My experience in Greek life: An open letter to the Stanford community

Jan. 28, 2020, 8:49 p.m.

Before I begin this piece, I’d like to acknowledge that many people have had positive experiences as participants of Greek life. I do not mean in any way to diminish those experiences by sharing my story. I want nothing more than to add my voice as one contrasting point, to shed light on what this system has done to me rather than for me and to share why I chose to join it in the first place. I hope this will contribute to an open conversation about whether the Greek system on Stanford’s campus causes more harm than good, and whether Stanford Greek life, excluding multicultural Greek life, should end.

During winter quarter of my freshman year, a member of my dorm community hit me. Minutes before, I had watched him punch my Resident Assistant (RA) in the throat. A bystander called the police and, soon after the incident, two officers asked me if I wanted to press charges. I was given two options: to allow police officers into a dorm with a drunk person of color who had just assaulted two people, or to drop the charges on the spot. The decision was clear to me then, and I do not regret asking those officers to leave. However, following that incident, nothing was done to reassign this man from my dorm, nor protect me in any way from someone who had physically harmed me. No one checked in with me — not even a Resident Fellow. The man who hit me did not remember the incident, and regularly walked up to me and tried to touch me afterwards. To protect myself after Stanford failed to do so, I spent less time in my dorm, kept my door locked more frequently and decided to join a sorority with a house for my sophomore year. Given my lack of trust in Stanford to help me, it was the only way I could guarantee that I would not live in a community with this man again. Because I have a high-income background, this was an option for me. In the spring of my freshman year, I joined Pi Beta Phi.

Although I felt fortunate to have been able to join Pi Phi, I realized early on that I did not fit in there. In the fall of my sophomore year, I found myself chatting casually with another woman in my sorority about the internship that I had just finished in Texas, just outside of San Antonio. The woman, who was from Texas herself, said to me, “I used to like San Antonio, but it’s gotten really dirty due to the increase in the Mexican population.” There were other people around at the time, and they nodded, as if what this person had just said was normal, a completely rational thing to think or say. For context, I am a white-presenting Mexican-American student whose grandma immigrated from Coahuila. I responded that I myself am Mexican-American and Mexican people are not inherently dirty, nor do they make places dirty. In response, the woman told me that she had taken a 23andMe test, and it turned out that she has some small percentage of “Mexican blood” herself, so what she said could not be racist. I told the staff what had happened, but they never followed up or mediated a conversation or resolution between us.

Later that same year, when discussing summer plans with other members of my sorority, I brought up my next internship opportunity. It was at the Public Defender Service of Washington, D.C., working for three parole attorneys all serving low-income clients. One woman in this conversation told me that “poor people do not deserve lawyers” and that I was just going to be defending child rapists. I tried arguing with her briefly, pointing out that what she disagreed with is actually a constitutional right to due process and why someone like my mom, who grew up low-income, needs access to those resources. But it was a lost cause. She turned to someone else at the table and started up a new conversation.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the house alone that year, but I did not mind that much. A second floor room with a lock — that’s what I really needed, and that’s what I had. 

But by spring of my sophomore year, it was time for the yearly Sig Chi and Pi Phi swap. The swap entailed some women from the sorority going to live in the fraternity house and some men from the fraternity coming to live in the sorority house. I was not overly excited about living with men again, but I figured I would be upstairs most of the time anyways. However, I did not know until the week of the swap that one of the men who would come to live in Pi Phi was the same man I had joined the sorority to avoid living with. Not only that, but a few of the women who planned the swap knew that he had assaulted me and still invited him to be a part of it. I was heartbroken and scared when I saw him in the house. After he saw me, he started texting me again. I no longer felt physically safe. I went home that weekend to regroup. While I was home, numerous Pi Phi women were drugged at that same fraternity, which is now unhoused. 

It was clear to me then that I had made a mistake. I had tried to join a sorority to protect myself, but the result was that I was actually less safe, both emotionally and physically. I felt helpless and vulnerable again, one year after the assault. I wanted to deactivate.

A few weekends after the swap, I heard a white person in my sorority say the N-word at a party. It was my last straw, but that tested me in a different way than the swap had. I was not heartbroken anymore; I was angry. I knew if I dropped, there would be no one left to take up any effort to end this blatant racism and classism, not to mention call out homophobic incidents. The Greek system seemed so inevitable to me at the time that speaking up against Greek life itself felt useless — it was an institution that Stanford seemed intent on perpetuating, and rush numbers were only increasing year by year. So, I decided I would stay and work to improve the system from the inside as a “diversity chair,” attempting to at least stem outwardly racist, classist or homophobic incidents. I ran trainings alongside the Diversity and First-Gen Office (D-Gen), facilitated conversations with women about why all words are not for everyone and created guides on how to mitigate bias during recruitment.

Almost three years after joining, I realize that staying in the sorority was also a mistake. By convincing myself that the system itself could be changed, I helped perpetuate a system that hurts people. I was a diversity token to display every year at the presentations to administrators on why my Greek organization should remain on campus. Meanwhile, new women entered the system under the false pretense that there were “diversity efforts” only to experience the same racism and classism, except maybe a little better concealed.

Not only have I lived in a Greek house, I have tried unsuccessfully to change the Greek system from the inside. My experience is not rare, and I hope that more people will come out publicly to share some of what they have experienced. It is my opinion that the Greek system is not a solution to the problems we face on campus, including racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and rape culture, but rather a significant contributor to those problems. It is my opinion that the answer is not more trainings, or some organizations losing their houses while the system itself remains in place. I believe that the answer is to end it.

—Lizzie Alvarado Ford ’20

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