Home away from home: Greek life for diverse students

Mahnoor Zahid, sophomore, member of AXO

For many DePauw students, being in Greek life is a vital element of the “DePauw experience.” But despite the high numbers of Greek participation, international students and students of color at DePauw sometimes shy away from joining Greek life due to concerns about the lack of diversity and inclusion. As of 2018, students of color made up 20% of all students involved in Greek life. Of the 20%, 16% were domestic and 4% were international, according to the 2018 Campus Living and Community Development Annual Report, which includes the most recent data on diversity in Greek chapters at DePauw

Sophomore Mahnoor Zahid from Pakistan joined Alpha Chi Omega (AXO) in her second semester of freshman year. Before coming to DePauw, Zahid did not know how prevalent Greek life was on campus. As she realized that the social scene at DePauw was driven by Greek houses, Zahid reported feeling pressured by her peers into thinking that she was supposed to go Greek in order to have a social life. However, going Greek worked out well for her as she found herself surrounded by supportive sisters who helped her find a home away from home. In addition, to the social support, Zahid is grateful for some of the other benefits she has received such as cultural food accommodation. “Even though I was initially peer pressured, joining AXO has been worth it in many ways,” said Zahid. “For instance, I am Muslim so I don’t eat pork and my house has been good at accommodating my dietary needs.”

Zahid’s experience as an international student in a Panhellenic sorority has been mostly positive because she feels that AXO prioritizes diversity and welcomes international students. She thinks domestic students are used to having international students in the house. However, according to Zahid, there are not many diversity events in the house or opportunities for domestic students to learn about international students’ culture. “Feeling alienated was never a concept for me in AXO, however, there is no incentive for the American students to learn about our background,” said Zahid. 

Zahid perceives a disconnect between international and domestic students in Greek houses due to cultural differences ranging from pop culture references to social norms. For instance, Zahid says she often has to look up the meaning of references from American movies and songs.

For Zahid, being an international student is not the only aspect of being in Greek life that makes her experience unique. She is a woman of color in a predominantly white space who comes from a different culture than many of her sisters. Zahid views her diverse background as a way for her white sisters to learn and grow. “I like to believe that being a person of color in sororities like these can provide an opportunity to have uncomfortable conversations that these people might not want to have,” said Zahid.

Although Zahid said her sorority is doing well in terms of diversity and inclusion, she has witnessed microaggressions from other Greek houses, particularly fraternities in how they interact with sorority women during social events. She feels that even though her sisters strive for equity and inclusion, there is not much that can be done on their part to ensure that marginalized sisters do not face microaggressions from other houses. “You often see how fraternity men behave differently with you and how differently they behave around white women to a point where if you are a person of color in a sorority, it can be very disturbing,” she said. 

Despite such challenges, Zahid does not regret her decision to join AXO as the house welcomed her with open arms and made her feel comfortable due to the presence of other students of color and international students.

Hang Bui, sophomore, independent

Sophomore Hang Bui from Vietnam is an independent and said she never found a convincing reason to join a Greek house. As an international student, she did not know what Greek life was until she came to DePauw. As she heard stories from her friends who joined different houses, she got interested in the concept, did research, and learned about the benefits of being in Greek life. However, she still decided to stay an independent because she knew she could still have a social life and make meaningful connections. “Socializing can definitely feel overwhelming for international students, especially with cultural differences,” said Bui. “Therefore, I can definitely see how there are benefits in Greek life for international students because living in a house means being surrounded by a support system who are willing to help you and make you feel at home.”

Despite acknowledging those benefits, Bui prefers socializing outside of Greek houses. She says there are many ways to make friends as an independent international student such as joining student organizations, going to events on campus, and most importantly, having an open mind and putting yourself out there. “I was a TA for Summer Institute and that position gave me the opportunity to connect with other international students as well as fellow TA’s,” said Bui.

Junior Joshy Kuluwasha joined Delta Upsilon his sophomore year. He believes his Greek life experience has been enriching because he is surrounded by brothers who come from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries. Furthermore, he says that Greek life for him, as a Black student, has not been any different than it has been for his white counterparts. He acknowledges the fact that he is in a predominantly white space. However, being a minority has not stopped him from making the best out of his experience at DU. As a person of color, he believes to have found a home away from home and a supportive group of brothers who are willing to learn about his culture and background.

 “Obviously, a majority of the students in IFC fraternities are white but that's just bound to be the case because DePauw, Indiana, and literally the entire US is majority white so it's nothing shocking,” said Kuluwasha.

Kuluwasha advises students of color who are interested in Greek life to be open-minded and be prepared for the fact that they are going to meet people that are going to have different perspectives from them.

Senior Sajda Karmacharya joined Sigma Lambda Gamma, Inc. (SLG) in her second semester of junior year. She believes that DePauw is a haven for legacies, specifically the white community, while it hurts the social well-being of students of color and international students. Furthermore, she says that because the social structure of DePauw, a predominantly white institution, is not built for diverse communities and that it is hard for some students to adjust. As a result, having multicultural Greek houses is important for providing students of color with the support they need to thrive. “SLG made an effort to understand my culture and helped me grow professionally and personally,” said Karmacharya. “I would say, we need more spaces like this on campus for people of color.”

Besides the personal and professional growth, Karmacharya feels that being in SLG came with other benefits such as being able to connect with the Nepali community and having her voice heard. In particular, she believes that SLG has given her the agency to help her community on campus by allowing her to host events about issues that matter to her. In addition, she has made lifelong friends through the organization and been able to network with SLG alumni. By connecting with her sisters from SLG, she has overcome personal and academic challenges throughout her college career. She thinks by sharing her culture and background, she has gotten the most out of her DePauw experience. “SLG gave me a chance to effect change on campus through events and community building,” said Karmacharya.