Interview of Maya Khanna ’22 by Amanda Rosenblum ’07, May 2020
(excerpted in part in the June 2020 DGALA newsletter)
Maya Khanna, a Dartmouth ’22 from Rochester, Minnesota, is taking an off term to conduct a qualitative research project interviewing alumnae about their experiences with sororities, whether they were affiliated or unaffiliated. She is looking at the history of sororities at Dartmouth and their influence in shaping the Dartmouth community. I participated in a Zoom interview with Maya back in March. She was professional, gracious, and made me feel immediately comfortable. I decided to turn the tables around and interview her for this issue of the Green Light. Maya was up early, about to head to a local Farmer’s Market with her family, but happily chatted with me about her project and her thoughts on Greek Life at Dartmouth in general. You can read some of our conversation below.
What’s your life like at Dartmouth?
I’m a ’22, so I’m in my second year. I’m a history modified with women’s and gender studies major, and Spanish minor. I was on an LSA+ learning Spanish in Peru this past Fall. When I returned, I saw many of my friends had decided to rush houses. The Dartmouth Outing Club is one of my primary communities on campus, and I’m very involved in Cabin and Trail and the club Nordic ski team. I’m also part of SAPA (Sexual Assault Peer Alliance) and SPCSA (Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault) and other projects related to gender-based violence prevention and response. I write for The Dartmouth.
How did your research project begin?
Academic research is not something I really thought about doing because I’d always associated academic research with the hard sciences. I took a class with Annelise Orleck my freshmen summer called “Women and American Radicalism on the Left and the Right.” Annelise Orleck is my thesis advisor and faculty mentor. She’s a wonderful human being and academic resource. What I found most striking about the course was the way we used individual stories to exemplify broader historical trends. That sparked my interest. I believe that storytelling is one of the best ways to examine history. In Orleck’s work, she couches individual experiences in the broader historical context in which they take place. This is a method of research I found really appealing. My first off term was coming up this Spring, and I thought it would be a good idea to enjoy Hanover and explore research I’m interested in. Annelise told me I’d need to come up with my own project, so I immediately started thinking about what to focus on. I’m interested in institutional accountability. Dartmouth’s history is fraught in so many ways. There’s a lot there in terms of looking at the institution’s history, and looking at individual narratives as well as the time and culture of when they were students more broadly. Dartmouth’s culture is really unique. We’ve all heard of the Dartmouth bubble. In many ways, it follows the ebb and flow of social trends more broadly in the United States. It’s impossible to go to Dartmouth and not feel how Greek life impacts students on campus. I thought others must have done research on this topic, but that’s not the case. There is very little academic research on Greek life, and even less in sororities more specifically.
What do you think about gender dynamics in sororities?
I do a lot of work with SAPA and SPCSA on campus on gender-based violence prevention and response. Underlying any work you do in gender-based violence is inherently a question of power. Who has power? Who has historically had power? This relates to how students relate to each other on campus, as Dartmouth is a historically patriarchal institution. Women have struggled to find a space outside of male structures of power. More broadly, I’m interested in how students relate to each other on campus. Gender is just one form of power difference, but you could also look at race and sexuality, etc. Of course, you have to consider intersectionality, as no one is just one identity. I’m just really interested in gender.
What do you hope comes out of your research?
These are stories that everyone knows but no one really talks about on campus. My interviews cover the more nuanced elements of sororities. The truth is, 70% of eligible students join. However, many don’t stop to think about the implications of joining sororities or why they want to join. I hope to encourage conversations that prod people to think more critically about their part in affiliated systems at Dartmouth. We are all complicit in the ways we interact with these systems. It’s important to open up a broader conversation about this. I would love to create a book project, a presentation, or a podcast to share with the wider campus in a more digestible way. I’m still figuring out the medium and trying to cross different disciplines and areas of focus. This is more than an academic project and has the potential to impact personal experiences.
What do you want to see in sororities in the future?
If I’ve learned anything from the project so far, it’s that sororities have a ton of potential. They can be really empowering institutions for women. At Dartmouth, where women have historically been discriminated against, it’s really important that women find ways to connect to one another and build each other up. However, that’s not always the way that it works out. I’ve heard a lot from alumnae about sororities not being empowering, not building women up, and catering to the fraternities. I want to make sure women think more critically about why they join sororities. I want to see sororities become more accepting for all women and non-binary people on campus.
There is a discussion going on right now about non-binary individuals and sorority rush at Dartmouth. National sororities are saying they can only accept female-identified students. What do you think about the admission policies?
Personally, I believe you can’t have a space where you are empowering women, and then not also accept everyone who identifies as a woman or wishes to be part of that community. I think it’s really important that if you are creating safe, inclusive spaces, and trying to be a voice for women and minorities and people who have been historically oppressed, you can’t have that and then not be accepting to others you don’t believe are the right fit. If people want to be affiliated, that should be their choice. Sororities should make individuals of all gender identities comfortable in their space. I disagree strongly with those who say non-binary people shouldn’t be included in sororities. Gender fluid people are already excluded from so many spaces on campus. Sororities need to be better than that.