Comfort in commonality: How international students find community in Greek life
A quarter of USC’s student population is international, and yet this community is often underrepresented in the stories that are told at the University. In our special “A Long Way From Home” supplement issue, the Daily Trojan aims to spotlight the perspectives of international students who shape the culture of USC. Find all the stories here.
When people think of Greek life, the first things that come to mind are often humiliating stories about hazing and pledging rituals, hard partying and superficiality. While some or all of these may be present in different organizations, students have said Greek life also provides college students, especially international students, an opportunity to feel at home and find community.
Students often struggle as they’re thrust into new routines in a new city, state or country and have to navigate their academic and social lives in an unfamiliar context. It can be particularly challenging for international students, who are not only arriving in a different country but are often met with cultural differences and new traditions. To find a sense of belonging, many international students look toward Greek life.
Carlota Rodriguez-Benito, a 2019 graduate, moved every two or three years throughout her childhood, growing up in North America, Europe and South America. After finishing high school in Mexico City, Rodriguez-Benito attended USC, where she graduated with bachelor’s degrees in Russian, French and international relations.
Although moving around made it quite difficult for her to find a single place to call home, Rodriguez-Benito said she felt included at USC through the friends she made in the Delta Gamma sorority. However, she explained that joining Greek life is a different adjustment process for international students given all the cultural differences.
“As an international student, I think it’s hard at first to grasp the tradition part of sororities,” Rodriguez-Benito said. “Anywhere you move, anywhere you are, you need to be open-minded about everything, and I think that is a good way to incorporate yourself in a different culture when you’re not from it.”
After participating in the various rituals that come with rushing and pledging, Rodriguez-Benito bonded with the other students she met and created memories that have lasted beyond her time at USC.
“Most of my memories at USC — studying in the library, going on trips, having social events and just going through life and through big changes in life — have been with these girls,” Rodriguez-Benito said. “[You] meet a ton of people that can then in the future be your business partners, your best friends, your bridesmaids, your child’s godmother.”
Rodriguez-Benito also got involved with Expat Society, a nationwide network for international students, during her freshman year and eventually became the director of recruitment and an adviser to the strategy team. Expat Society aims to build a community based on members’ international connections and experiences, according to the organization’s website. On college campuses, Expat Society’s group activities include art gallery visits, biking excursions and road trips, as well as parties.
Through Expat Society, Rodriguez-Benito has formed friendships with people from all over Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States. As part of a community of students bound together by their international experiences, she felt comfortable and, once again, at home.
“It was a very good getaway at times when I needed that connection with people that had an upbringing more like mine,” Rodriguez-Benito said.
She met people from different backgrounds, cultures and majors, yet she fondly recalls how she and the friends she made had such similar values and lifestyles that made them feel like family.
However, joining Greek life doesn’t provide all international students with the same kind of bonding and comfort that Rodriguez-Benito experienced. For Kasvi Malhotra, a sophomore from India majoring in communication, it was quite the opposite.
Last year, Malhotra rushed for Delta Omicron Zeta, a professional leadership fraternity, in hopes of finding a diverse community where she could meet other international students and expand her professional network. However, after pledging, Malhotra found it hard to connect with other people and find the community she was looking for.
“[Greek life organizations] need to have more international students,” Malhotra said.
Malhotra said the organization lacked opportunities for international students to connect with each other organically rather than through the assigned task-based events, such as dancing in the middle of Ronald Tutor Campus Center or wearing shirts with funny quotes on them. She said the fraternity would benefit from creating direct opportunities for international students to freely connect with one another through a forum or space where they could get to know each other.
Malhotra also expressed disappointment in the lack of activities that she was able to participate in during her time in DOZ. When she joined, she expected having an opportunity to get involved in volunteer work or philanthropic events, but she said that wasn’t the case. After a while, she found herself feeling disconnected from the organization, an issue that eventually led to her leaving.
“A lot of Greek life is kind of centered around your first semester in Greek life, where people are super connected and you’re doing a lot of tasks, but after that … once you’re an active member, you’re not really doing anything,” Malhotra said. “There’s no way for you to actively participate, in my opinion.”
Although Malhotra’s experience in Greek life fell flat after her first semester, some international students have been able to find a lifelong family through their organization, like Rodriguez-Benito.
Luciana Suero, a junior from Peru majoring in communication, transferred to USC from Santa Monica College in the spring semester of her sophomore year. She decided to join the Alpha Delta Pi sorority and the Delta Kappa Alpha film fraternity, which brings together students with various cinematic interests.
As a transfer student, Suero said she felt behind in terms of finding friends. The relationships she formed in class often felt superficial because she didn’t spend time with those friends outside of class, so Suero turned to Greek life as an alternative method of feeling connected to people at school.
While she felt a bit out of place navigating the Greek life culture at first, she eventually adapted and was able to find her people.
“I came here alone,” Suero said. “I don’t have my family members here in the States, so these girls, the sisters that I have now, are literally my family, and that’s something that I don’t think I could find as a student without joining ADPi or DKA.”
In DKA, Suero was able to meet people who shared her passion for film while at ADPi, she had the opportunity to be involved in more social events and volunteer work, by fundraising for charities such as the Ronald McDonald House by selling pizza or clothes and holding soccer tournaments.
Despite its flaws, Greek life has guided many international students in discovering new sources of comfort and security.
“I remember some days just being sad and missing my family, and one of my [sorority sisters], came back home and brought me kombucha and cookies,” Suero said. “She sat down with me, listened to me and comforted me, and it felt like I was with my family. Every time I’m with them, it feels like I’m with my family.”
That sense of community and belonging is something Suero expects to hold on to for a long time. For international students, Greek life has the potential to provide a chosen family and support away from home.
“You end up in a house where people have similar values, similar hobbies, similar perspectives on life to yours and that’s what I love about it,” she said. “I think the people here are my people, and we will be friends forever.”
Read more about how international students adjust to USC here.