CORONAVIRUS

Campus Greek life: socially distant but still social

Chapters at Iowa public universities going virtual

Nick Savage, a University of Northern Iowa senior, is a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and president of th
Nick Savage, a University of Northern Iowa senior, is a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and president of the Interfraternity Council. Photographed Wednesday at the SAE house in Cedar Falls. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
/

Long-held notions of Greek life on campus — house parties and activities, chapter tours and games and events celebrating new recruits — will be upended when fraternity and sorority members, or those pining to be, return this fall to Iowa’s public universities amid the pandemic.

Many aspects of the upcoming sorority and fraternity recruitment across the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa campuses will happen virtually.

“Tabling” — when chapters drum up interest with on-campus displays — will happen over Zoom or other social media platforms. House tours also will be given virtually — out of concern for students who live in the houses and could be compromised by unknown visitors. Many recruitment events, meetings and activities will involve screens.

“Students’ health and safety is paramount to anything else,” said UNI senior Nick Savage, 21, who serves as president of his campus’ Interfraternity Council and lives in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house there.

As Savage and his UNI Fraternity and Sorority Life colleagues considered how Greek life should shift in light of the pandemic, he said they asked: “How can we keep them as safe and as comfortable as possible — whether that’s doing it all virtually, having virtual aspects, how to practice safe social distancing if a chapter decides to do an event face-to-face?

“At the end of the day,” Savage told The Gazette, “student health and safety is paramount above anything else.”

UNI senior Abbie Bennett, who serves as president of her campus’ Panhellenic Council as is a member of Gamma Phi Beta, said leadership considered not only recruits but current members in deciding how to proceed this fall with traditions baked into the Greek system in a not-so-traditional way.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“What does their safety look like in meeting 100 potential new members?” Bennett asked, noting they collected chapter feedback on whether to go partial or fully virtual.

“We actually decided to do fully virtual recruitment, except for bid day, for the safety and health of everyone involved,” Bennett said. “That just really limits the amount of women who are going to contact our members. And that also limits the amount of women the potential new members will have contact with.”

UNI plans to kick off recruitment week activities Aug. 25 — a week after its students start back to class earlier than originally planned, due to COVID-19. And although UNI fraternities plan to hold some in-person events, Savage said, they will happen outdoors, involve social distancing and require masks — per a campuswide policy mandating face coverings.

UI and ISU

Details of which events will occur in person, and which will shift online and how, will vary by chapter and campus, though UI and ISU fraternity and sorority life officials said they, too, expect a heavy virtual component to fall recruitment.

At ISU — which will start recruitment Friday, 10 days before classes convene — welcome events, chapter introductions and member discussions will happen in virtual settings, according to Bill Boulden, assistant dean of students and director of Sorority and Fraternity Engagement.

But some pieces will continue in person, with social distancing and masking, including sorority recruitment check-in Friday, where prospects can meet a recruitment counselor; Aug. 12 “preference,” when recruits can pursue membership by participating in up to two ceremonies; and bid day Aug. 13, which is expected to be in-person.

“We will be hosting a livestream for this event, as chapters and guests will not be permitted to attend,” Boulden said.

ISU fraternities, likewise, will hold a mix of in-person and virtual events — including online orientation, tabling, and chapter visits, followed by an Aug. 12 in-person event focused on the commitment required from fraternity men.

Bid-day events will vary by chapter, according to Boulden.

Recruitment across the UI Greek system shifted to later in the semester last year, in hopes of creating a “healthier, safer, and better-informed campus community by providing more information and training to students before they commit to joining an organization.”

Under that revised schedule, this year’s virtual recruitment for the UI Greek system will span Sept. 3 to 13 and tap a variety of online platforms, according to ShirDonna Lawrence, associate director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Programs.

“Each council’s process looks distinctly different, but to ensure that our groups are following university guidelines regarding gatherings, membership intake and formal recruitment will be held via virtual platforms,” she said.

The expectation, though, is to replicate every aspect of the recruitment experience.

“We firmly believe in our chapters and councils and their ability to be flexible and adaptable,” Lawrence said. “Though events will be conducted virtually, there has been hard work all around to make sure that the purpose behind each joining process stays intact.”

‘Won’t be chapter activities as normal’

Once this fall’s recruits find a chapter home, fraternity and sorority life will continue to look different — including in the popular houses, which historically have hosted events, meetings, service projects, study sessions and — of course — served as living quarters for dozens of members.

At the UI, which doesn’t own or operate any of the chapter houses, all student organizations still will be expected to follow guidelines crafted for the fall’s pandemic conditions.

“Failure to comply with those guidelines will result in appropriate action,” Lawrence said, although she didn’t provide details. “Since the University of Iowa does not own or operate any of the chapter structures, decisions regarding housing operations will be made by either the housing corporation or the national organization with recommendations from Fraternity and Sorority Life Programs.”

On the UNI campus, council President Bennett acknowledged sorority life will have to change — even in the chapters still housing students this fall.

“It’s definitely going to be different — just like everything else in our world right now,” she said.

With campus mandates that spaces be used at half capacity, chapters will have to either pare down participation or find larger rooms.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“We’re just going to have to get creative with how we’re going to meet with them and figure out how to stay connected,” Bennett said, noting even those mundane sister interactions — like hugging and eating together — will have to change.

“Now I just don’t think that would be able to happen,” she said.

Sororities will have to find a sufficient campus room for a movie night or pumpkin carving activity, for example. Popcorn will have to come prepackaged “so we’re not all reaching into the same bowl.”

“It definitely won’t be chapter activities as normal,” she said.

But Savage said that doesn’t mean the experience won’t still be valuable. Having endured the spring thrust online, while living in his fraternity house, the brother said he was impressed by the flexibility his colleagues managed in maintaining bonds.

“My biggest take away was how quickly our community was able to adapt,” he said. “There were chapters that weren’t able to have their social events, formals, brotherhoods or sisterhoods.

“But I haven’t heard from anyone who wasn’t able to stay connected.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.