It Was All Greek to Me

09/18/2015 01:40 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2016
Close up of women holding hands in park
Close up of women holding hands in park

Squashing sorority stereotypes

Do the words sorority, and Greek system, conjure up negative images in your mind?

I'll admit, I never would have joined a sorority had my sister, Heidi, not joined one first. In the fall of 1992, I was a freshman at The University of Illinois, contemplating if I should join a sorority. I knew if I pledged, I would join Alpha Epsilon Phi (AEPhi). My reasons were simple:

A. My sister was a senior at the time and could "get me in."
B. The AEPhi sorority house was located right next door to my dorm, which made it geographically desirable.

I joined AEPhi, hardly knowing any of the other young women in my pledge class. Just like high school, I found myself in a sea of strangers, feeling as if I would never find a place among these gorgeous women. I felt like a misfit in my scleroderma-ridden body and I went to great extremes to hide my chronic disease as best I could. I figured I would give sorority life a try and planned on dropping out within a month, if I still felt ridiculously out-of-place.

Joining AEPhi turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Yes, we sometimes ran around campus dancing and singing stupid songs. Yes, we engaged in stereotypical behavior like bar crawls, toilet paper fights and paint penned every plastic clipboard within a 100-mile radius. We gave those not affiliated with a fraternity or sorority plenty of material to ridicule. A lot of students on campus thought the Greek system was superficial, absurd, and squashed one's individuality.

My experience was the opposite. I didn't lose my identity, I found it. At AEPhi, I was accepted for who I was: a loud, energetic, optimistic, overly cheerful, deformed and alarmingly skinny young woman. Some of my friends later told me that at first, they thought I was annoying and weird. Although I'm sure I remained annoying (who isn't when you live under one roof with 80 young women?), the vast majority of AEPhi members embraced my quirky personality and grew to find me mildly amusing.

AEPhi challenged me to become a better version of myself. In high school, I was a classic underachiever. I only studied when absolutely necessary and was happy to take "regular" classes with a few honors courses sprinkled into my otherwise "challenge-free" schedule.

Shortly after pledging AEPhi, I discovered I was among some of the most intelligent women I had ever met. My sorority sisters later became doctors, scientists, attorneys, judges, social workers, SAHMs, CEOs, teachers, therapists,and many went on to earn PhDs in subjects I can't pronounce. I was motivated to actually crack open a book and study. College was when I began doing my personal best and taking pride in my work.

My four years in AEPhi irrevocably shaped me. I learned the power of determination, leadership, acceptance, flexibility and stretching beyond your comfort zone. College is a mystical time in life when we enter as old adolescents and emerge as young adults. It's a time where we are free to make mistakes and not face harsh consequences (at least it was in the early '90s before anyone could record your embarrassing moments and plaster them all over social media). It's a period in one's life that can never be replicated. For four years, you're not judged by your past and you can't yet be judged by your unchartered future. College is a rare gift few can appreciate until they're seeing it from their proverbial rearview mirror.

In May of 1996, I graduated feeling as if everything was within my reach. I was going to change the world as an elementary school teacher, one student at a time. My positivity knew no limits. Every generation experiences a defining historical moment that irrevocably changes them as a collective whole. For my grandparents, it was Pearl Harbor, and for my parents, it was the assassination of JFK. September 11, 2001, was the moment my generation was robbed of blind optimism. On September 12, we woke up forever altered.

This happens at pivotal moments in one's personal life as well. We face obstacles/tragedies/adversity and can no longer be the same person we were yesterday. When these moments come, nothing matters more than true friends. In May of 2006, 10 years after I graduated college, I experienced my personal collapse. I nearly lost my life on the operating room table, just days after giving birth to my healthy daughter. The months that followed repeatedly brought me to the brink of death.

Some may discount the "superficial" bonds of sisterhood, but I beg to differ. My sorority sisters rallied around me when they learned I was given a slim chance of ever waking up from surgery. My friend and fellow AEPhi grad, Laura, grabbed the first flight to Chicago, despite the fact that she was in the middle of presenting her scientific findings on cancer research in California. Later during my illness, Laura moved into my house and helped care for my children. My other close sorority sisters: Kim, Rachel, Corrie and Michele raced to the hospital to be by my side on countless nights. They spent their lunch hours with me, coordinated meals for my family, and essentially put their own lives on hold to save mine. Members of AEphi that I hadn't seen since graduation sent me flowers and cards. When you're in college, it's hard to imagine the challenges you might face down the road. The friendships I formed during my four years in AEPhi literally and figuratively carried me through my darkest hours.

Fast forward to July of 2015 when I attempted to amplify an article I had written on my blog that featured an image of my bare (scleroderma-ridden face). The Facebook ad team rejected the photo and would not allow me to place my ad stating (in part), that I should, "avoid focusing on specific body parts, because these images typically receive high negative feedback." It's a crazy story, but news of this rejection went viral and led to my campaign: #sclerodermaselfies: Face Off for Scleroderma.

Hundreds of AEPhi alumnae propelled my movement forward by participating in the campaign. Each face I saw with a #sclerodermaselfies beneath it flooded my mind with irreplaceable memories from nearly two decades ago.

At the risk of being supremely irritating, I recently reached out to my fellow sorority sisters again, asking for yet another favor. I figured I might hear back from a few women, but set my expectations low. After all, I had just asked all these women for help with my campaign less than a month ago. Plus, it was Labor Day weekend and I knew everyone was busy getting back into their fall routine. Not only was the response I received overwhelming, but the comments, pictures, and stories people were sharing made me laugh harder than I had in years. The favor I asked from these busy women ultimately led to two short videos that were shown to the current University of Illinois AEPhi members at their chapter meeting.

I hope you'll take the time to watch these videos (here and here) and then share this post. Whether or not you went to college, or were in the Greek system is irrelevant. The messages about friendship, support and acceptance are universal. Life is a rich tapestry of people who come in and out of our lives, but impact us in ways we can never adequately quantify. I invite you to take a glimpse into the women who are forever woven into my life's personal tapestry.