How Greek Life Made Me a Better Expat

I am a member of Alpha Delta Pi and came home to ADPi more than ten years ago to the Alpha Beta Chapter at the University of Iowa (my chapter turns 100 next January!). As trite as it may sound, Greek life made my college experience for more rounded, fun and significant – and it’s helped me to adapt to expat life in many ways.


My dad, former president of local fraternity Sigma Nu Chi at St. Norbert’s College, encouraged me to rush. Indeed, all of his cousins joined him at ENX, as well as his middle brother. Joining a sorority could make a big school seem more manageable, he claimed. Is Greek Life right for me? was never a question that crossed my mind – the social, leadership-craving me wanted it.

Choosing to go to college with several of my high school classmates could have been a big disaster, but as several of my WWS classmates and I sat on Beth’s futon after our first day of recruitment, I had already narrowed down by choices to three houses. As the week went on, my choice was clear: I wanted to go ADPi. I pledged in 2003 after recruitment week.

I have wonderful memories of playing tricks on one another in the Pi house, of coordinated dance routines for Greek Week and Homecoming (please, I got to play Peg in a Napolean Dynamite routine), of volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City. Several of my sisters have come to visit me in Spain, and thanks to social media, I still feel involved in their lives.

And it was my sister Aly who encouraged me to study abroad! On my first day of university classes, she called me from across a lecture hall in Spanish class, and we became instant friends, both studying abroad in Valladolid.

While speaking about Greek Life to Spaniards, it’s a hard concept to fully explain. It’s like subtracting the religious part of an hermandad and adding kalimotxo to some degree, but it’s so uniquely North American that most shrug it off as another thing we Americans do, like tractor pulls and fireworks on the 4th.

But despite all of that, Alpha Delta Pi has been a significant part of my life as I served many positions – including Membership Education Vice President on the Executive Board – and sought out the advice and shoulders of my sisters. 

As I prepared to enter the real world, I knew that Europe was my path, and that my leadership training with ADPi had given me a solid kick in the pants when it led to starting a life abroad.

Conversation Skills

My birthday always fell during recruitment week, which was as awesome (100+ singing you happy birthday all at once) as it was not. For hours, we’d spend time getting to know women interested in Greek life, telling them about our sisterhood and finding ways to connect with total strangers. Through those countless informal chats, I’ve found that having well-honed conversation skills is a must for any professional today.

Now that I live in a different country and often travel by myself, I have a constant turnover of friends and acquaintances. Aspiring expats and new arrivals reach out to me through my blog, and I’m often out meeting someone for a coffee or caña. The one thing we have in common is usually Spain, so I read up on what’s happening in my adopted city and country and always have a story on hand to ease into those awkward first moments. Just as transitions into conversations during recruitment can be unnerving, so can meeting people.

It was then that I also realized how much first impressions count, and that intuition can go far. Sure, there’s the aspect of recruitment which means telling a woman she’s not right for your group of friends (in the most stripped-down sense of recruitment, that is), but following your gut is really what it’s all about. And the same goes for choosing a sorority to call home.

Moving abroad to teach in a program like the auxiliares de conversación is a lot like going away to college – there are other people just like you who are uncertain, homesick and looking to make friends. Just as you’d leave your dorm room door open, life as an expat means leaving a figurative puerta open to tapas, drinks and weekend trips.

In those blurred first weeks in Spain, I felt I really didn’t connect with a lot of people. Most of them had studied abroad together, so I was the one left feeling like the transfer student who didn’t understand the local lingo. It wasn’t until I had an easy conversation with two other American girls that I got that gut feeling that I had found new friends.

My intuition served right – Kate, who lived around the corner from my aunt in another Chicago suburbs just as she lived around the corner from me in Triana, introduced me to the Novio a few weeks later.

Social Responsibility and Philanthropy

On the third day of recruitment, we learned about ADPi’s national philanthropy, the Ronald McDonald House. As someone who volunteered throughout high school, I knew that I wanted service to be a big part of my college years. Apart from weekly volunteering, fundraising and participating in other philanthropic events at other chapters.

One of the best ways I volunteered my time in college was by joining Dance Marathon, a student-run philanthropy that raises money for the Children’s Hospital of Iowa. A good number of hours went weekly into fundraising efforts, into visiting kids at RMH or the hospital and into the logistics of running an event with more than 1,000 people. Along with Alpha Delta Pi, it was one of the better decisions I made in college, and something I was happy to make time for.

Now that I’m abroad, I found it impossible to not work with kids, and not just because that’s the easiest profession to get into in Iberia. I never thought I’d say it, but teaching is a perfect fit more my personality. What’s more, social responsibility is ever-present in my mind. I work to teach values to my young students, from recycling to manners to animal care. I encourage my older students to volunteer or spend time with their grandparents when they could be whatsapping.

