The rain is starting to come down. People are starting to get wet but nobody cares as they jump up and down, dancing to the booming beat. The party is going in full force. Purple banners and signs are everywhere. People litter the grass field. Some laying out resting, others dancing and playing games. Music is blasting from the speakers as performers on stage belt out lyrics to the melody. A few boys climb their way up to the stage and start dancing while the crowd cheers them on. Colorful lights shoot out into the black sky and the sound of laughter can be heard floating through the night air.
Kaitlyn walks along the path lined with candle lit bags that emit a soft yellow glow. The music and festivites continue on around her in a blur of happiness and celebration. She looks around and thinking about all those being honored and on this night.
“This is a party I don’t mind being associated with,” thought Kaitlyn McNutt, a junior at James Madison University. “This is a party with a purpose, with a mission.”
Kaitlyn and a some of her sorority sisters are out enjoying the festivities of Relay for Life, a twelve-hour team fundraising event for the American Cancer Society where team members take turns walking around a designated path as a way to raise money and honor those who have been lost to cancer and are fighting cancer. There is also a carnival with music, games, and food that is used as a way to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
Kaitlyn at Relay for Life
Kaitlyn is a member of the Gamma Kappa chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha. She has been apart of the organization since the fall of 2014 when she rushed as a freshman.
“I feel like the media has portrayed Greek Life as a community that revolves solely around alcohol and partying,” said Kaitlyn.
But to Kaitlyn, and many others just like her, there is more to Greek Life than what the media portrays and what some people may think.
“People don’t see everything that we actually do,” said Kaitlyn. “Part of our mission is to give back to the community and make a difference.”
In a conversation with a few freshmen that had been showing interest in rushing her sorority this past fall, she was met with the all too familiar misconceptions of what sorority life is really all about.
“How are the parties,” one girl asked.
“And how much do you guys actually haze,” another girl asked.
Kaitlyn was not taken aback by the girls’ questions. She herself had been curious about it when she first got to college. It was not until she rushed that she realized all the things she had heard about and seen on TV really were not true, at least not at JMU and not with her sorority.
“I really wanted to tell them to stop believing everything they see on TV and in movies,” Kaitlyn later said as she laughs thinking back on the incident. “But I don’t think that would have gone too well.”
Instead she gave the girls a smile before she replied.
“We don’t participate in hazing or anything like that. This is a sisterhood and we treat each other with respect,” she told the group of hopefuls. “Part of our purpose is to foster the spirit of love and we can’t do that through hazing. So yeah we definitely don’t associate ourselves with any of that. As for the parties,” Kaitlyn paused to hold back from rolling her eyes as the girls began to giggle. “We go to parties and we make friends, but that’s not all we do. We are a group of girls, of sisters, that want to make a difference on this campus and maybe even the world one day. If you are joining a sorority because you want to party or just have the letters on your chest than this might not be the sorority for you.”
At first Kaitlyn was afraid that she had been too harsh to the girls and began to apologize, but then one of them spoke up.
“How do we join,” she asked.
Those girls went on to became Kaitlyn’s sisters that fall later telling her that part of their joining was due to their talk that day.
“We saw how much you loved your sorority and how much respect you had for yourself and your sisters and we had to become a part of that,” the girls had said.
“That is why I love ZTA,” Kaitlyn said as she reflected back on the experience. “We are a group of young women with common goals to be something and we support each other through it all.
Kaitlyn and her sorority sisters
Looking back on it, Kaitlyn realizes just how negative some portrayals of Greek life really are.
“Although Zeta Tau Alpha is a social sorority and we do love the social aspects and forming friendships, that is not the main thing we do. Countless hours are put into academic workshops, philanthropy events, supporting other organizations philanthropies, community service hours, leadership workshops and retreats.”
It is this aspect of sorority life that Kaitlyn says has become her favorite. For the past three years she has been the Director of Philanthropy and Service for her chapter. She is in charge of planning, organizing, and executing all of the chapter’s philanthropy events throughout the year.
“Our organizations main philanthropy is breast cancer and education, we do a lot of events to raise awareness for that, especially in the fall and during the month of October,” said Kaitlyn.
Kaitlyn and some of her friends at a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness
According to JMU’s office for Fraternity and Sorority Life as a member of a sorority each girl is required to complete at least five hours of community service, but many of the girls, including Kaitlyn, go above and beyond that. On average Kaitlyn alone does about 50 hours in the fall and 30 hours in the spring.
“I do more in the fall because of Breast Cancer Awareness month so I am busy all the time during October organizing and volunteering for events that promote this. But we do more than just those events. The types of community service that we do varies every year depending on the new director we get,” said Kaitlyn. “Some girls go to White Birch, a retirement community in Harrisonburg, and volunteer there. I have done some of my hours there doing things like playing card games with the residents. For some of the residents, we are the only ones that come to visit them and spend time with them so they really look forward to that. We also do events like Trick or Treat and Easter egg hunt on Greek Row which kids in the community can come out to. The kids are the cutest and it brightens our day to see the smiles and hear the laughter just as much as it brightens theirs.”
Kaitlyn and some of her sorority sisters at a ZTA breast cancer awareness event in festival.
For Kaitlyn and her sorority sisters that is what has come to matter.
“There is a misconception that we are a bunch of snobby, catty girls. I have heard people stereotype my specific sorority as ‘preppy’ and that all we do is party, but we’re not like that at all,” Kaitlyn says. “Yes, we party and yes there is a social aspect but I don’t think you can label any organization, especially when chapters have about 250 unique girls with beautiful brains and hearts.”
It’s 6 am on the hillside fields. Relay for Life is coming to an end. Everyone is packing up and ready to go home. Exhaustion is written on everyone’s face, but there is still a buzz in the air as they all think about what they have accomplished. Kaitlyn and her sisters are especially excited as they think about their contribution to the American Cancer Society.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve done,” Kaitlyn said. “As a sorority we raised $2,133.42. That’s amazing.”
“Especially for some so called party animals,” she laughs.