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What exactly are Fraternities and Sororities?

Delta SIgma Theta House at Duke University in North Carolina.

Sororities and fraternities (sometimes called “frats” for short), collectively called the Greek System, are societies based in American universities that are made up of students and alumni (former students) of that university. Sororities are comprised solely of female students while fraternities’ members are all male. The reason that these groups are called the Greek System is that they traditionally use Greek letters in their names. Kappa Alpha Theta is a famous national sorority for example, while Epsilon Sigma Phi is a well-known national fraternity.

Many of these organizations have houses that are either on campus or just off of campus; these houses are called sorority or fraternity houses and many of their members live in these houses. Once they graduate from university, members of the Greek system will often stay active with their houses, participating in networking, fundraising, and charitable events.

Advantages to being a member of the Greek System

There are numerous advantages to becoming a member of a fraternity or sorority. For one thing, membership is a great way for a first year student, or freshman, to build a social network and to learn more about the university’s culture and activities. Many universities in the U.S. are as large as, if not larger than, some small towns so life can be pretty intimidating for a first year student.  For many of these students, joining a sorority or a frat can be a great way to help navigate life on and off campus.

The Greek System can not only provide social support but academic support for its members. It is estimated that around 71 percent of sorority and fraternity members graduate from their universities, compared to only half of those who are not Greek members. Greek houses often hold group study sessions as well as providing in-house tutors for their members.

Once they are ready to graduate, members can also receive help with finding career opportunities. As mentioned above, many alumni continue to stay active with their houses, with many serving as advisors to their house. These alumni can be a great resource for current students who would like to work in a similar career or for the same company. What’s more, many national fraternities and sororities have active social media pages along with local networking events; both can be a great resource for members who are looking to jump start their careers.

How did the Greek System Start?

A group of Greek students from the olden days.

Believe it or not, the Greek system has been around for quite some time in the United States. John Heath, who was studying Greek Language at the College of William and Mary in 1776, had applied to get in to two Latin secret socities that were on campus, but his application was rejected by both. Undeterred, Heath decided to take matters into his own hands by forming his own society. As he was a Latin scholar, Heath decided to name his society using the Greek letter initials of his Greek motto, which was Philosophia Bios Kybernethes, translated as Philosophy is the guide to life. Thus, the society was named Phi BetaKappa. Phi Beta Kappa is active even today, as a national honors society that admits both men and women.

While Heath may have begun the tradition of the Greek letter society, the fraternity as we know it today, originated at Union College in New York State. The Kappa Alpha Society, founded in 1825, was soon joined by the Sigma Phi and Delta Phi societies. Together these three societies called themselves “fraternities” a word that comes from the Latin word Frater, meaning “brother.”

In 1851, the first society for women was begun at Weslyean College in Macon, Georgia. This was called the Adelphean Society and it promoted the “the mental, moral, social, and domestic improvement of its members.”  The Adelphean Society was joined the next year by The Philomathean Society at Weslyean College; both groups adopted Greek names in the early 1900’s, becoming Alpha Delta Phi and Phi Mu respectively.

Greek System Fun Facts

  • The first female senator and the first female astronaut were both from Greek houses
  • Every one of the Apollo 11 Astronauts were fraternity members
  • The Greek system is the largest volunteering network in America, and its members donate over 10 million hours of time annually
  • 76% of all congressman and senators belong to a fraternity