It was also for a one of my Dance Marathon kids that I chose to walk the Camino de Santiago. I completed 200 miles on the Northern Route in memory of Kelsey, spreading the word about pediatric cancer care in the US and handing out purple and orange ribbons – the colors of leukemia and sarcoma awareness. I even raised $500 that was earmarked directly to an organization I care deeply about. In fact, many families I came into contact with through Dance Marathon used the nearby Ronald McDonald House while their child was undergoing treatment. It was like everything came full circle.

Now back in Spain for the school year, I hope to find more volunteer opportunities.

(if you’re interested in learning more or even donating to the University of Iowa Dance Marathon, please click here)

The Importance of Taking Care of Your Friends

ADPi’s motto sums it all up: We Live For Each Other.

Living under one roof with so many friends certainly bred strong friendships, and my sisters were there for me when I needed it the most. Most notably, when my maternal grandfather died during finals week, a few of my closest in the house took me for a midday Dairy Queen and kept me company while I sobbed through “Elf” when they should have been studying. I had people to advise me on everything from classes to take to job searching tips just a few feet away. My best memories of Iowa City were usually with “the girls from my house.”

The longer I live abroad, and now that I’ve made a decision to buy a house and make Spain my permanent home, the more I realize how important my friends are to me. With my family so far away, I lean on the Novio’s family and my group of guiri girlfriends to gripe to, to share Thanksgiving with.

Alpha Delta Pi taught me the value of friendship, the kind that goes further than hanging out for a coffee or a bite. With my Spain girlfriends, we’ve endured engagements and break ups, promotions and being laid off, the struggle to decide if we’re doing the right thing or if we’re with the right person. I know I could call up my closest friends in Seville if I ever needed something, even if they don’t live down the hall in the Pi house. Making time for them means sometimes having to shut out other guiris, but cultivating those friendships is far more important.

I joined a sorority for, above all else, the camaraderie, and perhaps that’s what I most got out of my four years in college.

I always knew it, but it became more real when I took the Novio to my chapter house and recounted the stories of pranks, of late nights studying or talking and showed him our composites and where I used to sleep in Third Quad. Many aspects of my life had been shaped through my Greek experience at Iowa through more than just socials, date parties and philanthropies.

Somehow, I ended up in Spain, far away from my sisters and their growing families, but I felt just as close to them as I did when we were all in school.

Were you Greek? How has that experience impacted your life? If you weren’t, was there any significant aspect of your college years that shaped you?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. I was in a fraternity in college and took away many of the valuable life lessons and skills that you mention here, and those skills are in fact helping me adjust to life abroad. The skill of communication has been the one that has helped me the most. It’s helped me professionally and personally. Always knowing that I will have one of my brothers be there for me at the drop of a hat is something that truly is irreplaceable. They also know that I will be there for them too.

    I like how you mention moving abroad to starting college because I just told my mom that I feel the same way!
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..San Mateo Festival in LogroñoMy Profile

  2. I never thought about fraternities in my undergrad, because they are so uncommon in Canada, but here in the Netherlands they are extremely popular and I sometime get twinges of regret – a sort of weird feeling of missing something I’ve never had. When I came to do my MA here I was too old and too foreign to feel like I could join! But I saw – and still see – my boyfriend meeting up with his fraternity ‘year club’ friends every so often, and I see my girlfriends doing the same, and I do crave that sort of tight-knit group of friends. I’m so lucky to have amazing individual friends but I think I would have loved to go for dinners and on trips with 12+ of my closest friends!
    Sophie recently posted..Utrecht AutumnMy Profile

    • Some of my closest friends are in the house, and others aren’t. The Greek Life at my university wasn’t too big, so we were able to spend time with all sorts of women from all sorts of houses. I miss them!

  3. I relate to this post as a fellow sister of Kappa Alpha Theta! I also was in a sorority in college which greatly surprised me and everyone I knew when I decided to rush. I won’t recount the long, boring story of why I decided to rush (story for another day) but I was not in a good place my sophomore year and didn’t have many friends. I went to a small liberal arts school and only about a quarter of the student body was involved in Greek life. I have no regrets about joining. I met some of my best friends in college through my sorority and it turned around my college experience completely. There are pros and cons to Greek life of course. I’m not sure if I learned any great personal skills (still shy, still hate small talk which means I hated recruitment so much as a new member and as a sister because I felt always super awkward) but I met some great people and had a great support network throughout college.

    Oh and I’ve given up trying to explain Greek life to non-Americans! The closest thing I can come up with is that it’s like a cult, but not religious. Even though we have a ritualist and special songs/chants and rituals… which may or may not involve the wearing of robes. Put that way, it sounds like a cult. But we aren’t worshipping anyone… just our sorority. It just sounds super sketchy when you try to explain the nitty-gritty, but I swear it’s not as bad as it sounds haha.
    amelie88 recently posted..Introducing Cloud the Stallion, the World’s Most Famous Wild HorseMy Profile

    • I was looking forward to you commenting! Above all else, being Greek can help you have a built-in support system, and that’s the beauty of the whole thing. I miss the nights in the house and the practical jokes and the joy I feel when I see my sisters after so long!

