Through the Looking Glass: Frame of Reference
By Alexandra Essey
Published on Friday, November 9, 2012
A few weeks ago, Trinity College passed measures to permanently and significantly alter its Greek system. Every Greek house participating in 2013 spring rush will be required to admit enough women or men to change the house demographic to at least 20 percent of each sex. By 2020, this percentage must be 45. If by fall 2013 any house has failed to reach the preliminary goal, it will be kicked off campus, facing the loss of its house and its school charter. I’m not writing this as member of the Dartmouth Greek Leadership Council, or even as a student who fears the imminent loss of our Greek system, but rather as a girl who used to go to those soon to be coed — or nonexistent — Trinity fraternities and sororities.
I went to Trinity my freshman year, and as evidenced by my choice to transfer to Dartmouth, it was not the idyllic freshman year I had always dreamed of. Trinity is located in one of the worst neighborhoods in Hartford, Conn., one of the poorest cities in the country. The campus, however, is made up of incredibly affluent students: Trinity has one of the lowest rates of financial aid among a similar echelon of schools of higher education. This stark wealth dichotomy has fostered an unbelievably unfriendly and unsafe relationship between the students and the surrounding residents. During my freshman year, we had a six-hour lockdown while the police hunted a gunman on campus. Last year, a student was robbed and beaten to near-death critical condition. The city of Hartford is not a welcoming place for Trinity students, and students are strongly encouraged to stay on campus at all times. Unfortunately, though, on-campus social options are quite limited and almost entirely dependent on three fraternities, and the fraternities recognize their social power and abuse it.
I strongly believe that Trinity’s draconian measures to require immediate coeducation in Greek houses will only lead to increased danger for the students there. Trinity already has one coeducational fraternity called the Hall — the result of a previous round of attempted reform — in which seven women represent a small minority of the Hall “brothers.” They are treated as their slang title implies. The rumors about what these women go through are plentiful, albeit likely (and hopefully) exaggerated, but forcing women into a male-dominated space entrenched with traditions of sexism and objectification does not seem like the answer Trinity, or Dartmouth, needs.
I will never forget what it felt like to be huddled by the basement door of a fraternity, upperclassmen pushing down the steps shouting the names of brothers, freshmen waiting for the brother on door duty to determine whether or not we were suitable to enter. We would regularly wait 20 to 30 minutes as they literally looked us up and down and picked us off one by one as eligible for the privilege to enter their space. Some nights I found myself too soberly aware of what was going on. I became so frustrated with the social dynamic that I just pushed my way back up the stairs and went home. But on each of the nights that I got into “late night” at the frats, I found the same scene: a dance party in the pitch black, music too loud to hear anyone’s voice and students too drunk to talk to anyone.
I knew I wanted to transfer well before the unofficial Thanksgiving decision deadline. I began to visit my friends at other colleges. I saw many different Greek systems, from the University of Pennsylvania’s large variety of houses with Beirut and small dance floors to Amherst College’s unofficial, off-campus Greek houses and supplemented “social” dorms. Then I visited Dartmouth. I stayed with one of my best friends from high school, whom I don’t think any of us would have pegged as a fraternity man before college.
To my surprise, however, he was already totally enthralled by the Greek system here. Within 10 minutes of getting off the Dartmouth Coach, I broke down to him about how objectified and dumbed down I felt my freshmen year had been. He took it upon himself to show me that not every college was like Trinity, nor was every Greek system. We paraded around from house to house on my first night. At each house, he would knock on the door, have his school ID checked by a brother, explain who I was and walk right in. Inside, there was more than just the relentless, dark dance party to which I was accustomed. People were talking, and they seemed genuinely interested in what the people around them were saying.
More than two years into my Dartmouth experience, it is hard to remember how different those few nights visiting here felt to me, as they have now become second nature. I’m sure most students reading this are having trouble understanding my fascination. At Trinity, it felt like everyone drank with the sole goal of getting drunk. There is no lack of a drinking culture at Dartmouth, but it is intertwined with so much substantive conversation and learning. When I visited, the ability to have just a simple discussion in the frats about where I was from and why I was visiting was astounding to me. I fell in love with this school because the students had an uncanny ability to balance everything I idealized. They had fun and were passionate about school. They blew off steam but worked hard enough to justify it. I know the Dartmouth Greek system and social scene in general isn’t perfect, but neither is any city’s bar and club scene, nor any school’s alternative social scene.
I don’t strictly adhere to the Dartmouth alma mater’s line, “lest the old traditions fail.” But I also believe that at a place like Dartmouth, with so many smart people looking to make an impact on their environment, it is sometimes necessary to take a step back and look at how successful we already are. There is no perfect social space anywhere. The problems we struggle with — the objectification of women, binge drinking, sexual assault, even hazing — exist all too frequently outside college boundaries, as well. Despite these imperfections, I strongly believe that we are not doing so poorly in a town with such limited alternatives. We shouldn’t react just for the sake of reacting, as Trinity has. Instead, we should define our own best practices through honest student involvement and trust among all parties. Everyone shares the same goals of student safety and happiness, and I just want to make sure that we don’t lose what I feel so lucky to have become a part of here.
Alexandra Essey ’13 is a government major from New York City with a strong affinity for preppy East Coast colleges.