‘Bad Neighbours’, ‘American Pie’, and ‘Blue Mountain State’ are all films and programmes that we watch in our teens and early twenties wondering if this actually represents what American College life is really like. Chad and Troy high-five Brent the high school jock in their varsity jackets before swiftly wedgie-ing a dork and a couple of dweebs and pulling out their red plastic cups to see off a bud-light and scream a turrets-like assortment of “bro, dude, dude, bro”. However, what appears prominent in all of these films is that Sororities and Fraternities appear to be the life of the party more often than not. Arriving in America for the first time for my year abroad exchange I pondered whether joining a fraternity would be for me. I knew from the films that they loved an alcoholic beverage or two, they liked to party, and they would probably be my best bet for having the greatest time I possibly could whilst abroad. So, after a couple months of meeting and greeting and going through the ‘rushing’ process to meet the brothers of fraternities; I received a bid for Beta Lambda Zeta. What I had initially thought would be all about beer pong and dancing a well-performed whip before transitioning into a majestic ‘nae nae’ was about to change when I experienced ‘Pledge Week’.

I hadn’t previously thought about what the initiation process would contain and after hearing stories about things that went on I concluded that the stories were just extreme exaggerations to make people nervous. For one fraternity, a giant alumni hillbilly came back to fight the pledges in a one-on-one duel in a field; for another you had to bite the head off of a live chicken and slap your John Thomas to glory by the local duck pond, but, I think understandably, I had never taken any of these rumours particularly seriously. I knew from films like ‘Bad Neighbours’ that pledging might contain drinking and being made fun of, but I hadn’t prepared myself for the week that lay ahead.

What I had initially thought would be all about beer pong and dancing a well-performed whip before transitioning into a majestic ‘nae nae’ was about to change when I experienced ‘Pledge Week’.

The week turned out to be nine days, from Friday to the next Sunday, of emotional and physical hardship. Many things happened and although I cannot tell you exactly what and how things happened I can give you hints. Things involved drinking, running, falling and shoving; things involved a blindfold, ‘screamo’ music, and a very hot cupboard; things involved a steep hill, a bonfire, and a Pitbull; and things involved hogties, a frosty field, and a quad bike. I can’t reveal the order or the manner by which these things happened or were used, but I can tell you that none of them were the hardest challenge of the week. The hardest challenge was without doubt the arduous amounts of knowledge we had to cram into our brains daily. Every day we were quizzed, questioned, and shouted at to state facts about the fraternity we vowed to join and if we didn’t get the answer right we received a lot more than just a sigh of disapproval. However, what made things worse was that my brain had become a brutally mangled mess starting on just the second day of Pledge Week. On the Saturday one day into pledge week I had left temporarily for some of the day in order to play a match for the College Rugby team where I ended up gaining a bad concussion. All my brain cells had been violently pummelled from my skull by the floating knee of a portly number eight, and so with only a quarter of the IQ I once had; I struggled to remember any of the historical facts of the Fraternity.

Blake taking a nap during pledge week. Source: James Bruce

Luckily, I had Blake ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ at my side. He was one of my two pledge brothers and the driving force behind the three of us answering any questions correctly. Blake may have had the hairline of an alopecia-stricken monk, hence his unfortunate nickname, but when it came to answering questions under pressure he could’ve pulled off a stupendous six-question sweep against an Adderall-snorting Governess on ITV’S The Chase. Blake always managed to come up with an answer, and with my brain-numbing concussion and my other pledge brother Nick not being renowned for being the sharpest tool in the shed; we relied on Blake to save us time after time. However, we repaid the favour during the physical tasks where Blake suddenly lost all ability to run, walk, or move without aid from Myself and Nick.

Another major player in the week was an unrelenting lack of sleep. Almost every night we were up until the crack of dawn, and every morning we had to be up at 4am to get ready and go to hold the canteen doors open in suits and ties so catching an adequate amount of slumber was rarely on the cards. We were also given deadlines for tasks that needed completing to prove that we had the desire to join the fraternity. We were asked to create, sand, and decorate nine paddles for respected members of the fraternity and ourselves; and we were asked to make one thousand nine hundred and twenty-seven pin-on badges to commemorate the founding of our fraternity and one of the most significant alumni ‘Mr. Mitchell’. After watching and loving Art Attack as a kid I’d usually be first to don the paints and get stuck into the glue and sticky paper, but after days of a cripplingly weakening lack of sleep; all the ‘Art’ made me want to ‘Attack’ was my face with a shovel. However, after pushing through all of these obstacles and a grand finale, on the Sunday night of my 21st birthday I was done. I felt stupendously happy, was presented with a bottle of Woodford preserve Whiskey which I cracked open and swigged with glee, and sat with my new brothers and pledge brothers to contemplate all of what had just happened.

Me (Bruce) with Pledge Brothers at an event. Source: Bruce James

Now, many will react to this in a manner which I would have before I had gone through the process. Many would think that it sounds weird and ridiculous, stupid and immature, but it is the ridiculously crazy and challenging nature of the week that makes the fraternity what it is. Without undergoing the pledge process, becoming part of the fraternity would have meant nothing beyond joining a social club and would be no different to gaining any other group of friends. Like in many other groups that we see here in England such as Rugby or Cricket, ‘initiations’ are part and parcel of joining and although viewed with scepticism and criticism they act as a challenge which makes joining that particular club mean something to you. It is an achievement to have gone through the ‘pledging process’ and so you walk around wearing your letters with your head held high knowing that not everyone could accomplish what you have done. Pledges are able to quit or refuse to do anything as they go through the process and so it is not as if we are being forced against our will to do things we do not want to. Everyone there has to accept a bid to be there which lays out what will be expected of you. The choice is there to refuse it, and so with this choice comes the sense of achievement when you accomplish something that not everyone can do or gets an offer to do.

Without undergoing the pledge process, becoming part of the fraternity would have meant nothing beyond joining a social club and would be no different to gaining any other group of friends.

Joining a fraternity was an insane choice on my part, but after going through the hardships, trials and tribulations of the process I know what it’s all about now. I now have family across the sea that I can count on to help me out if anything goes wrong in my life, and vice versa. It sounds cheesy I’ll admit, and I would’ve laughed if I’d been told I was going to write this after my experience of joining Greek Life, but once you’ve joined and gone through hell to get there you realise what the American Greek system is all about. Plus, Greeks have loads of parties so that’s always good too.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Very honest piece and luckily the author sounds self aware. I am glad he enjoyed Greek life, and I’m sure it added loads to the experience.

    However, having studied in Virginia too (different college) and not joined a fraternity, I can tell you that it is not required at all to enjoy the experience – don’t believe the myth that you’ve gotta be in a frat to have fun, alcohol based or not. I’ve also got a family abroad now, and it didn’t require me to hold canteen doors open. Also, it’s all well and good to idolise frats and the “achievement” of mental and physical deprivation, but be aware of the worrying statistics that follow them surrounding pledhe deaths, sexual assaults, and racist behaviour. But don’t ask a frat guy, since they will always deny culpability.

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