Frat Girls

Motherhood seems about a decade premature for Leslie A. Garbarino ’04. Still, this bubbly, curly-haired junior has been doing her

Motherhood seems about a decade premature for Leslie A. Garbarino ’04. Still, this bubbly, curly-haired junior has been doing her share of nurturing—39 strapping young men on campus call her “Mom.” Garbarino holds the title of “Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) Mom,” an honorary female position in every chapter of the all-male fraternity. Girls on the inside of Harvard’s fraternities have privileged access to the real character of the campus’ Greek life, which they say is a far cry from the beer-chugging, toga-wearing stereotype. As Garbarino readily admits, “I feel this fondness for the boys.”

SAE brother William L. Smith ’03 says that at colleges with residential Greek life, the mom is traditionally an older woman who lives in the house, often the widow of an SAE. Her job in the fraternity is to offer maternal love to the students who live away from their own families. “She’s not there to supervise them or to discipline them; she’s there to care for them and to look out for their well-being,” he writes in an e-mail.

Garbarino says she was appointed as the SAE mom earlier in the year, when the fraternity was looking for a responsible girl to list on the chapter paperwork. She says she agreed to take on the title because she had a lot of friends who were members. Garbarino laughs at the idea that the role of the mom carries any serious responsibility. The closest that she comes to cooking, she says, is the mere thought of it. “I have to feel free to bake them cookies,” she says. “I feel free. I feel very free.” The mom is also required to attend all of the fraternity’s parties and to keep the brothers out of trouble. Garbarino says that the practice of looking out for each other is mutual: after SAE parties, one brother always walks her back to her room in Eliot. A major perk of her role as mom is that she is occasionally the only girl invited to some fraternity events. Before the club night that SAE hosted at the Matrix in Boston, for example, the fraternity held an intimate pre-party for brothers only. Garbarino was the only woman in attendance, resulting in a girl-to-guy ratio that she remembers fondly.

While being surrounded by the football players and rowers of SAE might ordinarily give rise to decidedly unmaternal feelings in most girls, Garbarino insists the only “instinct” she has towards her frat “sons” is a protective one. “You see them with girls and you want the girls to be nice to them,” she says.

Rather than selecting a fraternity matriarch, Sigma Chi, on the other hand, elects a “Sweetheart” to be the object of boyish admiration. Jean-Pierre R. Jacquet ’05, current Consul of the Harvard chapter, says that the ideal sweetheart is a girl who is cool and fun and who is friends with all of the members of the fraternity. As a result, the fraternity usually elects a long-term girlfriend of one of the brothers.

Appropriately enough, current Sigma Chi Sweetheart Katharine S. Widland ’04 met her boyfriend, Ruben Marinelarena ’02-’03, when she bid on him at a date auction hosted by sorority Delta Gamma. Since their first date, Widland has been a fixture at fraternity events. She and Marinelarena even stayed at the Sigma Chi house in Daytona, Fla., last intersession. Jacquet said Widland’s selection began earlier this semester, when the chapter nominated several sweetheart candidates. At a meeting two weeks later, the brothers held a vote in the same way that they elect new members to the fraternity.

After the meeting, Marinelarena, a Marine reservist who was activated in January, called his girlfriend from a base in North Carolina to congratulate her on her election and to serenade her with “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” the fraternity’s traditional song, written in 1911. It is as if the song was written for Widland: “The blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair / Are a blend of the western sky / And the moonlight beams on the girl of my dreams / She’s the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi.”

In Sigma Chi chapters nationwide, the serenading of the sweetheart is one of the rituals of the pledge process. Pledges are required to memorize the slightly dippy song and to perform it for the sweetheart. Jacquet admits that the pledges’ lack of musical talent sometimes results in a pathetic rendition, but Widland says she enjoys the performances. “It’s the only time in my life when I can have 51 guys call me ‘sweetheart’ and not have my boyfriend get mad,” she says.

At colleges where Greek life dominates students’ social lives, and fraternities tap kegs in their very own houses, the role of the sweetheart is more active. Just ask Cara A. Sequino, a friendly sophomore who is the Sigma Chi sweetheart at the University of Miami, as well as a member of the Delta Gamma sorority. In a typically sweet-hearted gesture, she delivered candy and Britney Spears cards to the brothers in celebration of Valentine’s Day. She serves as a consultant on the coolness of the rushes during the pledge process and then attends “smokers”—the get-to-know-you gatherings for brothers and new members.

In exchange, Sequino enjoys intergenerational adulation. Last October, she was summoned to the front of a fraternity dinner to be serenaded by the brothers and chapter alumni, along with several wives who had been sweethearts themselves. She also has an open invitation to the fraternity’s house. “I used to live there,” she says of the year that she spent dating one of the brothers. Things changed at the fraternity when her boyfriend spent a semester abroad and their relationship ended. University of Miami Greeks call the trend of relationship drama between the sweetheart and her boyfriend “the curse of the sweetheart.” Sequino says that becoming the sweetheart often causes breakups and tension throughout the fraternity. But despite these conflicts between love and brotherhood, she has enjoyed her term as the sweetheart and says she counts the brothers among her closest guy friends. “I am honored that they chose me,” she says. “[Sigma Chi] is very good nationally.”

Back at Harvard, the frat girls remain dedicated. That is, at least until graduation, retirement or incarceration, when the SAE mom must recruit her successor. Her contract with the fraternity specifically stipulates that if she has a run-in with the law, she is not released from this responsibility. Says Garbarino, “If I’m in jail, I guess I’ll be using my one phone call.”