Shaken up by COVID: Rush looks different this year

Sorority members during fall rush. Photo by Maria Mattingly (C’23)

By Maria Mattingly
Executive Staff

Fatigued legs, feigned energy, and hours trudging to each house in the bitter January air defined rush week before the pandemic struck. Anticipation for Shake Day, when each rushee hopes to receive a bid and celebrate with their Greek organization, pushes freshmen through the exhaustion. From cinnamon cheese treats at Alpha Delta Theta to blanket forts at Gamma Tau Upsilon, rush is typically an exciting, albeit stressful, period of house visits, first impressions, and small talk. This year, the stress of rush is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic making it impossible for large numbers of people to safely socialize in-person. 

Ben Woods (C’22), rush chair and house manager of Delta Kappa Epsilon, speculates how rush may be affected due to COVID-19 restrictions: “The week of rush is going to be much more intense than normal, because normally there is a semester of getting to know all of the organizations, and now a lot of that process is going to be packed down into one week.” 

There is currently a 10-person limit to in-person gatherings on Sewanee’s campus, challenging the normal structure of rush week. Furthermore, the pandemic made it difficult to hold social events in the fall, a time for freshmen to explore different organizations across campus and get an idea of which one(s) they may want to become a member of. Nevertheless, significantly more underclassmen have signed up for rush than last year despite challenges to meet people in different Greek organizations, attend social events, and visit different sorority and fraternity houses. This year, 214 women and 130 men have been approved to participate in formal rush, compared to 183 women and around 100 men last year. 

Fisher Calame (C’23), rush chair of Delta Tau Delta, shares why he believes so many freshmen have signed up for rush this year: “I think a lot of people are more desperate than ever to find somewhere to belong, given that there have been so few opportunities to meet new people and socialize,” he said.

With a mask mandate, social distancing protocols, and social gatherings limited to small groups, freshmen have not had the freedom to visit sorority or fraternity houses, meet their members, and get a feel for each organization. 

Meme Everette (C’22), rush chair of Phi Kappa Epsilon, says that she “worries a lot about the freshmen figuring out where to go.” That being said, both Greek organizations and rushees alike may feel underprepared to scope out their new members and places of belonging.

Annie Beth Clark (C’24) speaks on her experience entering college during COVID-19 and her decision to rush, saying, “I think COVID has kind of affected everything for me as a freshman; my semester just looks different. Coming in, I knew I wanted to rush because it’s hard to make friends in a pandemic,” she said.  

Rush is normally characterized by large social gatherings held at different sorority and fraternity houses targeting potential new members. With these traditional get-togethers being impossible, students have had to get creative in order to connect with others, and many have found silver linings despite such limitations. 

Woods offers one possible upside to this year’s rush process:

“With COVID limiting events, I feel like it puts a lot of organizations on a more equal playing field…I feel like it has given smaller organizations a better opportunity to grow,” Woods said.

In addition, smaller organizations may not have been as affected by the limitations on in-person gatherings; the pandemic may have even facilitated making individual connections in smaller groups.  

Emilea Thrasher (C’22), rush chair and vice president of Gamma Tau Upsilon, explains how her chapter has had a “much more successful rush process this year: because GTU has always been small, we haven’t had to worry about having so many people at our events,” says Thrasher.

Kennedy Uselton (C’22), rush chair of Alpha Delta Theta, is hopeful for change across campus following this year’s underclass rush. 

“I think having larger pledge classes will be really good for organizations on campus, especially the smaller ones; I think it will redistribute the Greek norms on Sewanee’s campus,” Uselton said. 

However, every organization is facing some degree of stress and anticipation with so many unknowns: who are the freshmen that have signed up for rush? Will everyone find their place? What will happen to smaller chapters if not enough new members join for them to remain afloat? What will happen to larger chapters as they bear the brunt of the COVID restrictions?

Thrasher shares her concerns for smaller sororities like hers as the week of rush approaches.

“All of us smaller sororities are really fighting to have a voice right now, and no one wants to listen to us. I think it’s really essential to have those places at Sewanee. I feel like it has also caused a lot of strain among us small sororities,” Thrasher said. 

Larger organizations have also been dealt their own set of challenges. 

Everette describes how in her chapter, “a lot of upperclassmen don’t know the freshmen as well as normal years because we’ve had to limit the number of people at events; our sophomore pledge class is 40 girls, so it was really hard to have all of them there.”  

Yet, there is still hope amongst students involved in Greek life for this year’s rush to be a success. 

Olivia Baker (C’21), Intersorority Council Vice President for Recruitment, said, “chapters have done a good job of letting people know who they are outside of this party culture. There’s been less emphasis on the social aspect and more emphasis on what their actual role on campus is. We want rush to be an intentional space, and we want it to be something where people actually get to form meaningful relationships.”

Meredith Yoxall (C’21), Intersorority Council President also believes this year’s rush process could be conducive to forming more meaningful connections:

“It gives the freshmen one-on-one time with specific members of each of these organizations. I hope that something that changes for future Shake Days is that emphasis on having intentional time,” Yoxall said. 

Greek life at Sewanee has always been unconventional. Sorority and fraternity sponsored events are open to the entire campus, a large portion of the chapters themselves are local rather than national, and the student body is relatively small and close-knit. Perhaps, like Thrasher, Baker, and Yoxall described, something everyone can take away from this particular rush season is that connecting with and celebrating individuals is one of the most rewarding aspects of rushing. 

In the future, lasting change could include making organizations at Sewanee feel like more inclusive, welcoming spaces for anyone and everyone to feel comfortable and fulfilled. With tradition turned on its head, Greek norms may not be the norm anymore. Smaller organizations are on the verge of becoming larger, rush events are being coupled with intentional efforts to connect with people outside of a party atmosphere, and the sense of competition between chapters is evening out. Despite the stress and obstacles everyone has faced over the course of this academic year, it is safe to say that building meaningful relationships with individuals and groups is more of a priority now than ever. Luckily, there are 10 sororities and 12 fraternities at Sewanee eager to welcome their new pledge classes.