The blaring alarm woke Jorge Gonzalez from his deep slumber. It was 6:30 a.m. and time to get ready to make the 40-minute commute from Santa Maria to Cal Poly.
It was the first day of classes and Gonzalez had arrived to school early, giving himself extra time to get acclimated.
After walking around campus for a while, an unnerving feeling began to creep up on him: he felt weird amongst all the people who did not look like him in the slightest.
Luckily, Gonzalez had discovered a place during his summer bridge program where he could be himself around people who looked like him. For the next hour, he waited in the MultiCultural Center until the culture shock subsided and he could make his way to his physics class.
These days, political science senior Gonzalez finds that same sense of relief in another form of cultural group: the fraternity Gamma Zeta Alpha, of which he is also now the president.
Although cultural fraternities and sororities have recently been highlighted for incidents of hazing, according to many members, cultural greek life provides a community for minority students and helps with the adjustment to a predominantly white institution like Cal Poly.
A cultural fraternity or sorority is a part of greek life that falls under the United Sorority & Fraternity Council (USFC) and specifically caters to minority students. Although each fraternity or sorority is culturally focused, membership is not exclusive to people of only that ethnic or cultural background.
There are currently 10 cultural fraternities or sororities listed under USFC, the council which acts as a support group for cultural greek life through “intra-council communication and unity” and aims to increase cultural awareness and business efficiency.
Some of the sororities and fraternities are specifically Asian American, Latinx Interest-based or multicultural.
Compared to other fraternities or sororities in the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Council, cultural fraternities and sororities vary in that they do not have their own houses where members can meet or live.
While quarterly dues — money paid by each member for expenses and activities — vary from one chapter to the next, average dues are $200 to $350 per quarter for IFC and $300 to $450 per quarter for the Panhellenic Association. In comparison, USFC dues average around $50 to $100 per quarter.
When it comes to rules and regulations, USFC, IFC and Panhellenic are required to submit their bylaws to the university to be officially recognized; they also must adhere to the Recognized Student Organizations (RSO) handbook.
Each USFC sorority or fraternity ranges in size, with some like Chi Delta Theta and Omega Xi Delta having as many as 22 active members and others like Gamma Zeta Alpha having only 13. In comparison, fraternities in the IFC range from 65 to 137 members.
Cal Poly’s Demographics
Cal Poly ranks as the least ethnically diverse university in the California State University (CSU) system, with 54.7 percent of the total population enrolled in 2017 identifying as white.
For Gonzalez and many other minority students, joining a cultural fraternity or sorority is a safe haven and way to connect with people from similar cultures or backgrounds at Cal Poly.
“I think [Gamma Zeta Alpha] changed my experience in [San Luis Obispo] because it has given me not only a community, but a support system that I could always go to,” Gonzalez said. “It’s more than just a friend group, it’s like a family away from home and sometimes I do feel like they’re my biological brothers.”
Civil engineering junior and president of Lambda Sigma Gamma Maria Guerrero-Gutierrez said coming to Cal Poly was not only a culture shock, but was emotional for her, too.
“I guess WOW [and] SLO Days was the biggest shock for me,” Guerrero-Gutierrez said. “I literally cried. I was literally putting myself out there trying to talk to people and I saw when people didn’t really wanna talk to me,” Guerrero-Gutierrez said. “I ended up deciding to do [One United Raza (OUR)] because I was like,’OK, it’s gonna be my time to meet people — meet multicultural people.’”
OUR is an orientation program put on by the Cross Cultural Center during WOW]
Even coming to an institution like Cal Poly was a rarity for people from her predominantly Hispanic town Firebaugh, California, Guerrero-Gutierrez said. As a first-generation college student, Guerrero-Gutierrez had to navigate the university experience on her own.
“I had no one to look up to or anything before going to college, so before coming to college I didn’t know what sororities or fraternities were or anything,” Guerrero-Gutierrez said. “My high school is really bad when it comes to persuading people to go to college. I didn’t even know what engineering was until I was applying to college, so if you don’t put in the work for it back home, you won’t go anywhere.”
Gonzalez said his experience as a first-generation, low-income student was similar. He said he sees a lot of the brothers in his fraternity struggle with transitioning to college because there are not enough resources available to them at Cal Poly.
“I think being here at Cal Poly is harder than being in other schools, not just because this school’s good reputation, not just because [of] the school’s low ability to help those students who are struggling,” Gonzalez said. “There’s not someone who actually reaches out to you, that actually makes you feel like you belong here, that you should stay here — it’s more like, OK, if you don’t do good enough, you’re out, the boot, like we don’t give you second chances. It’s more like you either belong here or you don’t, so figure it out.”
Some cultural fraternities and sororities also have GPA requirements, which makes retaining and recruiting members from an already small population even more difficult, Gonzalez said. His fraternity requires members to retain a 2.5 GPA and Guerrero-Gutierrez’s sorority requires members to retain at least a 2.4 GPA.
Many of these sororities and fraternities are also fairly new to Cal Poly’s campus, making awareness and recruitment difficult. For example, Gamma Zeta Alpha was not established at Cal Poly until 2005; Lambda Theta Alpha was established in 2008.
Steps Towards Improving Diversity
A large part of being in a cultural fraternity or sorority is putting on philanthropic events. Because many greek organizations are trying to recruit more multicultural members, their events tend to focus on creating more diversity or helping the community that already exists in San Luis Obispo and at Cal Poly.
Gamma Zeta Alpha puts on a soccer tournament every year which funds scholarships for first-generation, low-income students. The fraternity also holds events for middle school and high school students from the surrounding areas of Santa Maria, Atascadero, Paso Robles and Camarillo to expose them to college and different majors or career paths.
“We just answer their questions, every little question they have, just kind of giving them that exposure to college knowing that someone from their background is here and kind of planting that seed, [that] we’re here so you can make it, too,” Gonzalez said.
Lambda Sigma Gamma also tries to focus on philanthropic events that help the minority community — like feeding field workers or donating toys to low-income preschool students — and improve the campus climate at Cal Poly. Their cultural sensitivity workshops are one such event. They are open to the public and put on with other organizations to discuss issues related to the campus climate, Guerrero-Gutierrez said.
The sorority plans to hold their annual cultural sensitivity workshop sometime during Winter 2019 to focus on recent topics and events, such as blackface after the alleged occurrence in Spring 2018.
“I feel like what we did did finally spark a fire because there’s always at least once a year that something happens that’s really, really racist,” Guerrero-Gutierrez said. “People are definitely more aware now, we’ve learned to use our voices.”
After the blackface incident last April involving a member of Lambda Chi Alpha, a fraternity that falls under the IFC, the university responded by implementing mandatory diversity and inclusivity trainings and an elected diversity and inclusion officer for each sorority, fraternity and the IFC, according to University Spokesperson Matt Lazier.
While cultural fraternities and sororities, like Lambda Sigma Gamma and Gamma Zeta Alpha, put on events to try and recruit more minority students, one of the things they try to focus on the most is providing support and welcoming the students who are already here and who might need it.
“Everyone always told me, ‘You’re going to experience such a big culture shock coming to Cal Poly, you don’t even know what you’re getting yourself into,’ and I did, but after meeting [my fraternity brothers], I wasn’t as afraid of it,” Gonzalez said.