Making Progress

Posted on Mar 6 2014 - 12:10pm by Jonece Dunigan
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Bianca Abney poses for a photo at the Kappa Delta sorority house on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Miss., Monday, March 3, 2014. (DM Photo/Alex Edwards)

Like many freshmen at The University of Mississippi this year, Bianca Abney joined a sorority. But Abney isn’t just another number — she’s a game changer. She is the first black Kappa Delta at Ole Miss and the first black female inducted into one of the top traditionally white sororities on campus.

In her hometown of Big Point, she had church connections to Alpha Kappa Alpha, a traditionally black sorority affiliated with the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Abney’s selection of a Panhellenic Council sorority instead of a National Pan-Hellenic Council sorority was a matter of preference.

“I have nothing against (NPHC sororities). I mean, I wanted to do something different,” she said. “I really couldn’t see myself in a traditionally black sorority, and I wanted to be a part of a diverse sorority. There are sororities here that are diverse. I love it here. I’m glad I chose KD. I love all the girls in here.”

Abney’s story is not unfamiliar to the university. Both the Panhellenic Council and the National Pan-Hellenic Council have become more integrated over the past few years, and work this past fall has helped increase diversity in most Greek organizations.

This past fall semester, the student newspaper at The University of Alabama exposed the racial discrimination involved in the recruitment process at Alabama. To avoid a similar situation at Ole Miss, traditionally white sororities brought in delegates from individual national sorority organizations during formal recruitment, according to Assistant Dean of Students Coulter Ward.

After conducting interviews with presidents and members of both NPHC and PHC organizations, The Daily Mississippian estimates that six of the 10 historically white sororities at Ole Miss have initiated black members into their organizations, and five of the eight traditionally black organizations have initiated white members.

For Abney, though, it was never about the numbers or the statistics. It was about her sense of belonging.

 

The Decision

When she decided to go through recruitment for historically white sororities, Abney didn’t really know much about the traditions — the Greek lingo, the water parties or the “bigs,” the older mentors of new members. Still, she took the challenge.

“I was afraid to go through rush at first,” she said. “When I was thinking about it, my friend would say, ‘Oh, you know they only pick white girls. There are only white sororities up there.’ I questioned whether to spend the $100 recruitment fee.”

Despite the flutters of nervousness, Abney paid her application fee out of her own pocket. She did not want to use her parents’ money or advertise her recruitment experience on Facebook and Twitter if there was no guarantee.

She scrambled to obtain letters of recommendation from former members of sororities — another tradition she was unaware of until it was almost too late.

Abney went through formal recruitment, traveling from sorority house to sorority house. Throughout the process, she fell in love with KD. She felt welcomed and wanted to embody their motto: “Let us strive for that which is honorable, beautiful and highest.” With every round she went through, she could imagine herself eating dinner, celebrating birthdays and studying with KD girls.

“I loved the atmosphere of the KD house,” she said. “Their personalities stood out to me the most. I felt like I could relate more to them. You just have a gut feeling when you get to pick where you want to be.”

On bid day, Abney was still living off the excitement from the cheers and celebration. It was an invigorating feeling compared to the anxiety she felt during formal recruitment last September. She was in.

Martha Guariglia, Abney’s sorority big sister, said Abney had nothing to worry about. Abney had many accomplishments, including being senior class president, class favorite, a special needs mentor and a student government secretary. To Guariglia, her little sister embodies the values of a KD girl, and her membership was chosen based on her personality, not her skin color.

“Bianca is sweet, very smart, very involved and fun,” Guariglia said. “When we heard about her and met her, we wanted her to be in KD.”

Like many new sorority members and their big sisters, Abney and Guariglia bonded a great deal during a new member sorority retreat. They talked about homesickness, juggling class work and sorority life and other stresses of being a freshman in college.

“I love Martha,” Abney said. “She’s very positive and so nice and every time I see her she’s smiling and laughing. I eat lunch all the time with her at the house.”

In most respects for Guariglia, her little sister was just another new member. But the progress her own sorority has made is something that is still a relatively new concept to Guariglia.

 

The Struggle

Guariglia encountered a bit of a culture shock when she first arrived at Ole Miss from her hometown of St. Louis. She chose Ole Miss over the University of Missouri, where her mother was a KD and race was not such a sensitive topic.

“I think it’s strange that (Greek life) is still so segregated here,” Guariglia said. “It’s something that’s talked about so much. It’s still a hot topic. At home, you don’t hear stories like this. You don’t hear about a black girl trying to join KD at Mizzou. Sometimes I wish it was easier here.”

The segregation of Ole Miss Greek life was magnified recently when media outlets reported that the three suspects in the James Meredith statue desecration investigation were members of the Interfraternity Council Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity on campus.

The fraternity immediately expelled the three students from the fraternity and released multiple statements that condemned the actions of the individuals.

Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones sent out a letter Feb. 26 about the steps the university has taken to combat the racial incidents that have occurred on campus. He stated that it is every student’s responsibility to promote diversity at the university, but he specifically placed part of that responsibility on the Greek system.

“I encourage the membership of our fraternities to provide meaningful leadership and to take bold action in making our university what it needs to be,” Jones stated in the letter. “I call on your fellow students in our campus sororities to join in this effort. And I call on the alumni of both groups to facilitate this change with your support and encouragement. We call ourselves leaders at Ole Miss. It is time to lead.”

Assistant Dean of Students Coulter Ward admits that there are barriers within the Ole Miss Greek system. He believes perceptions are part of the reason problems still occur.

“You know, for some people perception is reality,” Ward said. “Well, for some people those perceptions still exist. (The barriers) to them (are) very much of a reality. Whether or not we have multicultural students in the organizations, there are still students who don’t feel comfortable about going through that process. Our goal as a community is really trying to work through why. Why do these students still feel uncomfortable? Where are the problems? At the end of the day we want students to find a community that fits them regardless if it’s an HPC or a NPHC organization.”

 

The Takeaway

Ward told The DM that the Office of Student Affairs has worked with other departments at the university to ensure that anyone feels welcome to go through the formal recruitment process. However, there is still work to be done.

“Before (2013) recruitment happened, we talked to the national headquarters to get them involved in things,” Ward said. “Trying to bring to light the challenges that our students are having with if a multicultural student goes through the process, are these doors available to them? Are they open? We’re working on it, but it’s definitely not those things you can solve over a semester.”

Guariglia is the daughter of urban ministers who work with kids of all colors. She went to predominantly black camps where the color of someone’s skin was never an issue to her. Although the administration is working to break down barriers, Guariglia believes that change is possible, and it can start from the inside.

“Every sorority wants the best girls, and that includes everybody,” she said. “We are making progress, but it would be great if we could make more of an effort from both sides. The sororities should make more of an effort to welcome minority girls into rush and say, ‘Hey, we want you here.’ Then those girls will know they can try it out.”

For Abney, she will continue to enjoy her time in her sorority and reflect on how the Ole Miss Greek system has changed.

“This is just the first year I have experienced Greek life here,” she said. “From what I have seen of the Greek system here, it seems to have changed a lot over the years.”

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was reported and written before the Feb. 16 desecration of the James Meredith statue. This is the first of two stories regarding race and the Greek system at Ole Miss. Part two will be published in tomorrow’s DM.

-Jonece Dunigan