Surprises for International Students About Greek Life

The number and variety of Greek organizations can come as a surprise for international students.

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Joining a sorority or fraternity is one way to build a social and professional network as an international student.
Joining a sorority or fraternity is one way to build a social and professional network as an international student.

There are a lot of iconic images of American college life familiar to international students, thanks to Hollywood, television and music videos. One is the Greek system, better known as fraternities and sororities.

The Greek system is uniquely American, and often an unusual concept for new international students. Fraternities and sororities are student organizations and have been part of the American college scene for more than two centuries.

When I arrived in America, I knew nothing about them beyond what I'd seen in movies like "Legally Blonde," but I soon found that Greek chapters are a large part of many college communities. While not all schools have fraternities or sororities, their members can make up a fair chunk of the student population at certain universities.

Many international students are surprised to learn there isn't really anything Greek about them. Fraternities and sororities are described as "Greeks" because their chapters typically use Greek letters to name themselves, creating titles such as Sigma Kappa, Alpha Sigma Phi or Lambda Theta Alpha.

It can also be a surprise that there are a lot of these groups. UC—Berkeley currently has more than 50 recognized chapters, some with specific academic, professional or cultural associations.

[Learn which universities draw the most international students.]

If you're arriving at a U.S. college, you may decide you want to become a member, known as a brother or sister, of a Greek chapter. To do so, you have to get involved in the application process. This typically starts with an initial application week called "rushing," which takes place at the beginning of the fall – and sometimes spring – semesters.

Rushing typically involves visiting a number of Greek chapters, interacting with the members and choosing a selection of houses you feel like joining. If you want to join a chapter, do your research and really think about which will be the right place for you.

If you decide to sign up, the application process is a bit of a marathon. Current members of the fraternity or sorority decide which new members to admit to their chapter; if chosen, you become a "pledge" to a specific frat or sorority. If a pledge makes it through the initiation process, sometimes rumored to be intense, you becomes a fully fledged member.

International students should be aware that once initiated, being a member of a chapter is a very definite commitment. Frats and sororities have busy timetables and host a wide variety of social events throughout the college year, including charity fundraisers and parties in their sometimes elaborate houses and accommodations.

[Consider these things when deciding to join a Greek organization.]

It's not something that can be done half-heartedly, so make sure you can balance the Greek life commitments with your other priorities.

If you're not into the idea of a social life bursting at the seams, that doesn't mean you should rule out involvement in the Greek sphere. There can be other benefits to joining a chapter, which can provide you with a valuable network of contacts for the future. You never know who might have been a member.

Many campuses also host business and professional fraternities and sororities. These organizations focus specifically on creating paths to careers, and assist student members in finding successful professions.

Once you've graduated from college, the business and professional chapters can also provide extensive alumni networks with all sorts of useful connections for later in life.

[Develop an active social life as an international student.]

But you don't have to be a Greek to get a taste of the lifestyle. Even if you're not a member of a chapter, you can still show up to some open events, as many students do. On some campuses, Greeks are a considerable part of the college social scene for all students.

Joining a Greek chapter would be a sure-fire way for international students to experience a classic part of American college life and culture. Even so, it's by no means necessary to have a good time. Should you decide the Greek life is not for you, there will still be plenty of societies and organizations that will make sure you have an active social life on your college campus.

Emily Burt, from the United Kingdom, is currently studying at the University of California—Berkeley on an exchange program. She will graduate from the University of East Anglia in 2014 with a bachelor's in American literature and creative writing.