State of Sewanee: the Greek and the geek

By Anna Mann

For the past three years, I’ve joked that I “rushed The Purple” when people ask about my involvement in Greek life. I don’t tell them that, quite frankly, I was intimidated by Sewanee’s party culture freshman year, and fears of hazing and rowdy group settings put rushing a sorority off the table. Though I’ve realized most of my anxieties were unfounded, I still think the majority of Sewanee students have wondered at one time or another: “What else is there to do on a Saturday night?”

The short answer? A lot. 

For a school of 1,700 students, Sewanee has an incredible amount of clubs, in fact, more than 80 according to the University website. Some, like the Organization for Cross Cultural Understanding, host important events to further understanding and foster respect for diversity on campus. Others, like Gaming Club, are ways for students to meet and connect. 

Moreover, every week various University departments bring in speakers to create a rich and interesting learning environment. The Sewanee Outing Program encourages students to explore the 13,000 acres of our beautiful Domain. Not to mention the artist talks in the University Art Gallery or the frequent productions that take place in the Tennessee Williams Center.

As I leave my position at The Sewanee Purple, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the opportunities available on Sewanee’s campus, and how often we, as students, neglect them. 

True, the Greek life here is fast-paced and vibrant, and it’s tempting to fall into a routine of going out. Moreover, it heavily influences our culture, with about 78 percent of students boasting some sort of involvement. This is wonderful in an abundance of ways, one being the volunteer service provided by every chapter. And truthfully, the atmosphere is shockingly open compared to almost any state school. In this way, I discovered how to talk to people from different backgrounds, with interests that differed from my own.

However, where does this culture go sour? 

Last year, Garrett Lucey (C’19) and Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19), presidents of the interfraternity and sorority councils (IFC/ISC) respectively, wrote an article about the prevalence of hazing in Sewanee. They explained that: “Hazing at Sewanee is real, and it exists essentially entirely on the men’s side. It has long been a ‘hush hush’ thing, where both men and women don’t want to talk about or face its negative effects.”

The presidents were correct in commenting on the issue of hazing, one that still plagues the campus, especially beginning in the Easter semester when rush begins in earnest. The campaign of “Let’s Talk,” spearheaded by the IFC/ISC and the Student Government Association last February, shed a light on the mental health of Sewanee’s students. 

The campaign was spurred by data collected from the University Wellness Center. A Purple article from the time states that “73 percent of students who took the survey said the campus environment has a negative effect on their mental and emotional health, and 40 percent felt isolated from campus life.”

A shocking number, but one that doesn’t seem impossible to most students, and that doesn’t sit well. 

It’s true, Sewanee’s administration has taken greater steps to fight back against the downsides of campus party culture by ensuring students take part in more extensive alcohol and bystander training courses. I’ve had friends that have rolled their eyes and friends that have insisted they’ve developed better habits via the course. Either way, at least the administration is starting dialogue about these issues. 

I hope that as rush rapidly approaches, student leaders, especially those involved in Greek life, will keep in mind the words of Lucey and Murdock: “As the Greek community, we all have an obligation to ensure that we provide our members with a strong, inclusive, diverse, and meaningful experience. Greek life at Sewanee is powerful, and if it continues to work to powerfully for good, then Sewanee is in good hands.”

I hope that they will spark similar dialogue about these issues.

I understand that as a person with only passing involvement in the Greek community, I have little grounds on which to critique its pitfalls. So, I’ll admit that Sewanee Greek life has made immense strides since my first year on campus. Student leaders have engaged with emerging issues and worked to make the environment a more welcoming one. I am forever thankful for my Saturday night experiences swing dancing on the floors of fraternity and sorority houses, and most days, I’m filled with pride for my University. 

In many ways, Sewanee offers a unique combination of the Greek and the geek. In what other place will you hear fraternity members argue about Russian folklore on the porch? Or have sorority sisters name mixed drinks after famous philosophers? Very few. 

However, I would encourage my fellow students to attend that gallery talk on a Friday or take a break from campus to go on a hike. It’s good to keep in touch with one another, but it’s important to take advantage of Sewanee’s events as well. 

I love the intersection of academics and entertainment on the Mountain, but it’s a difficult balance. I urge each and every one of us to be mindful about the way we treat each other, both inside the classroom and the fraternity house. 

Our school is as good and pleasant as we make it, so let’s make it the best we can. Let’s bring this ideology of EQB into every aspect of campus life. Let’s continue to tackle the tough topics, not just which dance floor we’ll hit come Friday, but how to create a rich and welcoming campus environment. One that dwells if not in perfect unity, at least in good intent.