Freshman Taylor Vibbert has always wanted to be in a sorority. When she signed up to rush this fall at Western Kentucky University, she was looking forward to the fanfair, house tours and meet-and-greets.
Then she got some bad news: Greek recruitment would be mostly virtual this year.
"That was a bummer," the 18-year-old from Louisville, Ky., said in early August. "Honestly, if I would have known, I probably wouldn't have signed up."
Vibbert was concerned she would be more outgoing in-person than over the computer, but she was willing to see how it goes.
That willingness is something Greek organizations across the country are banking on this fall. According to the latest numbers, more than 600,000 American college students are active members of fraternities or sororities, and those organizations rely heavily on member dues. But the pandemic has forced many chapters — some over a century old — to move the bulk of their recruitment online, and to reconsider their pitch to students now that social activities are less of an option.
"We're looking at at least a year of none of the large traditional social gatherings that we're accustomed to," says industry consultant Gentry McCreary.
If Greek organizations, especially the large social chapters, can't provide a more meaningful experience beyond the parties, McCreary says, "there's no way that those groups will be able to survive."
Fraternities and sororities are organized around everything from gender and cultural identity, to religion and academic field of study. And these nonprofits bring in millions of dollars in member dues and contributions every year — money that then goes toward charitable events, sexual assault prevention and leadership programs, among other things.
"If less people are joining there are less dues coming in," McCreary says. "That has an impact on the bottom line."
While statistics for active members in collegiate chapters are hard to come by, data provided to NPR by two of the largest social Greek associations — the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference — put the numbers well into the hundreds of thousands.
Gentry McCreary works closely with some 20 national Greek organizations on research, annual assessments and membership surveys. He says the number of students going Greek has plateaued the last few years, after about two decades of increases. And while the final stats for fall 2020 recruitment won't be out for months, several schools he's spoken to are reporting "record-breaking numbers of students" signing up to rush.
Pitching Greek life during a pandemic
"If there were any time to join a sorority, now is the most important time," says Ashlee Dunn, chapter president of Alpha Omicron Pi, a women's fraternity at Middle Tennessee State University. She says AOPi's national organization has been working with chapters since the spring to prepare a mostly-virtual recruitment in September.
But what's her pitch to potential new members?
"A sisterhood is going to keep you in check and keep you motivated," Dunn says. "You can text your sister or have a FaceTime. It's the little things that are going to keep you going during such separation."
The chapter has planned a semester of mostly-virtual and some in-person gatherings.
But all those activities hinge on Middle Tennessee State University's reopening plans — which could change at any moment. Campuses across the country are already altering plans based on what the coronavirus is doing.
Still, not every Greek organization is in uncharted territory. Fraternities and sororities based on race, culture and identity tend to recruit much more directly, through personal outreach, informational sessions and community service projects.
Valerie Hollingsworth Baker, president of the Black sorority Zeta Phi Beta, says her organization is "well equipped" for this moment. The group has worked for years to make more of their operations virtual and, she says, "it's working for them."
"When you do have this virtual type of style to try to reach out and touch the masses, you can do so in smaller groups and one-on-ones and really encourage and keep everyone going," Hollingsworth Baker says.
Jessica Snell, of the National Multicultural Greek Council, is excited about the opportunities virtual recruitment might open for them.
"We need to think outside the box and really think about what it is to engage with not only our current members, but [outside] folks that may be interested," Snell says. "How are we communicating and piquing interest and engagement with our entire community?"
A few weeks after she first spoke to NPR, freshman Taylor Vibbert considers her recruitment experience a success. She says the three days of virtual meetings — or "parties" — she attended in mid-August weren't all that bad, and "not meeting people in person really took away any jitters."
"Each party you'd go to, each sorority would have a little overview and then they'd send you into a breakout room over Zoom where you kind of just had a one-on-one conversation with one of the girls in the chapter," Vibbert says.
In the end, she pledged Alpha Xi Delta and says she's actually really excited now about the semester ahead. And her one piece of advice for others getting ready to rush a fraternity or a sorority in the middle of a pandemic?
"Just breathe," she says. "You just have to talk and be yourself."
That's one thing that hasn't changed this year.
Ashley Westerman is an alumna of the Alpha Omicron Pi chapter at the University of Kentucky.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Hundreds of thousands of American college students are active members of fraternities or sororities. Fall recruitment is often a highlight of the new school year. So how are these groups, which are built on socialization, going to adapt to the COVID-19 era? Many of them are going virtual. Here's NPR's Ashley Westerman.
ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: A typical sorority recruitment sounds like, well, probably what you'd imagine.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We are Delta Gamma - bronze, pink and blue.
WESTERMAN: This is a recruitment video produced by Delta Gamma sorority at the University of Alabama.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) ...O-K (ph).
WESTERMAN: The cheers, the house tours, the rapid-fire meet-and-greets - they're all pretty standard recruitment procedures for large social sororities.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Welcome to DG house. Come on in. Hi.
WESTERMAN: But this year, because of the pandemic, recruitment is more likely to sound like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING)
TAYLOR VIBBERT: Hello. Yes, I can hear you. Nice to meet you, too.
WESTERMAN: Taylor Vibbert is a freshman at Western Kentucky University. When we spoke some weeks ago, she said she always planned to join a sorority, and she'd recently learned recruitment this semester was going to be mostly virtual.
VIBBERT: That was a bummer. Honestly, if I would've known, I probably wouldn't have signed up.
WESTERMAN: She was concerned her personality might not come across virtually.
VIBBERT: I'm probably way more outgoing in person than I am on the computer. But I don't - we'll see how it goes (laughter).
WESTERMAN: Vibbert is one of tens of thousands of students who will rush a fraternity or sorority this school year, and industry consultant Gentry McCreary says there's a lot at stake for Greek organizations.
GENTRY MCCREARY: If less people are joining, there are less dues coming in. That has an impact on the bottom line. That has an impact in terms of staffing and support. So there's a direct correlation between the number of students who join and then the services that these organizations are able to provide.
WESTERMAN: He says some chapters are going to have to pivot and provide a more meaningful experience beyond the parties.
MCCREARY: If they don't, there's no way that those groups will be able to survive because we're looking at at least a year of none of the large traditional social gatherings that we're accustomed to.
WESTERMAN: McCreary says the number of students going Greek has plateaued the last few years. And while recruitment stats for this fall won't be out for months, he says he's spoken to several schools that are reporting record-breaking numbers of students signing up. That's despite not just a pandemic but also rising membership costs, reports of structural racism within the predominantly white social fraternities and sororities and a slew of recent high-profile hazing incidents - issues, McCreary says, these organizations are working hard to remedy.
ASHLEE DUNN: If there were any time to join a sorority, now is the most important time.
WESTERMAN: Ashlee Dunn is the chapter president of Alpha Omicron Pi at Middle Tennessee State University. Here's her pitch to potential new members.
DUNN: A sisterhood is going to keep you in check and keep you motivated. You can text your sister or have a FaceTime. It's the little things that are going to keep you going during such separation.
WESTERMAN: The chapter has planned a semester of mostly virtual and some in-person gatherings, but all those activities hinge on MTSU's reopening plans, and colleges across the country are already changing plans based on what the coronavirus is doing. Still, not every Greek organization is in uncharted territory.
VALERIE HOLLINGSWORTH BAKER: We have a lot of virtual programs that are going on, and the sisterhood, it's working for them.
WESTERMAN: Valerie Hollingsworth Baker is the president of the Black sorority Zeta Phi Beta. She says her organization is well-equipped for this moment. They've worked for years to make more of their operations virtual.
HOLLINGSWORTH BAKER: When you do have this virtual type of style of trying to reach out and touch the masses, you can do so in smaller groups and one-on-ones and really encourage and keep everyone going.
WESTERMAN: Greek organizations based on race, culture and identity tend to recruit much more directly, something the bigger social chapters might have to get used to.
VIBBERT: Not meeting people in person and really took away any, like, jitters.
WESTERMAN: Taylor Vibbert completed recruitment in mid-August and says the three days of virtual meetings or parties weren't all that bad.
VIBBERT: Each party you'd go to, each sorority would kind of have a little overview, and then they'd send you into a breakout room over Zoom, where you kind of just had, like, a one-on-one conversation with one of the girls in the chapter.
WESTERMAN: In the end, Vibbert pledged Alpha Xi Delta and says she's actually really excited now about the semester ahead. And her one piece of advice for others getting ready to rush a fraternity or sorority in the middle of a pandemic?
VIBBERT: Just breathe. You just have to talk and be yourself.
WESTERMAN: At least some things haven't changed this year.
Ashley Westerman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.