Ethnic bond unites UM sorority Sisterhood: Sigma Omicron Pi joins a growing number of ethnic-based Greek organizations on college campuses.


A sorority at the University of Maryland, College Park has done the unthinkable: forbidden its members from drinking, smoking and cursing.

But what sets Sigma Omicron Pi apart even further from the 41 other Greek clubs on campus is that all of its members are of Chinese or Korean heritage -- making it the university's first Asian-American Greek sorority.

"We're all young, Asian-American and female. There's a bond there, " said Jin Yoo, a senior finance major and one of 13 SOPi members.

According to campus officials, the sorority is the 11th ethnic-based Greek organization at the school, joining eight African-American and two Latino clubs.

The Johns Hopkins University has six ethnic fraternities and sororities -- including two that are Asian-American -- and Towson University has eight ethnic clubs, all of which are African-American.

Ethnic-based Greek clubs have sprung up next to traditional fraternities and sororities at some of the nation's largest universities, including the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania.

Since the 1970s, 30 Latino, nine African-American and seven Asian-American national organizations have formed, according to several umbrella Greek associations.

The surge illustrates a yearning among students to bond with others from similar backgrounds, said Lissa Bradford, who chairs the Indianapolis-based National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 mostly Caucasian sororities.

"My take is that there are a lot more young women from other groups on campus than years past," Bradford said. "Their cultures encourage them to join with like-minded women."

When eight students formed the College Park chapter of SOPi last year -- the seventh chapter in the sorority's 68-year history -- they decided to focus on the Asian-American population, which is the third largest ethnic group on campus.

"The Asian-American voice is repressed here," said Unjoo Lim, the sorority's president. "We wanted to create a presence in the community."

Citing that as its goal, the sorority has favored community service over social functions.

"I think that a lot of people have misconceptions about sororities," noted Eileen Shih, a junior psychology major. "We're trying to get away from the stereotypes. We're not your typical Greeks."

Last fall, the sorority teamed with a student group of Chinese heritage to volunteer at a Special Olympics event and participated in a Speaking Partners program, which paired the members with first-time students from other countries to help them adjust to campus life.

The sorority also plans to organize a drive to encourage Asian-Americans to undergo bone-marrow testing.

Denise Burns, an activities coordinator for the university's Maryland English Institute, which organizes Speaking Partners, said the sorority members were eager to help.

"That was a unique experience for us because they had some cultural experience with some of the countries that our international students were from, and they acted like translators," Burns recalled.

But SOPi has also drawn some criticism from students. Tenesha Bellamy said the sorority contradicts the purpose of a united campus.

"I'm glad they can come together, but I believe in diversity," said the senior psychology major. "I think any group focused on one [ethnic] group or sex creates division."

Michael Lee, a sophomore computer science major, said SOPi members are no different than other sorority members.

"They just party a lot, playing around and stuff," said Lee, a sophomore computer science major. "They should be helping out the community."

Karen Choy, SOPi's vice president of philanthropy, said social events are a low priority.

New members are required to pledge to refrain from drinking, smoking and cursing. Sandra Kim, an industrial psychology graduate student who is the sorority's adviser, said the ban is enforced in all seven SOPi chapters -- six of which are based at California schools.

"The point of sisterhood is that you don't need those things to have a good time," Kim said. "When you're wearing the letters, people are aware that you're a sister, and when you're under the influence, you're not aware of your image."

This month, seven sorority members volunteered to serve lunch to and organize bingo games for 70 homeless women at Bethany Women's Shelter in Washington. The sorority's presence was welcomed by the women.

"They bring new life with them, new ideas," said Gwendolyn Hamilton, 50. "They make you feel like you belong."

Added 38-year-old Terri Dempsey: "They have such unconditional love."

For SOPi member Jeanne Sun, their happiness is all the thanks she needs.

"It's not pretty, but this is the sort of thing that our organization strives to focus on," said the sophomore electrical engineering major. "I enjoy doing this."

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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