Each year during sorority recruitment week, hundreds of young women at the University of Richmond get a crash course in small talk, smiles and social survival.

Greek 101

Colleen Neville holds her future in her hands.

It is contained in a small, cream-colored envelope of heavy card stock, the kind of envelope that usually holds a handwritten note from a friend or an invitation to an elegant dinner party. It’s the kind of envelope most people tear into eagerly, sometimes on the walk from the mailbox to the house.

Neville, though, hesitates for a moment, as she scrutinizes the envelope clutched in her unsteady hand. The college freshman knows that what’s inside will have a profound influence on her next three-and-a-half years at the University of Richmond. It will determine her friends, her social life and even how she is perceived by others.

This envelope is what Neville has been working for all week as she has trekked around campus attending sorority parties where she has smiled until her face hurt; where she has experienced the private little thrill of knowing she has made a good impression; and where she has felt the numbing self-doubt that comes from an awkward pause in conversation.

This envelope, and the Greek letters printed on the invitation held within it, represents the end of Neville’s somewhat awkward and uncertain existence as a college freshman.

This envelope changes everything.

And that is why Neville hesitates. But only for a second. Then she quickly opens the flap and unleashes her future.

ust a few weeks earlier, Neville was sure of only one thing: that after this year, her future wouldn’t involve the University of Richmond. “I had my transfer applications filled out and ready to send,” says Neville, an 18-year-old freshman from Weymouth, Mass. “I didn’t know if I could fit in here.”

In fact, Neville had almost decided not to attend the University of Richmond because of its Greek system. “I didn’t think I would want to be a part of it,” she says, remembering the difficult process of choosing a college. “I guess I just had prejudices about Greek life in general. I felt like it was an exclusive thing. I didn’t want to be restricted in who I hung out with.”

But when everyone Neville hung out with during her first few weeks at college registered for sorority recruitment, she did too. To Neville, who had already joined UR’s woman’s rugby team, the freshman class cabinet, her residence hall association and volunteered to tutor children at Carver Elementary School, she was just signing up for another thing. “I figured I’d go through and meet people and figure it out,” she says. Photo by Chad HuntPotential new member Carolyn Clements (left) meets with a Tri Delta sister on the first night of recruitment. Exaggerated smiles and gestures are common sights during recruitment week as women search for ways to set themselves apart from the pack.

Neville is one of 318 young women trying to “figure things out” during recruitment at the University of Richmond this year. Recruitment is a weeklong series of events where women become acquainted with the Greek system and are considered for membership into one of the University of Richmond’s six sororities.

It is an intense, emotionally exhausting week that, on the surface, seems to be a popularity contest played out during an endless series of highly choreographed parties where sorority women sing and clap and cheer and recite slogans such as “sisterhood is forever.” But ask anyone involved in UR’s Greek system — the 53 percent of women who belong to sororities or the 30 percent of men in fraternities — and they will tell you it is much more.

They will say it is friendship and leadership opportunities, and the chance to be a part of a group with a long and august tradition. It is security and a lifelong support-system of “sisters,” who will always be there for you, no matter what. It is a social opportunity and a chance to contribute to the community through service projects. And what they don’t often say, but what is the subtext to all of Greek life, is that it is the security that comes with finding your place and knowing you belong.

“There is a population of people who feel that Greek life is nothing more than a way to buy your friends,” says Alison Bartel, UR’s associate director for student activities and director of Greek life. “But it has a tremendous potential for a lot of leadership opportunities for women and men. If it’s done well, it can be a great experience.”

The University of Richmond and Bartel have done everything possible to ensure that Greek life here is positive. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that fraternity membership has declined about 30 percent nationally in the last decade, but at UR, Greek life is healthy, if not thriving.

While the school’s fraternity system is more than 100 years old, its sorority system was established in 1987. “The goal was to make it a model system designed for the future,” says Bartel, who helped set up the system along with representatives of the National Panhellenic Conference (the national governing body for sororities) and the six sororities which were invited to colonize here after a thorough review process.Photo by Chad HuntRecruitment Counselor Kelley Duggin (far left) distributes invitations to potential new members Meredith Berkley (left), Katy Young and Alison Stuart before the second round of sorority recruitment events.

As a result, sorority recruitment at the University of Richmond is a highly structured and controlled affair. First, there are logistics of planning how six different sororities can hold numerous parties for different groups of girls in one night. So much has to be planned in advance that once recruitment starts, it takes on a life of its own. Recruitment has never been canceled. Not when a potential new member was killed in a drunken driving accident in 1990. Not when the Gulf War started in 1991. And not when an ice storm interfered in 1996. “We have to make it work,” Bartel says. “We don’t have a choice.”

