Union College has asked the current leadership at its chapter of the Sigma Delta Tau national sorority to put its fall pledging activities "on hold" following the publication last week of a pro-hazing column an alumna wrote for Cosmopolitan magazine's website.
"We don't tolerate hazing at Union," college spokesman Phillip Wajda told BuzzFeed in an email Monday. "The column references incidents that allegedly took place three years ago and we are working with the national chapter of Sigma Delta Tau to review the claims [in the column]."
The column, titled "Why Getting Hazed by My Sorority Was Weirdly Worth It," was written by Tess Koman, who rushed the Beta Xi chapter of Sigma Delta Tau (ΣΔΤ) during fall 2010 and graduated in 2013 from Union, a small private liberal arts college in Schenectady, New York.
In the article, which was posted in the magazine's "heath & fitness tips" section on Thursday, Sept. 19, Koman describes her experiences pledging — and how she was "scared shitless" by the whole process. She says she was embarrassed and bullied by her future sorority sisters, but the hazing she endured was worth it because of the friends she made. "As horrible as hazing felt, it allowed me to bond more closely with some of my now-best friends than any experience I ever had," Koman writes.
In her piece, Koman describes how "the most defining term of [her] life" was marked by "hysterical" phone calls to her mother, being "on call" for the pledge masters, feeling guilty about participating in non-sorority activities, and "line-ups" and "lock-ins" at the sorority house characterized by humiliation and fear of not being "worthy." In one of the most disturbing scenes from her column, Koman tells how she and her fellow pledges were required to do a "line-up" dressed completely in white with no makeup, and take turns standing helplessly under a spotlight as they were criticized by their future sisters:
All of the sisters sat in the dark. We couldn't see anything, but they could see all of us and our every imperfection. ... The sisters, who wanted to be amused and make us cry, asked us ridiculous and mean questions. "Do your sexiest dance," they once demanded. "Why aren't you working hard enough? Why are you doing that? You look so stupid." Well of course I looked stupid — I was gyrating by myself under a spotlight while another pledge pretended to be a stripper pole. "Why do you think you're better than us?" was commonly asked. "Who is the prettiest sister in the room? Which one of us is a lesbian and why do you think that?" At any given line-up, at least a third of my pledge class cried.
The rest of Koman's piece depicts similar embarrassing acts that she participated in so that she could join the exclusive sorority community. "We were constantly told the sorority was special, that it was a privilege. And it is," she writes. "To this day, I absolutely believe it is." She concedes, however, that she now knows she was being totally "mindfucked," and ends her column with an admittance: "Pledging and getting hazed is horrible. But there's a reason it's not going anywhere any time soon."
Friday on her Twitter page, Koman appears to have responded to critics, saying, "Sometimes ya gotta roll with the punches (not literal punches, guys, I am a totally non-aggressive person!!)."
Koman has also responded to several people who comment on her story on Cosmo's website. "I never meant to insinuate that there is only one way to bond as a sisterhood — I wanted to put my own experience out there," she writes to Jen Nelson.
On Twitter, many — including a fellow Sigma Delta Tau sorority sister — have posted their outrage at Koman's article over the last couple of days.
A few people, however, have tweeted their support.
Many of the comments on Cosmo's website and Facebook page defend the integrity of rushing a sorority, saying that the experience Koman describes in her column is not representative of all Greek life. "My sorority has made such a positive impact in my life, and similarly to what I'm sure a lot of other girls have also experienced, I have never been hazed in my life," Allison Chvojan writes on Cosmo's Facebook under a link to Koman's article.
Despite colleges and organizations across the nation prohibiting hazing practices, though — both New York State law and Union College policy "prohibit hazing in all its forms," for example — the problem persists. A 2008 University of Maine study found that over half of students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations nationwide experience hazing. Many students also, unfortunately, recognize hazing as part of "campus culture," with nearly 70% of those surveyed reporting they were aware of hazing activities happening on their campuses.
On Sept. 22, the following message from Sigma Delta Tau President Michelle Carlson was posted on the sorority's Facebook page:
We are aware of the article printed in Cosmopolitan Magazine regarding the new member process at Union College. Sigma Delta Tau Sorority does not condone hazing. Our mission of empowering women at both the undergraduate and alumnae level is in the forefront of all sorority activities, and hazing is absolutely against our values and policies. The National Headquarters of Sigma Delta Tau has already begun an investigation into these allegations and will continue to work closely with our undergraduate chapters to ensure adherence to our zero-tolerance policy.
Sigma Delta Tau is a member of the National Panhellenic Conference, which is an umbrella organization for 26 international sororities and fraternities. According to SDT's website, "The mission of Sigma Delta Tau is to enrich the lifetime experience of women of similar ideals, to build lasting friendships, and to foster personal growth." On Monday morning, Sigma Delta Tau's Twitter account tweeted about National Hazing Prevention Week, which takes place nationwide from Sept. 23–27.
Koman and representatives from Sigma Delta Tau did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed.