• U.S.

Growing Up at Dartmouth

3 minute read
Anita Hamilton

Thirteen years ago, on a dismal Spring day, I received the crushing news that I would never become a sorority girl. Not a perfectly manicured Kappa Kappa Gamma nor a sporty Sigma Kappa; nor even a borderline-cool Kappa Alpha Theta. A shy freshman at Dartmouth College, I had been rejected by those vaunted sisterhoods in the first round of pledge-season cuts. Was it my clothes? Did I say something wrong? Now that I had officially been deemed an outcast like Hester Prynne, I sulked in my dorm room for days, convinced my social life was over before it had even begun.

So I wasn’t exactly devastated to learn of Dartmouth’s plan to end the long reign of single-sex fraternities and sororities on campus. Despite angry alumni calls and sullen student protests–including the cancellation of all fraternity parties at the school’s annual Winter Carnival–the faculty unanimously voted in favor of the college’s goal to make fraternities and sororities substantially coed, along with developing new social alternatives for its 4,300 undergraduates. Such news might not seem like a big deal at many colleges, but at Dartmouth, whose raucous frat life inspired the movie Animal House, it’s the biggest drama since the 230-year-old school, tucked in an idyllic New Hampshire valley, went coed in 1972. Could there really be life beyond fraternities?

Funny–Dartmouth’s Greeks sound almost as angry and bewildered as I was when I got locked out of the sorority system. It’s easy to laugh now, but it felt awful back then because the Greek houses dominated the campus social scene. There wasn’t much else to do besides seeing a movie or catching a Suzanne Vega concert at the campus performing-arts center. For all the pride my mother felt at sending her daughter to an Ivy League school, my own self-esteem was perilously low.

It didn’t take long, however, to see the limitations of the wall-to-wall fleshfests at fraternity parties (many of which were open to all students), where getting beer slopped down your shirt and watching guys use any vertical surface as a urinal was considered fun. And I never did figure out how I, a student on financial aid, might have afforded thousands of dollars in sorority dues. I wanted so badly to have a ready-made pool of “friends” and a place to go each Saturday night that I gave little thought to the possibility of life beyond a pledge pin.

But I found my way, in part through the friends I made in the more natural settings of my dorm, classes and activities like the school newspaper. I also learned that longing to fit in was simply a distraction from the hard work of figuring out and accepting who I really am: not much for big groups, perhaps, but focused on a few hobbies and building friendships one at a time. Now Dartmouth students have that same chance. Instead of clinging to an outmoded, elitist fraternity system, they can start building real brotherhoods and sisterhoods, open to all. In an interview with Dartmouth’s student newspaper, president James Wright asked about the old Greek system, “Can’t we do better?” Of course we can; it just takes a little imagination.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com