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More than Fraternity — Family

By Jesper Andersson
Jesper Andersson ’21 is a Chemistry concentrator in Leverett House.

My name is Jesper Andersson. I am the president of Harvard’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, Massachusetts Gamma, and this is the first time I’m publicly declaring that information.

I am a member of the Harvard Class of 2021, the first class to have the social group sanctions imposed on it. Today, I’m able to write this piece because Harvard has retracted its sanctions against members of single-gender social organizations. SAE has been a second family for me at Harvard, and now that sanctions are over, I hope it can continue to be a second family for many more classes of students to come.

To explain my path to joining SAE, I need to share some personal information. I grew up in a low-income, broken household. My father was never involved in my life, while my mother struggled with alcoholism. In seventh grade, I enrolled in Milton Hershey, a Pennsylvania boarding school that, unlike the archetypal college prep school, serves exclusively socioeconomically disadvantaged students. There, I formed intimate bonds with my classmates, especially the guys I lived with. This second family helped me navigate living away from home, coping with my unstable background, and planning for my future. Come senior year, when my Harvard interviewer offered me a chance to ask her questions, the first one I could think of was: “Did you feel like you had a second family when you attended Harvard?” Without hesitation, she answered “yes,” and I felt confident I could do the same.

But at the end of my freshman year, I didn’t have the second family I imagined I’d have, and my mental health and academic performance were suffering for it. Although I had probably two close friends, I felt that I lacked the support system of housemates I’d grown attached to prior to Harvard. Upon returning to campus for my sophomore year, I knew I had to do something different, so I frantically looked for any opportunity to join a social group. During this search, I received an invitation to an SAE rush event — not knowing anyone in the group. But after that night, I knew where I wanted to be. I felt welcomed by the brothers, and could tell that if I joined, I’d make more than lifelong friendships — I’d gain a second family.

Some people would laugh at me for saying joining a fraternity has been the single biggest part of my Harvard experience. It’s kind of funny, but it’s true — becoming an SAE was the cornerstone for helping me find my path through college. My brothers gave me ears to vent to, inspired me to find and follow my passions in school, and helped me rekindle my sense of “others above self.” From the day I joined SAE, it has been my goal to give others the same experience I’ve had in the fraternity. Before being elected President, I served as recruitment chair on a campus where fraternity recruitment couldn’t be public. Because of these experiences, University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s June 30 email announcing the end of sanctions brought me a wave of joy and a sigh of relief.

While I may not have supported sanctions, I appreciate Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s vision for a more diverse and inclusive social life on campus. His advocacy for mixed-gender social groups has been a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, I wholeheartedly believe that, at their roots, single-gender social organizations aren’t a bad thing. At Harvard we recognize that single-gender blocking groups are not problematic because students have the autonomy to choose these groups, which are just one part of the whole Harvard experience. In the same vein, social groups should not be labeled bad solely on the basis that they are single-gender.

With that said, I acknowledge that many fraternities across the country have earned their criticisms and calls for reform. Sexual assault and misogyny are especially rampant on college campuses across the country, and I’d be falling short of my own standards if I failed to address the role of fraternities in this epidemic. In light of this problem, I am proud to say that Mass Gamma maintains a culture of peer accountability by maintaining a no-tolerance stance toward sexual misconduct through our judicial board, educating all new members on sexual assault prevention and consent, and hosting chapter-wide meetings with the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response each semester. At events, we have designated brothers to monitor the safety of our attendees, and we will always prioritize the safety of our guests. We serve as a model chapter for others across the country, and as Mass Gamma’s president, I call on other groups to implement (and colleges to require) these accountability systems to address sexual assault.

Another deserved critique of many single-gender organizations is that they disproportionately serve wealthy, white individuals. Mass Gamma prides itself on our chapter’s socioeconomic diversity, and we believe in creating a social space for men of all different walks of life to come together and form lifelong bonds. Furthermore, we prioritize financial aid to ensure that all brothers can comfortably afford membership dues.

Even on our own campus, privilege very clearly manifests itself. Harvard is an institution that favors those from upper-class, white families. To create the culture we strive for on campus — one of ubiquitous diversity — we should reexamine our admissions processes, our diversity education, and our residentially structured experiences. While institutional change is hard, it is necessary to create a more inclusive culture for future classes of Harvard students to come. But from my experience with SAE, which has given me brothers from all different walks of life, I believe that sanctions missed the mark.

As a kid that didn’t know a single thing about how to approach Harvard, I’m grateful for the second family I’ve gained through SAE. For the years to come, it is my hope that SAE is around to offer the same diverse and welcoming space that it offered me.

Jesper Andersson ’21 is a Chemistry concentrator in Leverett House.

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