US and Canadian Universities: Fraternities and Sororities | Top Universities

US and Canadian Universities: Fraternities and Sororities

By Staff Writer

Updated March 5, 2016 Updated March 5, 2016

If you're considering studying in North America, you'll no doubt encounter fraternities and sororities, historic student organizations which still play a central role at many universities in the US and Canada.

The names fraternity and sorority come from the Latin words frater and soror, meaning brother and sister. In the US and Canada, fraternities and sororities are most commonly known as social organizations for undergraduate students.

What are fraternities and sororities?

Fraternities are usually formed of all-male 'frats', while sororities are usually all female, though some co-ed organizations do exist.

Fraternities and sororities do exist outside of North America, most notably in the Philippines and in some European countries, but for the most part they are a decidedly American institution.

The general purpose of fraternities and sororities is to provide social support for their members, including both national and international students. Other types of fraternities emphasize service to the community, professional advancement, or scholastic achievement.

Many fraternities and sororities are national or international organizations with chapters at individual schools. Most top universities in the US have chapters on campus and some even house the organizations' headquarters or nationals on their campus. The society's headquarters helps to decide and standardize policies regarding membership, housing and behavior of members.

Fraternity and sorority Greek names

Traditionally, North American fraternities and sororities use two or three Greek letters to form their name and/or motto. This explains why fraternities and sororities are often referred to as 'Greek societies'.

  • Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, is generally held to be the first organization to use Greek letters in its name.
  • Sigma Phi, founded in 1827 at Union College, New York, is reported to be the first fraternity to go national when it opened a second chapter at Hamilton College in 1831.
  • Pi Beta Phi, founded in 1867 at Monmouth College, Illinois, was the first sisterhood, based on the model of male fraternity.

Today there are over 1500 fraternities and sororities in existence that use Greek letters in  their name. Many Greek organizations are informally known more by their nicknames than their Greek letters. For example, Alpha Epsilon Pi is more commonly referred to as 'A-E-P' and Kappa Alpha Order is known as 'KA'.

Sometimes an invented word based on the letters, such as '˜Pike' from Pi Kappa Alpha, or 'Sammy' from Sigma Alpha Mu is used. At other times the letters of the organization are shortened or removed completely, for example Psi Upsilon as 'Psi U' and Pi Kappa Phi as 'Pi Kapp'. Some organizations choose to go by just the dominant letter in their name. These include 'Betas' for Beta Theta Pi, 'Kappas' for Kappa Kappa Gamma, '˜Delts' for Delta Tau Delta, and '˜Thetas' for Kappa Alpha Theta.

How to join a fraternity or sorority

The process of joining a fraternity or sorority by undergraduates or international students usually begins with 'Rush Week'. During rush week a series of events and activities are organized by existing members so potential members can learn about each other and the organization. At the end of the week, the various organizations offer 'bids' or invitations of membership.

There is often a period of 'pledgeship' before a full invitation to the society is extended. The pledgeship period serves as a probationary period in the fraternity or sorority membership process where both the organization and the pledge decide they are compatible and will have a fulfilling experience. During this time 'pledges' must fulfill a number of requirements that may be imposed either by the school or the organization itself, often including a minimum grade point average, wearing a pledge pin, learning about the history and structure of the fraternity or sorority, and performing a public service.

Finally there is a full initiation into the society by those pledging. The initiations often involve some form of secret ceremony or ritual known only to those in the particular fraternity or sorority. As part of the Pi Beta Phi initiation, female pledges are blindfolded as they are taught the societies songs, pledges and secrets in an exercise of solidarity and trust.

There is also a fee involved to join a fraternity or sorority, which is decided by the society. If you're considering joining a society, this cost needs to be calculated into your student finances.

Why join a fraternity or sorority?

Fraternities and sororities often provide university housing for their members. The idea is that living together in a large house or apartment complex reinforces the bonds of 'brotherhood' or 'sisterhood'. The houses are often used to hold meetings, as well as parties and social events, for organization members. The cost, liability and stability of the houses are overseen by an alumni corporation or the national headquarters of the fraternity or sorority.

Houses also provide accommodation for visiting society members from different chapters, for international students, or those on study abroad programs. This can be a good way of seeing different parts of the US in an inexpensive manner and with locals who already know the area.

The decision of which fraternity or sorority to join, or whether to join at all, is very subjective and down to the individual. Some undergraduates find their allegiance to a fraternity or sorority becomes an important aspect of their identity, both during their time of study for their university degree and in their career beyond. However, many people also decide that being part of a fraternity or sorority is an unnecessary drain on their time, energy and finances, and get along just fine without joining one.

Would you join a fraternity or sorority? Share your opinion in the comments below.

This article was originally published in November 2012 . It was last updated in March 2016

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