On a rainy Friday night, Chelsea came over to sit in the common room of my suite. She is a new member of Chi Omega, but as a freshman she began the intake process for Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the on-campus chapters of the African American Fraternal and Sororal Association (AAFSA).
Chelsea came to talk about being hazed during membership intake with AKA. This is the first time her story is being told. She was verbally harassed. After reporting it to Stanford, it became clear that while the university could offer a band-aid solution, nothing systematic has been done to create a space where hazing can be reported, addressed, and stopped. Perhaps even worse, she was accused of betraying her community for reporting the hazing in the first place.
At first, Chelsea did not know she was being recruited. Danielle*, a fellow dining hall ambassador, texted her one day asking to talk after their work meeting. Danielle told Chelsea that AKA was interested in her. A few days later, she texted Chelsea to come to Tresidder at a certain time. She was advised to come alone, and to be certain she was not being watched or followed. At Tresidder, she received an invitation to a game night. Chelsea was to email the address listed on the invitation to learn where it was happening. About fifteen minutes before the event, Chelsea texted Danielle asking where to go. Danielle told her to send an email, so Chelsea did, found the location, and attended the game night. She had a good time, singing karaoke and meeting the other women. There were both active members, known as prophytes, and potential new members, who would be known as line sisters if they began the membership intake process. At the end of the event, Janet*, a seemingly prominent member of the chapter, stood up at the front of the room, saying: “If you’re still interested in being a part of AKA, then call this number at midnight.”
At 12:00am, Chelsea dialed the number. No one picked up, which she had assumed would happen, since everyone was asked to call the same number at the same time. She thought it was just a way to track the phone numbers of interested girls, and went to bed. The next morning, she got a call from Janet. “Did you call me last night?” she demanded. Chelsea explained that she had called, but no one picked up. “Are you still interested in being an AKA?” snapped Janet. Then Janet issued two clear demands: that Chelsea call every day, and that the next day, she should go to Cubberley, the School of Education building, at 10pm, with a copy of her academic transcript.
At 9pm, about an hour before she was to be at Cubberley, Chelsea called Janet, and was reprimanded for calling so late. What if Janet had been sleeping? Or studying? Or watching a movie? In retelling her story, Chelsea seemed unfazed by this. She proceeded to Cubberley and called once outside. She was instructed to go to the bathroom. Standing in front of the sink, she called again, and was told to wait until further instructions were given.
During the half hour that Chelsea waited, she assumed she was going to be taken to another night like the game night. Chelsea’s mom was an AKA back during her collegiate years in Oklahoma, and had told Chelsea stories about the pledging process. It was time-consuming, but the focus seemed to be on bonding. Some of the tasks were not as fun as others – such as having to clean an active member’s room if you were found walking around campus without someone in your intake class – but for the most part, it seemed harmless.
After waiting in the bathroom, Janet eventually called Chelsea and told her to go up to room 210. She tried to open the door, but it was locked. The door swung open, someone yelled at her, and then slammed the door shut in her face. Confused, she knocked. The same girl opened the door. “Did I not tell you to knock once?” she yelled at Chelsea. So Chelsea knocked once.
Inside the dark room, three active members were sitting on one side of a table with their laptops open. They began harassing, yelling at, and demeaning her. The three women ridiculed Chelsea for only bringing one copy of her transcript and not bringing her resume, and asked her about the extensive history of the sorority. When she could not answer most of the questions, the members questioned repeatedly her desire to be part of AKA. The women loudly talked to each other, ignoring her some of the time, making fun of her clothes and calling her fat. Chelsea tried to laugh it off, but Janet, livid that Chelsea was not taking this seriously, and kicked her out.
As Chelsea left Cubberley, she passed someone she had met at game night. “I should have warned her,” Chelsea told me. “I should have told her not to go in. I feel really bad about that.”
According to its website, AKA’s recruitment process begins with Rush, a set of activities that are posted two weeks in advance (and are subject to university guidelines). Then, if the sorority decides to issue the student a Letter of Acceptance, the Membership Intake Program begins. The site lists very clearly that pledging is not a part of the program. Pledging is also technically no longer a part of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) experience, but that has not stopped repeated pledging and hazing incidents being reported by national media; while SAE is clearly not the only fraternity that has engaged in hazing, it is one that has been well-monitored on campus, unlike other Greek organizations.
Although possible, it is unlikely that this was the first time such a recruitment ritual was used by AKA. However, this may be the first time someone has been brave enough to report it. When Chelsea went back to her dorm after her experience in Cubberley, she decided immediately to stop the intake process, and told her roommate and Academic Dean. She was eventually connected with Dean Griffith, the dean of Student Affairs, and a hazing investigation was launched. When most of the decision-makers around Greek life had heard her story, the administration’s conversation with Chelsea ended.