Then there are the rules — rules that govern everything from the number of balloons a sorority can use to decorate its parties (125 for the week) to how many sorority members can talk to a potential new member at one time (just two; any more than that is known as “hot boxing”).

Until this year, recruitment used to be called by its traditional name of “rush.” Women who are rushing were called “rushees,” but now are called “potential new members.” They used to attend “rush parties” but now they attend “recruitment events.” They used to get “bids” to join a sorority. Now they get “invitations to membership.”

“The new language represents more of what we’re doing than the old language [did],” Bartel explains. ” … ‘Recruitment’ fits better, and it certainly represents what is going on here. … ‘Rush’ depends on the potential member trying to convince people in the sorority they were worthy of belonging. The onus of the responsibility has shifted. Now the sorority has to sell itself, not the girl.”

On this springlike Tuesday afternoon in early January, nearly every freshman resident in Lora Robins Hall is rifling through her closet trying to figure out what to wear for her first official introduction to sorority life. They’ve been told to dress casually, but also to wear something “dressier than jeans.” Most women take this to mean black bootleg pants or khaki cargos with chunky shoes and a sweater. Neville goes the cargo-pants route, pairing hers with a fuzzy lilac turtleneck sweater.

Across campus, in the Tyler Haynes Commons, a group of sorority women works just as frantically filling balloons with helium to decorate their designated room for this evening’s recruitment events. There are no sorority houses at the University of Richmond, so each sorority is assigned a reception room for the evening.

Around 4:30 p.m., groups of women begin to line up outside six locations around campus. Outside the door to Commons Room 201, Erin Wallace and Kelley Duggin, two recruitment counselors (called “Rho Chis” for the Greek letters for R and C) give a group of about 40 nervous freshman women a pre-party pep talk.Photo by Chad HuntThe sisters of Delta Gamma sorority pump themselves up before meeting with potential new members on the first night of sorority recruitment. “The process lends itself to those women who are more extroverted, who can enjoy that high energy kind of atmosphere,” says Alison Bartel, UR’s director of Greek life.

“I know a bunch of you have met sorority women already,” Wallace says. “Don’t go in there with preconceptions. Just keep an open mind.”

Wallace and Duggin are seniors who have disassociated from their sororities during recruitment to act as peer counselors to the women going through. They are here to answer questions, to give advice and to offer a steady shoulder to cry on. They will shepherd their charges through tonight’s events, a series of six 30-minute parties at each sorority. Their charges do not know the seniors’ last names, nor do they know which sororities they belong to.

Duggin proffers a shoe box filled with gum, mints, tampons and tissues — the essentials for the evening. Then, as the sound of rhythmic clapping begins from inside the room, she offers some last-minute advice: “Try not to look at your watch or look like you are bored! Smile! Have fun!”

With that, Wallace makes three loud, steady raps on the door which is flung open to reveal the sisters of Alpha Chi Omega, all identically dressed in khaki pants and tight-fitting baby T-shirts with AXO’s Greek letters. They are arranged in two parallel lines on either side of the entrance. They are clapping and smiling and singing a song about “A-Chi-O” to the tune of “Aiko, Aiko.” Bunches of red and green balloons decorate the drab institutional room that already, on this warm night, is overheated.

Before the women outside can take in the scene they are pulled through the doorway one by one and escorted down the aisle between the singing sisters as if they are dancing the Virginia Reel. The enthusiastic singing continues until the last woman has entered the room. Then, there is silence. For about half a second, until the din of 50 different conversations erupts all at once.

The potential new members look slightly dazed. They have heard about all of the singing and clapping and enthusiasm from their Rho Chis, but until you experience it, you can’t really know what effect that level of manufactured energy has on a room. It can be a little creepy. But also strangely exhilarating.

“Choosing a sorority is a personal decision,” an Alpha Chi sister tells them, as a slide projector clicks through photos of the sisters of Alpha Chi and the theme from “Mission Impossible” plays in the background. The projector clicks to a slide of four women standing arm in arm, each wearing the letters of a different sorority. “Just because you’re in a sorority doesn’t mean you can’t be friends with people in other sororities,” the Alpha Chi says. Her sisters snap their fingers, the universal sorority sign of approval.

At precisely 5:15 p.m. the singing and clapping starts again, the signal that the party is over. Each woman is led out of the room by a sorority sister. The singing and clapping continues even after the door is closed.

Outside Delta Gamma sorority, Colleen Neville and her friend Gina Manzolli slouch against the wall, waiting for the night’s second party to start.

“It is going to be a long night,” Neville says, sighing for emphasis. Her impression of the Alpha Chi party is of “A lot of girls smiling a lot.”

“They didn’t seem fake, though,” she says. “They all seemed like they were interested.”

At this point, she’s still not sure sorority life is for her. “It is such a financial commitment,” she says. “I need convincing.”

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