Coming in as a first year with little knowledge of the clubs and activities scene at Penn, I felt quite lost. In high school, I was the leader of many clubs, and I had hoped that Penn would offer even more opportunities to form communities with more variety, which would naturally come with a large school. I was shocked to find that the opposite was true.
When students first come to Penn, it is natural that they will feel a lack of agency and personal power, at least compared to how they may have felt in high school. A large portion of the Penn undergraduate student body was quite active in extracurricular activities in high school, so joining lots of clubs would logically make sense for these students. It’s not really that simple, though; many clubs require lengthy application processes, tryouts, or auditions, and with such a large student population, these applications tend to draw large numbers of people.
In addition to the almost ubiquitous practice of club dues, one can easily see that Penn's club culture strongly resembles the act of actually applying to college through its microtransactions and rigorous process. This type of system adds stress and unnecessary competition to clubs, which are supposed to be communal endeavors.
Applications like these can be quite overwhelming for any student, especially for first years who are living on their own for the first time in an unfamiliar and new environment. For students who felt like they had a high degree of agency and influence in their high school environment, the application process and the possibility of not being able to join a club after already being admitted into a university with an uber-competitive admissions system can be humiliating and disheartening.
It is for these exact reasons that greek life has become such a staple of Penn’s culture. The advantages to joining a greek organization are much more visible to the outside observer than that of a club. For instance, there is obvious power associated with being able to guard a door at a fraternity party and being able to control who enters and leaves, and there are obvious communal connections in Greek life that reveal themselves through speech, such as titles for members like brother or sister. This type of camaraderie is hidden for many clubs and activities who, through their applications and stress-heavy interviews, give off the impression that their organization is not only exclusive like a Greek organization, but also incredibly serious in their practices.
In a stressful environment like Penn, it is important that students have a place to pursue their passions without academic pressure. This is a role that should be primarily fulfilled by clubs. However, many clubs at Penn are as competitive as Greek organizations when it comes to barriers that prevent students from joining; this causes many students to end up lacking true communities or choosing to invest their time and energy into Greek organizations instead.
Penn students are thus left with the impression that fraternities and sororities are the organizations that will truly give them a home away from home. Fraternities are where many Penn students go when they want to feel untethered to their responsibilities or classes; they simply want to be out. For those seeking to regain the influence that they had in high school, or those who want to be a part of something that feels just so ingrained in campus culture, rushing feels like the logical next step. In fact, many students who were, prior to arriving on campus, totally against the idea of rushing have now decided to commit to it after seeing how entrenched greek life is in campus culture (an estimated 25 percent of Penn students are affiliated with greek organizations), and, presumably, observing how clubs can hardly compete with its influence.
Clubs have the right to take themselves seriously, but it is time to seriously consider whether the application process truly weeds out people who won’t put in effort for the club or whether it merely pushes students away. Yes, it’s true that many clubs would receive a boatload of new members if they instituted a GBM policy, but the time has come for club applications to be made less stressful and instead centered around creating tightly knit communities and developing the skills necessary to further the club’s goals.
There are already extensive election processes held within more competitive clubs that decide leadership positions. The question arises, then: Why not make membership open for all clubs and have leadership positions remain as the only form of internal hierarchy? After all, those who are willing to put in the effort for their clubs are more likely to receive leadership positions, and having open membership will not stop the more active members from becoming leaders. It will only open up clubs so that they can become truly communal organizations rather than microcosms of the competitive Ivy League spirit that pervade Penn student life.
IZZY FEINFELD is a College first year studying Anthropology from Westwood, Massachusetts. His email is email@example.com.