Talking with her friend one day, Chelsea saw the girl that she had passed in the hallway and regretted not warning. This girl had decided to continue with the process, became an AKA member, and simply glared at Chelsea upon seeing her. Chelsea later learned that many AAFSA members heard a version of her story – one where Chelsea’s mom was supposedly a prominent member in the national AKA organization, and had made some phone calls. This, of course, was not true. Even worse, she was not viewed positively as someone who had stood up against hazing, but rather as someone who had ‘told’ on the black community.
Chelsea reached out to Dean Griffith’s office once again to see what the result of the investigation had been, and was given a name of a student she could contact. That student also happened to be an active member of AKA. Through small talk, Chelsea found out that AKA was not allowed to have a spring line (a class of new members), but that the recruitment process had hardly changed otherwise. All Greek organizations must register their recruitment activities with the university. According to the university, AKA had not registered the events in which Chelsea participated. Indeed, AKA denied even being in Cubberley.
Stanford treats all forms of Greek life equally. All recruitment is deferred until spring of freshman year, all new members must attend a Greek Life Convocation, and hazing is forbidden. However, Stanford students are certainly more aware of Inter-Fraternity and Sorority Council chapters, if they even know that others exist. Stanford Daily criticisms of Greek life point to the ISC formal recruitment process, the low representation of students of color (clearly directed towards IFC and ISC), and misconduct of ISC and IFC chapters.
The disproportionate media attention ISC and IFC chapters receive has enabled the monitoring and exposal of sexual assault, financial hardship and degrading behaviour within Greek life. On the flipside, nearly every Stanford student has heard of and attended a Phi Kappa Psi all-campus, or helped raise money for women’s heart health through Mr Alpha Phi.
But how many showed up, or knew about, the suicide awareness and prevention walk hosted by Delta Sigma Theta – an AAFSA sorority – in April? The AAFSA and Multicultural Greek Council each control six chapters, have existed for decades, and have strong histories, yet remain relatively unknown. ISC and IFC Greek life remains the only option for those wishing to live in housed Greek life, attend all campus parties, and be part of the largest social groups.
IFC and ISC recruitment processes are also publicized and standardized. Students know that IFC recruitment occurs the first two weeks of spring quarter, Monday through Thursday, with the last weekend an invitation-only retreat. ISC recruitment is the second or third weekend in April, Friday to Sunday, with bids given out Monday afternoon.
What is the recruitment process for an AAFSA organization? A staff member in Ujamaa was unwilling to talk about it. Freshman RAs get no training on Greek life. The AAFSA Advisor, Diontrey Thompson, refused to respond to multiple emails requesting an interview. There is close to zero awareness on campus about these groups, not for want of trying, but because the chapters flat-out refuse to share information.
What Chelsea experienced clearly meets the bar of hazing: creating social pressure to keep quiet, hold to tradition, and allow oneself to be humiliated, embarrassed or even harmed.
The university has an anti-hazing policy, but that can only be enforced when the Stanford is informed. And considering that every link on the Residential Education site regarding policies around Greek life is currently broken, reporting misconduct is rather challenging. Students are unlikely to report hazing in the first place given the circumstances in which they feel the pressure to conform. It is hard for anyone to go through the formal reporting process, freshmen RAs have no training on rush besides their own personal experiences, which will almost never be able to help students applying to one of 30 different Greek programs.
Of course, there is far more to Greek life at Stanford than hazing. In fact, it has transformed positively over the past few years. It is a community that can help Stanford feel more at home, provide leadership experience, and leverage Stanford students to make a difference in national and local charities. However, problems that are talked about in relation to IFC and ISC are just as applicable, if not sometimes more so, to less well-known Greek life.
Each organization needs to prove to the university that Greek life is a positive community builder. But the more well-known the organization is, the easier it is for others to hear about the good – such as philanthropy – as well as the incidents we should all seek to end. I understand the importance of tradition and ritual; I am a proponent of both. But it should not be hard to get an honest answer about what the new member process is like. If you are uncomfortable with what is happening in your Greek organization, you should be able to talk to your leadership about it. You should be able to talk to the university about it. You should not feel ostracized or unwelcome.
Hazing, in any type of Greek organization, should be considered neither a secret ritual that bonds you with others nor a requirement for membership. It has been banned by national Greek organizations because it is demeaning and harmful, and because it is inevitably taken too far. But it will not disappear until local chapters and campuses are able to successfully foster an environment of openness and inclusion, where members are not afraid to talk about practices that make them uncomfortable or worse, and where Stanford feels ready to intervene.
Chelsea’s story is important, but it is not the only story to be told; we need others to share their experiences so that we can understand the problem, and improve the culture for everyone. Greek organizations should be transparent about their new member programs, to allow students to be informed about the process in which they plan to participate, and to allow university officials and peers to know what behavior is considered acceptable and what behavior cannot be allowed in the Stanford community.
Chelsea deserved better. Stanford deserves better.
**Names have been changed to protect students’ identities *