Beginning in the early 1980s, as U.S. college enrollment became increasingly diverse, a series of new and independent Greek fraternal organizations began to pop up on campuses across the country. Following the example of the many prominent African American fraternities and sororities founded in the first half of the 20th century, these organizations were created by minority students — primarily those of Asian, Latino, and mixed ethnic descent — who sought to make Greek life more inclusive.
Today, these organizations provide strong on-campus support systems and foster cultural pride for thousands of students as well as continue to inspire other underrepresented groups to “go Greek” on their own terms.
[Above: Mu Delta Alpha’s Alpha class poses with founder Samira Maddox (front row center) at UT Dallas in December 2017 (photo by Nida Rehman Photography).]
Maria Diaz, president of the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations (NALFO), believes the greatest benefit of joining an ethnically based fraternity or sorority — aside from forming lifelong friendships — is the opportunity to connect to one’s roots, even while attending a predominantly white institution. Through her own personal experience as an undergraduate, Diaz says she was introduced to many aspects of Latino culture for the first time through cultural awareness events, such as cooking classes and traditional dances, hosted by her sorority. Additionally, learning about the Latino subcultures of her sorority sisters inspired her to research and take pride in her own Dominican heritage.
For those already familiar with their cultural background or who come from communities where everyone shares their ethnicity, these types of Greek organizations can “provide a safe space where [they] are free to be themselves and celebrate their culture and heritage,” says Vigor Lam, vice chair of the National Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Panhellenic Association (NAPA).
NAPA’s fraternities and sororities encompass a wide range of ethnicities and interests — from Delta Kappa Delta, an Asian-interest service sorority, to Delta Sigma Iota, a fraternity for South Asian men who seek to live by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. While each organization has its own unique membership focus and values, they all share the common goal to advocate for the inclusion, representation, and rights of Asian Americans on college campuses and in the broader community. This overarching mission dates back to the 1929 founding of Pi Alpha Phi (PAP) — the only NAPA organization created before 1981 — when Asian Americans were barred from joining traditionally white Greek organizations.
Today, PAP and NAPA’s 17 other member organizations focus primarily on advocating for Asian Americans’ civic engagement and building awareness of the many different ethnicities and subcultures represented by its members.
Around the same time that Latino and Asian organizations began growing in popularity, students who identified as multi-ethnic began creating their own Greek organizations. “There was a very traditional setup in terms of Greek life, and there was nothing that fit a lot of newer generations,” explains Victoria Valdez, president of the National Multicultural Greek Council (NMGC). “There was no one place for all these different cultures and people of different backgrounds to unite and have a common bond.”
Known simply as multicultural fraternities and sororities, these organizations quickly attracted students of all sociocultural identities who wanted to experience Greek life in an environment that was diverse and inclusive. “We never turn away someone from a particular race, creed, ethnicity, or economic background because having a diverse membership is what allows us to learn from each other,” Valdez explains. “We’re not looking for a certain type [of person]; we’re looking for people for whom the mission of the organization they’re joining is dear to their heart.”
In addition to learning about and celebrating each other’s cultures, members of NMGC organizations tend to place a high value on advocacy and social justice. While all NMGC fraternities and sororities — like most other Greek organizations — support distinct philanthropic causes, they also teach members to advocate for diversity and inclusion on a broader scale and often host events on their campuses that highlight commonalities between different ethnic groups in order to promote unity and understanding. NMGC also expects members to be active in their local communities by participating in events like Martin Luther King Day parades, cultural festivals and celebrations, and meetings or rallies focused on social justice issues.
At the national level, NMGC advocates for causes such as protecting the rights of individuals in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and raising awareness of the dangers of hazing on college campuses. Its fraternities and sororities have held discussions and workshops during their conferences — which each organization hosts annually — that teach members how to campaign against hazing and handle such incidents if they occur. Valdez says this is one of NMGC’s top priorities, as some local chapters have been forced to cease all operations due to campus-wide bans on Greek life events following occurrences of alcohol and drug use and abuse as well as hazing deaths at other fraternities and sororities.
“Even though [hazing] hasn’t happened under our council, we should still use this opportunity to learn from these incidents and educate others about them,” explains Valdez.
She notes that the ongoing backlash against campus Greek organizations due to several highly publicized hazing deaths in recent years has affected NMGC organizations “because most people don’t know how Greek life is separated within different councils,” she says. “They think all fraternities and sororities are the same.”
Diaz agrees that much of the recent press coverage and campus sanctions fail to distinguish Greek organizations as separate entities ruled by individual councils. She believes that because of current negative opinions about Greek life, multicultural fraternities and sororities must work to raise awareness of their value to underrepresented students and to higher education overall.
“This is an opportunity for our organizations to show how we benefit students and that there’s great worth in having groups like ours on campus,” says Diaz.
In recent years, Muslim students have also been inspired to form their own Greek organizations. In 2013, a group of young men at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) created the country’s first Islamic fraternity, Alpha Lambda Mu (ALM). A year later, their female classmates followed suit by forming the club Muslimahs for Change, which in 2016 was officially designated as a sorority under the name Mu Delta Alpha (MDA).
“At the beginning of the semester, when all the campus groups would come out to showcase what they do and recruit new members, there were no Muslim women represented,” says Samira Maddox, MDA founder and national president. “We had the Muslim Student Association, but we wanted to have something with a professional aspect, where we could form a history and leave a legacy for others.”
In fall 2016, MDA welcomed its first cohort of pledges at UT Dallas, and by 2017, it had launched a Beta chapter at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).
The sorority has already attracted much attention, both locally and nationally. “With all of the negative news about Muslims and immigrants, I think people view us as a feel-good news story,” says Maddox. “Our members get very excited when they see MDA in the news because it’s like people finally want to listen to what we as Muslim women are saying.”
Other students at institutions across the country have contacted MDA about starting chapters on their own campuses, but for the time being, the group is focused on building its base at UT Dallas and UT Austin. This effort includes establishing programs and traditions to aid the social and professional development of its members, explains Hira Ali, vice president and pledge program chair. For example, both MDA chapters host “Sisterhood Saturdays” for members to have open but confidential discussions about issues affecting Muslim women that may be taboo or too personal to discuss in an open forum.
Programs and events such as this represent the ways in which multicultural fraternities and sororities provide unique, culturally centric support for underrepresented students. As the diversity of U.S. college enrollment grows, these organizations are positioned to not only continue to connect their members to supportive communities, but also advance awareness and acceptance of different cultural groups on campuses across the country.
Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our March 2018 issue.