Freshman Taylor Vibbert has always wanted to be in a sorority. When she signed up to rush this fall at Western Kentucky University, she was looking forward to the fanfair, house tours and meet-and-greets.
Then she got some bad news: Greek recruitment would be mostly virtual this year.
"That was a bummer," the 18-year-old from Louisville, Ky., said in early August. "Honestly, if I would have known, I probably wouldn't have signed up."
Vibbert was concerned she would be more outgoing in-person than over the computer, but she was willing to see how it goes.
That willingness is something Greek organizations across the country are banking on this fall. According to the latest numbers, more than 600,000 American college students are active members of fraternities or sororities, and those organizations rely heavily on member dues. But the pandemic has forced many chapters — some over a century old — to move the bulk of their recruitment online, and to reconsider their pitch to students now that social activities are less of an option.
"We're looking at at least a year of none of the large traditional social gatherings that we're accustomed to," says industry consultant Gentry McCreary.
If Greek organizations, especially the large social chapters, can't provide a more meaningful experience beyond the parties, McCreary says, "there's no way that those groups will be able to survive."
Fraternities and sororities are organized around everything from gender and cultural identity, to religion and academic field of study. And these nonprofits bring in millions of dollars in member dues and contributions every year — money that then goes toward charitable events, sexual assault prevention and leadership programs, among other things.
"If less people are joining there are less dues coming in," McCreary says. "That has an impact on the bottom line."
While statistics for active members in collegiate chapters are hard to come by, data provided to NPR by two of the largest social Greek associations — the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference — put the numbers well into the hundreds of thousands.
Gentry McCreary works closely with some 20 national Greek organizations on research, annual assessments and membership surveys. He says the number of students going Greek has plateaued the last few years, after about two decades of increases. And while the final stats for fall 2020 recruitment won't be out for months, several schools he's spoken to are reporting "record-breaking numbers of students" signing up to rush.
That's despite rising membership costs, reports of structural racism within the predominantly-white Greek organizations and a slew of high-profile hazing incidents.
Pitching Greek life during a pandemic
"If there were any time to join a sorority, now is the most important time," says Ashlee Dunn, chapter president of Alpha Omicron Pi, a women's fraternity at Middle Tennessee State University. She says AOPi's national organization has been working with chapters since the spring to prepare a mostly-virtual recruitment in September.
But what's her pitch to potential new members?
"A sisterhood is going to keep you in check and keep you motivated," Dunn says. "You can text your sister or have a FaceTime. It's the little things that are going to keep you going during such separation."
The chapter has planned a semester of mostly-virtual and some in-person gatherings.
But all those activities hinge on Middle Tennessee State University's reopening plans — which could change at any moment. Campuses across the country are already altering plans based on what the coronavirus is doing.
Still, not every Greek organization is in uncharted territory. Fraternities and sororities based on race, culture and identity tend to recruit much more directly, through personal outreach, informational sessions and community service projects.
Valerie Hollingsworth Baker, president of the Black sorority Zeta Phi Beta, says her organization is "well equipped" for this moment. The group has worked for years to make more of their operations virtual and, she says, "it's working for them."
"When you do have this virtual type of style to try to reach out and touch the masses, you can do so in smaller groups and one-on-ones and really encourage and keep everyone going," Hollingsworth Baker says.
Jessica Snell, of the National Multicultural Greek Council, is excited about the opportunities virtual recruitment might open for them.
"We need to think outside the box and really think about what it is to engage with not only our current members, but [outside] folks that may be interested," Snell says. "How are we communicating and piquing interest and engagement with our entire community?"
A few weeks after she first spoke to NPR, freshman Taylor Vibbert considers her recruitment experience a success. She says the three days of virtual meetings — or "parties" — she attended in mid-August weren't all that bad, and "not meeting people in person really took away any jitters."
"Each party you'd go to, each sorority would have a little overview and then they'd send you into a breakout room over Zoom where you kind of just had a one-on-one conversation with one of the girls in the chapter," Vibbert says.
In the end, she pledged Alpha Xi Delta and says she's actually really excited now about the semester ahead. And her one piece of advice for others getting ready to rush a fraternity or a sorority in the middle of a pandemic?
"Just breathe," she says. "You just have to talk and be yourself."
That's one thing that hasn't changed this year.
Ashley Westerman is an alumna of the Alpha Omicron Pi chapter at the University of Kentucky.