The University of Wisconsin-Madison student housing scene is peppered with run-down apartments, decade-old houses and historic dorm buildings. Yet, tucked away behind the bustling State Street businesses lies Langdon street, a neighborhood lined with picturesque mansions, a lakeside view and dozens of students involved in one overarching organization: Greek life.
Participating in Greek life is typically known to be a sizable expenditure — choosing to live in a fraternity house can cost anywhere from $4,200 to $18,000 a year, according to the Interfraternity Council. According to the Panhellenic Association, living in a sorority house can range from $7,700 to $11,980 a year. In addition to live-in costs, semesterly membership dues, which also range in price, are required of all members.
But for UW-Madison senior Maya Cherins, living in a sorority house during her sophomore year presented challenges that were greater than cost.
Cherins said that her experiences in the sorority house created a detrimental situation for her mental health, particularly because conversations among members were often centered around diet and eating disorder culture.
“I remember there were weeks leading up to [spring break] where people would talk about their spring break diets,” Cherins said. “And I wasn’t on a spring break diet, because that’s not who I am.”
Cherins was constantly surrounded by such discussions, and she noted that the lack of alone time while living in the house contributed to the negative experience.
“It was just really hard to be in that environment where everyone's comparing themselves the entire time,” she said.
Cherins eventually decided to drop her sorority at the end of her sophomore year after being sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everybody was devastated to be sent home because of COVID and everything,” Cherins said. “But at the same time, I was like, the sooner I can get out of this house, the better. I just thought it was a pretty toxic environment. “
Both Cherins and senior Molly Kehoe, who is also a former member of Greek life, said they were able to meet their best friends through Greek life. However, they said the social atmosphere of their sororities also fostered drama and cliques between women.
Social media often contributes to problems of exclusion, according to Kehoe.
“I think it just creates a lot of toxicity to pretend like you have the greatest friend group of all time,” Kehoe said. “The whole narrative of, ‘I absolutely love these lifelong sisters’ — I think it's just a bad message to send that you have this perfect friendship with all these people. That's not realistic, and it makes people feel like shit.”
Despite advertising itself as a place for diversity and inclusion, Kehoe said the Greek life system in general systematically excludes many women, which can contribute to feelings of cliquiness within the houses.
“It’s very ‘one size fits some,’” Kehoe said. “If you’re not white, wealthy and straight, it's not meant for you.”
‘A heavy drinking scene’
The promise of a buzzing social life draws many to become involved with Greek life, according to Cherins and Kehoe.
“I think the social aspect of it is great if that's the scene you want to be in, because it's very much a heavy drinking scene,” Cherins said.
Prior to living in her sorority house, Cherins enjoyed the social aspect of Greek life. However, she said the pressure to frequently attend parties and drink created a stressful situation upon living in the house.
“By the time I was living in the house, I felt like there was definitely the pressure to go out and go to these fraternities and get drunk and all this stuff,” Cherins said. “It just felt like a horrible cycle.”
For Kehoe, a similar pressure made her feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in her sorority due to her introverted personality.
“Beyond the appearance on social media, I felt like I had to embody this persona that I wasn't,” Kehoe said. “And they definitely don't tell you that during recruitment.”
Aside from the peer pressure, the environment of fraternity parties is one that has become associated with sexual assault and rape culture over the years on a national scale.
“I've known way too many people in Greek life and in college in general that have been survivors of sexual assault,” Cherins said. “All of which have been survivors of sexual assault to people in fraternities. And it's just disgusting.”
Kehoe reiterated that the atmosphere creates pressure and discomfort.
“It’s just this blind reality of people trying to force you into social environments that they perceive to be good for their own social standing, when it's not for everyone else,” Kehoe added.
The average GPA for fraternities and sororities (including multicultural organizations) is a 3.533 in comparison to the all campus GPA average of 3.527, according to UW-Madison Student Affairs.
Yet, Cherins said the highly social atmosphere of her sorority house made studying difficult.
“I ended up always being in [the sorority house study room] with friends,” Cherins said. “So it was a hard environment to actually get work done. If I wanted to do work at the house, it had to be work that I could do while being social.”
On the other hand, Kehoe said the ability to easily form study groups based on sorority membership was one of the benefits of being involved with her organization.
“I could just message on our Facebook and be like, ‘Is anyone taking this class?’ And then instantly have a study group,” Kehoe said. “ Even though I didn't even know those people, I would just become friends with them by nature of knowing their names.”
Current sorority member and junior Kate O’Leary said her sorority has allowed her to thrive academically based on the academic benefits offered to chapter members through study plans.
“Academics are well supported through my sorority having different study plans based on academic achievement and standings within the chapter,” O’Leary said. “Having mandatory academic study halls, tracking my study hours, and having specific sponsors for older members with a similar major who I can rely on allow me to achieve my goals with grades and career trajectories.”
A larger issue
After dropping their sororities, Cherins and Kehoe, along with senior Maggie Jay, published an article in Bell Magazine calling for the abolishment of traditional Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association Greek life.
Throughout the piece, Cherins, Kehoe and Jay discuss the problematic history of Greek life, including racist roots, hazing traditions, sexual assault in Greek life and the perpetuation of eating disorder culture in sororities.
The article ultimately calls to abolish — rather than reform—Greek life at UW-Madison because the national system promotes an exclusionary environment, historically rooted in white supremacy.
Cherins emphasized that while UW-Madison Greek life may be unproblematic in itself, the overall system of Greek life historically perpetuates racism, classism and sexism.
“The point isn't that I had a terrible experience,” Kehoe said. “The point is that it's a terrible system. And you should be able to step outside of yourself and say, ‘I care about the system and the way it impacts people outside of it, more than I care about my own social life.’”
Overall, Kehoe said the issues within Greek life houses often outweigh the positive aspects.
“I think you'll find fun, amazing social people in Greek life, but there are so many other ways to do it,” Kehoe said. “It's expensive and it's problematic. So if you can avoid it, just don't do it.”