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Europe Meets D.C.: Fraternities, sororites and Halloween

Saturday - 11/3/2012, 3:51pm  ET

Christine Amdam, of Norway, and Alina Braun, of Germany, are WTOP interns experiencing American culture. (WTOP/Melvin Chase)
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Editors Note: They traveled 1,230 miles to come to Washington, D.C. -- Christine Amdam flew all the way from Norway and Alina Braun from Germany. This fall, they are studying journalism at American University and working as interns for WTOP. They quickly discovered that Washington and the American culture are very different from their hometowns Oslo and Mannheim and decided to document their experiences. Check each weekend to read about Christine and Alina's "culture clashes."

Fraternities and sororities - building the U.S. elite

Alina Braun, special to

I learned about American fraternities and sororities through Hollywood movies shown on German television. Thus, as you can imagine, my idea of fraternity and sorority life was pretty much created by stereotypes: rich students living in big houses wanting to be one of the ‘popular' kids, partying and getting drunk every weekend and trying to date the quarterback or a cheerleader. A lot of the students I have met at American University are part of fraternities or sororities. It seems like they truly consider their sorority sisters and fraternity brothers to be a second family. They play a big part in their lives and have an important role in American culture.

In Germany, we also have fraternities and a few sororities. However, they are not that important in our culture and student life. They are mostly small groups connected by a special interest in music, politics, etc. In the U.S., there are 123 fraternities and sororities with 9 million members. In contrast, in Germany there are 1,000 fraternities and sororities with only 22,000 student members.

After watching Hollywood movies, I believed for a long time that the only reason to join a sorority would be to meet people, be part of a group and enjoy the party fun. However, I learned that there is more to it. In many sororities and fraternities in the U.S. members are supposed to do voluntary work. There are weekly meetings, activities and members acquire different positions, just like in a company. I think the most important thing is that you create a network that will help and support you in your future career - having better chances by knowing the right people.

Indeed, the American political and economical elite have been a part of sororities and fraternities for decades. About a quarter of all chief executives on the 2003 Forbes Super 500 list of America's largest corporations were members of college fraternities. According to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, 44 percent of U.S. presidents have held fraternity membership. John F. Kennedy, for example, was in Phi Kappa Theta at Harvard and George W. Bush was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale.

Career networking in fraternity circles is also visible in Germany. However, a majority of Germans consider elitism associated with fraternities to be a negative development. In a democracy everybody should have the same chances. Being a member of a particular group should not give somebody better chances for jobs or a higher payment. Of course, this is a very unrealistic thought. Today, many people get jobs mainly because of who they know. However, I think it is good to grow an elite crew which excludes other, maybe more talented people.

Another criticism in Germany is that a big social part of fraternities includes excessive drinking parties. Talking to some Americans, I have the feeling that this is not different in the United States. Furthermore, there are some so-called beating fraternities in Germany: Members learn fencing and have to participate in traditional fencing competitions sometimes without wearing helmets. Thus, these members often have scars on their foreheads as a sign of their membership. This tradition goes back to the middle ages and still continues today. Until the 1930s, scars on members' faces were considered a status symbol.

However, the most prominent critique regarding fraternities in Germany is that some of them have Nazi-ideological tendencies. Last year, there was a big scandal in a fraternity in Cologne. Members wanted to exclude one of their fraternity brothers because his parents were from China. Furthermore, at the annual meeting of the "German Fraternity," a member requested that only students of German descent should be allowed to join. Luckily, many members voted against that request.

Fraternities in Germany represent an elite class and have old and unnecessary traditions such as fencing and excessive drinking. I used to think fraternities here are more about simple college partying and belonging to a popular group, but I realized that the main purpose is also networking and having better chances than others on the job market. The core idea of fraternities and sororities is the same in both countries - it is just more popular and less questioned in the U.S.

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