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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Sarah Sham struggled to form close bonds with the sorority sisters she pledged with during her freshman year.
So the University of Minnesota international student left the traditional Greek chapter to help charter a new group on campus, the national Asian-interest sorority Sigma Psi Zeta.
"We couldn't really find anything that suited (my friends and I)," said Sham, who's now the sorority's vice president.
Last fall, Sigma Psi Zeta joined the University's Multicultural Greek Council, the governing body for nine multicultural and culturally specific chapters. It's one of two diversity-based Greek councils that have formed on campus in recent years, The Minnesota Daily (http://bit.ly/1GNchKt ) reports.
Like the University's undergraduate population, Greek life is mostly made up of white students. But despite the lack of diversity, the University's Greek community hasn't seemingly faced any high-profile issues with excluding minorities — unlike schools elsewhere in the country.
Leaders of multicultural and minority-based Greek organizations say they serve to provide underrepresented populations with a place to feel included and comfortable. And while doing so, they're aiming to ensure group members don't feel isolated from the overall Greek community.
Shaurya Rai joined the traditionally South Asian fraternity, Beta Chi Theta, to network and find a comfortable place on a campus, which is far from his home in New Delhi, India.
The computer science senior said the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that the Greek community provides cross nationalities.
"I can definitely say they're part of an extended family," Rai said.
The first fraternal organizations in the U.S. were founded more than a century ago at a time when almost all colleges where exclusively white. Later, fraternities passed resolutions to exclude specific groups based on race and religion. The organizations eliminated those discriminatory policies in the '50s and '60s.
Concerns that some Greek chapters nationwide are still unwelcoming to people of color flared up in March, when a video was posted online that showed members of the University of Oklahoma's chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing a racist chant.
Greek leaders at the University of Minnesota reacted to the video with disappointment, asserting that the chapter's actions were not representative of all fraternities.
To help the Greek community avoid situations like Oklahoma's, president of the University's Interfraternity Council JD Braun said Greek leaders on campus plan to hold an open forum next month to discuss race and diversity.
"A (University of Oklahoma) situation can happen anywhere, but we don't want it to happen to our campus," he said. "That's why we we're going to take these proactive steps"
University of Arizona assistant professor Nolan Cabrera, who studies race and racism in higher education, said unconscious racist behavior can be slightly amplified in Greek chapters that lack diversity.
"If you surround yourself with people who are similar to you, it reinforces your pre-existing viewpoints," he said. "It becomes an echo chamber. Really bad ideas get floated, and alternate perspectives aren't there to check them."
The IFC, which governs many of the University's social fraternities, is 86 percent white, and the Panhellenic Council, which governs sororities, is 91 percent white.
Compared to those numbers, about 70 percent of the campus undergraduate population is white.
The councils reflect the racial makeup of the surrounding area, Braun said, which is where they draw the majority of their members.
But still, he said, they should be as inclusive as possible.
Having diversity in any organization can foster creativity, bring in new ideas and challenge beliefs, Braun said.
MGC President Brandon Bogan said historically white chapters at the University do not exclude based on race, and that applicants usually pick a chapter where they feel a connection with its members.
"Even though I'm African-American, that doesn't mean I'm not going to be able to get into an IFC (chapter)," he said.
And while it's possible that some colleges' chapters exclude people of color, minorities might just not see the benefit in joining Greek life, said
Nicholas Syrett, a University of Northern Colorado associate history professor, who published a book on the history of white fraternities in the U.S.
"Non-white people may not feel super welcome joining the traditionally white organizations, so they look elsewhere," he said.
Sumei De Vet, Sigma Psi Zeta sister at the University, said she didn't know if she wanted to join a traditional sorority or a multicultural one when she arrived on campus as a freshman.
She decided to go with the latter because, as an adoptee from China, she said she could better promote her culture while also learning more about her heritage.
"I didn't know much about my culture, and I wanted to learn more once I got here," De Vet said.
Some chapters appeal more to certain groups of people, multicultural fraternity Sigma Beta Rho President Earl Wilson said. But the groups don't have formal categorizations determined by their majority makeup.
"One of my friends is in a Jewish fraternity. He's not Jewish, but 90 percent of them are. It appeals more to them — but it's open. We can't segregate," he said.
The University of Minnesota first officially recognized the MGC in 2011, when it was created to give multicultural chapters greater representation at the school.
But it took a while for the council to take root and put a sustainable leadership in place.
It finally gained footing in spring 2014 when it restructured with new elected officers, Bogan said.
The changes followed a resurgence of interest from members wanting to become a more prominent part of the Greek community, he said.
"It's a lot harder to be seen visually when you have lower numbers and you don't have someone who's there to unify the whole group," Bogan said.
The first black Greek letter organization came to campus more than a century ago. But until last year, the University lacked a local branch of the national council that unifies nine historically black chapters.
The University has six of those National Pan-Hellenic Council chapters, with 25 members total.
A selective recruitment process and the school's small pool of black students impacts membership demographics, NPHC President Fata Acquoi said. Her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, has seven members.
Still, Acquoi said it's important to preserve the council and the history of civil rights activism its chapters represent.
"It just serves as a family — a family that motivates and drives you to continue to be strong," she said.
As a member of Beta Chi Theta, which sits on both the IFC and the MGC, Bogan said some of his brothers take more interest in cultural activities, while others are more attuned to popular Greek events, like Machy Days and Homecoming.
He said he wants MGC chapters to become more involved with those events as part of an effort to increase visibility within the Greek community.
IFC President Braun said leaders are discussing plans to promote the four councils so that prospective members are more aware of their options.
"My goal is to give everyone the best fraternal experience. Sometimes that doesn't take place within IFC," he said.
As the councils work together, Bogan said he hopes joining Greek life becomes more about picking specific organizations rather than picking a council.
And while multicultural chapters have many benefits, they shouldn't be the only outlet for diversity in Greek life, he said.
"If you want something that's more multicultural, then you go here, and if you don't, then you go (there) — that is a deep-seated problem," Bogan said.
Information from: The Minnesota Daily, http://www.mndaily.com/
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Minnesota Daily
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