On Sept. 12, Alpha Phi, the fourth and newest sorority on campus, welcomed its first-ever class at Yale.
As might have been expected, apparel was distributed and photos were taken, but Alpha Phi’s bid day also broke the mold: It took place at Kelly’s, a restaurant on Crown Street, and members of the other three sororities were there to support their nascent counterpart. Under normal circumstances, all students receiving bids open them together but then separate to celebrate at their own sorority houses.
The untraditional approach reflects the changes that have finally come to a sorority scene which for so long has remained unchanged. Yale hasn’t added a sorority in 26 years, since Pi Beta Phi came to campus in 1989. Since then, female students have made do with just three Greek organizations at Yale.
But in recent years, there were too many people and not enough spaces. In 2014 and 2015, the number of interested students surpassed the number of spots available in existing sororities by about 30, leaving many feeling disappointed and excluded from Greek life.
“[Rush] is a little stressful because obviously a lot of girls are rushing, and they only take a certain amount of people,” said Sydney Marks ’18 in January, while she was participating in the rush process. Marks later joined Pi Phi.
It’s not as if sororities have tried to be exclusive on purpose — they’ve accepted more people than ever. Over the past few years, rush class numbers have been rising until they border on infeasibility. According to Kappa Alpha Theta Chapter President Jess Leão ’16, the last Theta class was composed of 53 students, and she says it is hard to foster a sense of closeness with a group that large. A fourth sorority was expected to decrease these numbers and create a more tightly knit community within the organizations.
In late April, the Yale Panhellenic Council announced that Alpha Phi would come to campus as Yale’s fourth sorority. Prior to that, representatives from Yale Panhellenic evaluated submissions from nine organizations, ultimately inviting Alpha Phi and Chi Omega to give presentations on campus.
As a new sorority, Alpha Phi needs to build a base of upperclassmen before they can take part in the regular rush process. For the past few weeks, Alpha Phi recruited sophomores, juniors and seniors to be part of its charter class at Yale, officially giving out bids on Sept. 12. Yale Panhellenic’s official rush will not take place until January.
“Once we have members we will begin functioning like an established sorority,” said Lauren Drewniany, an Alpha Phi representative in charge of recruitment for the Yale chapter. “This means we will be holding chapter meetings every week as well as scheduling in regular mixers [and] sisterhood and philanthropy events.”
But even Alpha Phi, which was brought in largely to reduce the competitiveness of the rush process, had to turn people away. According to Drewniany, over 70 women interviewed for a spot in the charter class and only 43 were offered bids.
Before numbers shook out, Alpha Phi held two recruitment events in early September, and a large number of students who showed up were first-timers to Greek life. Of 11 attendees interviewed, only two said they had taken part in the official rush process before. It appears, therefore, as if interest in sorority life is increasing each year — but where is it coming from, and why now?
Pics Or It Didn’t Happen
With the rise of Facebook and other forms of social media, sororities have been able to reach wider audiences than ever before. Leão points to the widespread use of Facebook as a way for sororities to establish a more visible presence on campus. Of five students interviewed, all said they had seen pictures from a sorority event or members inviting people to rush their sorority on Facebook.
Sororities at Yale maintain a social media presence unrivalled by most fraternities. Three hundred and sixty people said they were attending Carnival for Casa, a recent event hosted by Theta, on the group’s Facebook event page, in addition to 889 more who had been invited. Kappa Kappa Gamma, Theta and Pi Phi also have their own Instagram accounts.
According to Pi Phi Chapter President Caroline Pringle ’16, a more prominent sorority scene at Yale has only contributed to enticing more and more students to rush. “As time has passed,” she said, “Greek life has become more established at Yale and therefore more attractive for incoming students.”
Though interest in sorority life at Yale is on the rise, it is unclear whether the same applies for Greek life as a whole. The Fence Club, a co-ed fraternity, received a typical amount of interest during the last rush cycle, according to president Eric Nelson ’16. In February, he told the News that 61 people went for bids, which was no more competitive than usual.
However, Avery Schwartz ’16, former president of Sigma Nu, and Chi Psi President Taylor Rogers ’17 said there has been growth in the number of people rushing their fraternities since they’ve been members.
But tracking the rush figures for fraternities is a murkier business than it is for sororities, which maintain an organized rush process through Yale Panhellenic. In previous years, interested women have signed up online and attended joint events with members of all three sororities. Fraternities, by contrast, have no such overarching structure, and each conducts rush on its own terms.
A Blank Slate
The conception of Alpha Phi as a blank slate, as an institution that can be molded to fit the vision of its founding members, has proven appealing to women at Yale. In fact, the novelty attracted students who were previously uninterested in Greek life: Of the 11 students interviewed at the recruitment event, only two had participated in the traditional rush process before. The other nine may have seen an unique opportunity in Alpha Phi: to build something from the ground up.
At the recruitment event, some students shared their vision for the sorority.
“Because it’s a new sorority, there’s the potential to make it what we want it to be,” Leah Surratt ’18 said, now a member of Alpha Phi.
“I want to be part of a sorority that reflects the Yale student body,” Carol Finke ’18 said, who also joined. “I would like for it to be something like a residential college — something that doesn’t have a reputation other than that it brings together people from all walks of life with different perspectives from all areas of the world.”
Drewniany said the new Alpha Phi class would have a unique opportunity to shape the chapter’s culture, but did not specify what kind of a culture they would create or how they would distinguish themselves from Yale’s other three sororities. She did say, however, that Alpha Phi’s goals in general are to “be a sisterhood of outstanding women who support one another in lifelong achievement,” in addition to contributing to the Yale and New Haven communities.
These goals align closely with the mission of existing sororities on Yale’s campus. For example, Kappa and Pi Phi both discuss the importance of friendship, personal development and philanthropy in their mission statements.
However, Phoebe Chatfield ’18 said she notices that the three full-fledged sororities at Yale each have their own vibe. “I definitely feel like there are some differences in culture between the three,” she said. For example, she said that Kappa is more inclusive than Theta and Pi Phi.
Despite the differences between the sororities, Pringle said potential new members would be able to find connections in any of them. “People can find girls they have something in common with in any of the organizations,” Pringle said. “Choosing which sorority to join is less about the reputation and more about finding which group has the most girls you click with.”
In August 2017, if all goes according to plan, eager freshmen will shuffle through the gates of two brand new residential colleges. Roughly half of these students will be women, and some, presumably, will decide to rush sororities at Yale.
It remains to be seen whether the current four sororities will be able to accommodate the influx of extra students.
As it stands, sorority leaders are not placing too much emphasis on the potential need for a fifth sorority, choosing instead to concentrate on making the fourth as successful as it can be. Leão dismissed the idea of concrete plans for a fifth sorority at this point, and she and Pringle both said that helping Alpha Phi become established on campus was more important right now than planning for a new chapter.
“We’re going to focus first on making sure that they’re successful because there’s no point in bringing in a fifth if the fourth is not successful,” Leão said. “If, when the new colleges come, there is an incredible rise in demand, then we will consider adding a new one.”
According to Leão, adding a fifth sorority would require a serious effort on the part of Yale Panhellenic. Yale Panhellenic had been working on a fourth sorority since 2013, and inviting new sororities to campus is a long and arduous process.
However, both acknowledged that there very well may be a need for an additional sorority in the near future.
“If all goes well,” Pringle said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Yale added a fifth sorority one day, especially since our student body will grow with the addition of the two new colleges.”
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