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I grew up in a very red county in a very blue state. Coming from this environment and from my limited perspective, “feminist” was a bad word with which I wanted no association. I could never imagine myself becoming some stereotype of a man-hating, bra-burning extremist.

When I went to the University of Southern California for college, by my second week, I had joined a sorority. Makes sense, right?

You may think that experience would have kept me from exploring other schools of thought. That by joining the antiquated Greek system on a campus often associated with privilege, excess and a reputation for women securing their MRS degrees, I may have just become more entrenched in my ideals. That I would continue to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of anti-feminist behavior captured by media outlets and represented in some films.

In reality, it was just the opposite.

Sure, I went to a lot of parties, had quite a few beers before football games and waved my hands and shook my hair around while singing to a lot of confused and possibly terrified girls during rush weeks. From the outside, it probably looked frivolous and silly. Perhaps some of it was. But what impacted me the most during my time within the USC Greek system (and thereafter) were the people I met and the situations I found myself in that pushed me to be a better person—a person who believed in female empowerment and independence.

Finding yourself in a situation where you’re suddenly introduced to 260 women who are going to be your new “sisters” is not easy, to say the least. Are you going to like all of those people? Are they all going to be your best friends? Probably not. Did that experience make me more diplomatic and teach me valuable lessons in communication and empathy? Absolutely.

I also found myself around some of the strongest, most ambitious and now most successful women I could imagine, both in my own house and across the Greek system.

When my first friend in my sorority proudly declared she was a feminist on the way to class one day, I found it jarring. But looking back now, the experiences that really turned me into the feminist I am today were subtler: The outpouring of support when women ran for high posts in student government and secured high-profile internships over the summer. My friends leading women’s groups within the business school. Even something as simple as learning about our house’s founders rebelling against a male-only Greek system and establishing the first Greek fraternity for women, as our “sorority” is technically called.

These moments taught me that being a feminist has nothing to do with the warped, sensationalized picture that had been painted for me growing up, and they paved the way for me to more thoughtfully explore this idea as I continued into adulthood. Perhaps some day, the same could be said for outsiders looking in at Greek life.

Lara Levin is a public relations professional living, working, eating, thriving and Dogspotting in San Francisco.

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