If you’re on TikTok, it’s been hard not to notice #RushTok, which chronicles new member recruitment — also known as “rush” — at sororities in the South.
Those videos focused on where the well-coiffed young women bought their clothes and jewelry and what was in the giant totes they carried with them as they visited chapter houses.
But this week, a TikTok video from the FUTURE program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville showed a different side of sorority bid day, as students with disabilities were offered invitations to join Greek chapters there for the first time this year.
UTK sophomores Zoe Messer, 20, and Faith Irwin, 21, and senior Elise McDaniel, 24, became the first three FUTURE students to accept bids to sororities last weekend, a moment that, UTK FUTURE program director Emma C. Burgin said, was a long time in the making.
“We have a group of about 85 to 100 undergraduate volunteers every semester, and our peer mentors have been working for the past year with the Panhellenic Council here at UTK to make this happen,” she told TODAY Parents. “They asked amazing questions, they have been very thoughtful, and it’s been a collaborative process with Panhellenic to make this a truly inclusive experience.”
Burgin said it was critical to her team that the FUTURE students could be real members of the sororities and to avoid the “tendency toward tokenism or mascots when you have people with disabilities,” she said. “We just are not interested in that type of inclusion. We wanted them to be real sisters.”
UTK’s FUTURE Postsecondary Education Program, created in 2011, is one of over 300 similar programs in the U.S. designed to empower students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to transition from high school to adult life and prepare them for gainful employment.
Burgin said the chance to join sororities on campus is just one more step toward integrating the 24 current FUTURE students in UTK’s campus life. FUTURE students have always been able to attend classes on campus and work and intern in the Knoxville community, but two years ago, the program also became residential, and this year they accepted freshmen and out-of-state students in dorms for the first time.
“We are small,” Burgin said, “But we have 14 students living independently for the first time in their lives, and now we have three students in sororities.”
Before recruitment began, each participating sorority assembled a group of members who volunteered to support FUTURE students during and after rush. The FUTURE program also designated members from their team to support the sororities and sent a training video on creating inclusive spaces.
Burgin said the biggest barrier for inclusion is the fear of doing it wrong, especially when people do not have a lot of experience interacting with people with disabilities. The main message: Approach this process with authenticity and don’t be afraid to admit mistakes.
The FUTURE team also walked their students through recruitment. “We taught them not to pick their preferences by their colors or their mascots, but to pick them for the people, because they will be spending a lot of time with them,” Burgin said.
Messer, who joined Alpha Delta Pi, told TODAY Parents she was told to wear shirts and shorts or dresses for recruitment, and decided to wear dresses for two of the days and “shorts and a cute shirt” for another.
Her favorite day of rush was Bid Day, even though it meant standing outside in the rain. She enjoyed wearing her Bid Day jersey with her letters in the days afterward, too.
“This is the kind of thing that we have been trying to do, but there are so many other things on campus that we haven’t done yet or doors that haven’t been open to us,” Burgin said. “This is one more door open.”
It’s FUTURE students Messer, Irwin and McDaniel who are opening the doors, Burgin said. “They are the ones doing the work. They are amazing, and we just try to put them in front of the people who will help them be successful and do the things that they want to do.
“Any reservations I had about this were just erased when I watched that video,” she added. “Zoe hasn’t stopped smiling for days.”
Burgin noted that this kind of inclusion is not just good for her students, but for the sororities too. “The person with the disability is not the one that is broken,” she said. “It’s actually everything around them that needs to be fixed. If you make a situation better for a person with disability, it’s going to work better for everyone.”
This article was previously published by TODAY on August 20, 2021.