Greek-dom Meets Geek-dom at Illinois Institute of Technology

By Justin Breen on November 13, 2013 6:26am 

BRONZEVILLE — "Don't step on the letters," William Strnad warned as he and a guest walked into the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity house at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Strnad is a senior civil engineering major at IIT. His frat — better known as "Skulls" — features the three Greek letters prominently on the floor in the lobby.

"No one steps on the letters," he said.

Even at IIT, a stringent academic institution filled with future engineers, scientists, mathematicians and architects, Greek traditions like not walking on letters or crests are important.

Phi Kappa Sigma, the oldest house on campus, was founded at IIT in 1898. The house has held an annual "smoker," where frat boys host a dinner and then smoke cigars, for more than 50 years. Only the school's graduation ceremony is a longer-standing custom.

"We're nerds, but that doesn't mean we don't like to have fun," Strnad said.

There are six fraternities and three sororities at IIT. The houses, which each send two representatives to the school's Greek Council, are all located in a quad near the center of campus.

Of the some 2,900 undergraduates, 388 are Greek, according to Emma Donatille, the school's Greek life coordinator.

Alcohol is allowed in sororities and fraternities, although Strnad's house is dry. Fraternities run themselves with the school runs its sororities.

IIT's oldest sorority, Kappa Phi Delta, will celebrate its 109th anniversary on Saturday. Senior Lama Abu-Amara, a computer engineering major, joined the house for a practical reason.

"My major doesn't have females. There are only about four, and there about 60 guys," Abu-Amara said. "I always say, if I hadn't joined a sorority, I would have left campus long ago. If I hadn't joined Kappa, I don't know how I would have met any females."

Houses rush pledges in a variety of ways. Abu-Amara said one of her sorority's biggest recruitment events is conducting a Zumba class. Other houses have nerdier options like Sudoku and other puzzle competitions.

 The Kappa Phi Delta house is the oldest sorority on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. It is celebrating its 109th year on campus this year.
The Kappa Phi Delta house is the oldest sorority on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. It is celebrating its 109th year on campus this year.
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Illinois Institute of Technology

"They've made Greek life very unique to IIT's campus, and they embrace that," said Elizabeth Pinkus-Huizenga, the school's director of residence and Greek life.

Strnad wasn't ashamed in the least when noting his frat is consistently filled with brothers playing Magic: The Gathering card games or World of Warcraft video games.

This is not "Animal House," he said.

"Everyone has the stereotype of the Greek experience, but don't always assume that's what it is, especially here," said Strnad, who was first introduced to a brother at an Engineers Without Borders event.

"Immediately, I realized they're not the crazy, stereotypical people," Strnad said.

Donatille said the North-American Interfraternity Conference recognized IIT as one of 20 campuses in the country where all of the frats' grade point average is higher than the regular male student population. She said fraternity members' average GPA is 3.2, compared with 2.9 for nonGreek men.

Sorority sisters average a 3.3, also higher than the regular female student body, Donatille said.

"Play hard, work hard," Abu-Amara said. "I think about [our GPAs] as something to show off."

The school takes pride in its famous Greeks, too. Of note, Martin Jischke, a Delta Tau Delta, was the former president at Purdue University, while the late Roger Chaffee (Phi Kappa Sigma) was a NASA astronaut in the Apollo program.

"There is so much leadership in the Greek community," Abu-Amara said.

Abu-Amara, who is from Jordan, is in the extreme minority of the many IIT students who have joined houses. She and Strnad said persuading nonAmericans to pledge is a challenge because of language barriers and lack of understanding of Greek life in general.

But that's starting to change, as Abu-Amara's house has about 10 international members, while Strnad's has students from Korea, France, Bosnia, Spain, Mexico and China.

Strnad said he credited being Greek for the confidence to communicate with prospective pledges.

"Before I became Greek, I was the stereotypical quiet IIT student," he said. "The best thing I can say about being in a house is you become a better person here."

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