, they do. Ever year, the fraternities and sororities go to considerable effort to reach out to people and bring them into their social groups. It is called rush.