      And as for rituals…haha, some creep me out, but it’s cool that ADPi’s been around for 150+ years, and we’re still doing the same thing!

  4. It’s wonderful to hear that you had such a great and fulfilling experience as a member of a sorority. My mom just had a reunion with her Iowa sorority about a week ago. She reminisces the same way you do.

    On the other hand, my Greek life experience was exactly the opposite of this, in every conceivable manner. (Yeah, I was in a fraternity heh.) It was mostly a shit experience with a lot of shit people at a shit school with a shit house. I definitely have fond memories of some friends and some experiences there, but that’s about it. Learning about life is not something that was covered. If I did it all over again, there’s absolutely no way I’d ever join a fraternity, and I’d never recommend it to anyone. So there’s that.

    Just goes to show you that each chapter of each one is its own experience, and that should not take away from the positives, nor should it add to the negative stereotypes of Greek life as a whole.
    Ryan from Jets Like Taxis recently posted..In Pictures: Cesky Krumlov, Czech RepublicMy Profile

    • I had no idea you’d been Greek, Ryan! Too bad it didn’t work out in a different way for you, though you make a great point that each chapter and Panhellenic system is different from one place to another. I have met a few ADPis abroad, and having something in common, regardless of their experience and whether or not it was positive, proves how connected we all are.

  5. I couldn’t agree more! Going Greek shaped me for expat life in so many surprising ways. I was an Alpha Phi in college, and I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything in the world! Every time I try to explain it to Spaniards, they think that I’m just butchering my Spanish. They’re always like, “There’s no way you lived in a house with 100 other girls!” But it made me all the less picky when choosing a piso in Madrid, that’s for sure 😉 (Once you survive a sleeping porch, you can survive anything!) And I have to admit, I’m so much better at memorizing my students’ names after doing sorority recruitment for so many years!
    Courtney recently posted..On Blogging and the Writing ProcessMy Profile

    • It creeps up on you in small ways, doesn’t it?? We had individually rooms – I would have died in a porch (we called them cold rooms at Iowa)!!

  6. Lynn Neagley says:

    As always enjoyed your Blog! I recall you had mentioned your Greek affiliation before but really enjoyed your elaborating on the posiitve influences it has had in your life after college and in Spain. As a Delta Gamma alumna, working with women of all ages from all over North America, I meet alot of sisters who have either studied abroad or may do so in the future or are fantasizing about living overseas permanently. I will be directing them to your blog the next time the conversation turns to leaving the safety net of home and college in the states to pursue their dreams in other parts of the world!

  7. You nailed it! I’m a ZTA alum from Virginia Tech and can’t articulate enough what an amazing impact it’s had on my life. Not until this post did I realize that my experiences in the sorority undoubtedly have aided with my transition to Germany. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Margo! I only recently started to draw the parallels when visiting my college over the summer and speaking to a few of the live-ins. I really enjoyed talking to them about their future plans!

  8. I loved being in a sorority, too. I know so many people here who love to hate on it, but I was surrounded by wonderful people who became my best friends. I never connected it to my life here because things seem SO insanely different, but you make a ton of great points. Great post!
    Alex, Speaking Denglish recently posted..BLACK FOREST DAY HIKE: FORBACH TO BAD WILDBADMy Profile

  9. Interesting article, Cat. We too like you share a Greek heritage. Apparently, Hirtes was the name of a minor Greek philosopher.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..Crazy Needles TattooMy Profile

  10. Thanks for sharing the Greek part of your life. I’m a Kappa Kappa Gamma and I specifically joined the sorority as an undergrad for the alumni association. With the alumni association, I know that I can go anywhere in the world and always find a group of inspiring women who’ve shared a similar experience.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Little Corn Island: A Taste of Nicaraguan NirvanaMy Profile

  11. This is such an interesting point of view. I’m wondering if fraternities are mostly an American thing? As a Canadian, I never even heard of a fraternity in either of the universities I attended. It sounds like you got a lot of great things out of it though!
    Micki recently posted..Hanging out in Old HavanaMy Profile

    • Hi Mickey, some larger Canadian universities do have Greek fraternities and sororities – mine does! Do you have anything similar as far as student social orgs?

  12. Such an interesting perspective! I haven’t heard this highlighted before, but it makes sense.
    Lillie – @WorldLillie recently posted..How to Travel With a Baby: 11 Tips to Make it Easy!My Profile

  13. Greek life make you better in many other senses too, it’s so different… seems like time has stopped there!
    Lily Lau recently posted..20 animal twins that are tough to tell apartMy Profile

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