Sunik Kim: For international students, Greek life is essential

When I started writing for The Hatchet last semester, I wasn’t involved in any other activities outside of class. College in the U.S. was a new world that I was afraid to explore.

But since my first column and after those first few months, a lot has changed: I joined a fraternity. Held up in movies and pop culture as a quintessential American institution, Greek life has actually made a major difference in my transition to the U.S.

Taking the first step toward rushing wasn’t all that easy. It’s hard for people like me, whose interpersonal skills are far from perfect, to roam across campus and introduce myself to hordes of new people in narrow townhouses.

As a Korean student in the U.S., I found the rush process – where everyone is forced into a hyper-social environment – very unnatural and awkward.

On top of that, if you are a foreigner, it is hard to shake that feeling that others are looking at you with a skeptical eye, even at a diverse university like GW.

But as I considered the advantages that fraternal connections could provide – not only in college but after graduation – I decided that I needed to overcome my nerves and the cultural barrier.

One big reason students join fraternities or sororities is obvious: to create a new social circle and to build a network that will last even after Commencement.

This is particularly enticing, and even essential, for international students. We don’t necessarily have access to the built-in American connections linked by parents and home communities that our U.S.-born peers can take advantage of.

After I joined GW’s Tau Kappa Epsilon chapter, I felt more confident in my social circle and my ability to network.

One of my fraternity brothers offered to help me write a cover letter for a job application. And our fraternity’s supervisor offered to forward our resumés to potential employers looking to hire interns. There’s also the fraternity listserv, which often shares information about jobs and internships.

I’m not the only college student from another country who has struggled to make connections. In fact, when surveyed, a whopping 73 percent of international students said that they have between zero and two strong American friendships, according to a study published last year in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication.

This problem is particularly prevalent among East Asian college students, of whom more than half claimed that they had no American friends despite going to a college in the U.S. It’s possible that cultural differences, like study habits and social customs, may explain this barrier.

But this is where Greek life can come in. If a purpose of a university system is to train students for real-world activities, joining on-campus groups can help international students catch up to their American peers.

For those planning to stay in the U.S. after graduation, close-knit relationships created through fraternities and sororities can be a determining factor in later social and professional success.

There’s research to back this up. In his decade-old study, “Peers and Social Networks in Job Search,” Dartmouth College economics professor Bruce Sacerdote writes that the average salary achieved by people who have networked through Greek life is the highest, even beating out networking through professors and career services.

For international students, this data should be convincing. Greek life organizations help to break barriers that exist between foreign students and American society, giving international students a leg up in job searches after graduation. And Greek life can foster confidence in international students, which makes their likelihood of being able to stand out as job applicants higher.

Joining Greek life can have its benefits for everyone. But international students like myself run the risk of falling back socially and even professionally if they don’t find their brothers and sisters.

The writer is a sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.