A look back at Northwestern party culture

Graphic by Olivia Abeyta.

Content warning: This story includes mentions of drugs.

On a brisk Saturday night, a horde of Northwestern first-years stood lingering outside an off-campus frat house. Deciding where to go after being turned away from yet another party, they scrolled through social media. Passers-by would hear calls from the first-years saying, “We’re going to Reza’s!” The statement, shrouded in disappointment, led another group of wandering students to start flocking south to downtown Evanston.

This scene might feel familiar to first-years who are exploring the world of partying at Northwestern for the first time. But was this always the same picture of Northwestern’s party culture for underclassmen? What effect did the pandemic and the abolish Greek life movement have? NBN spoke to both upperclassmen and underclassmen to understand what the party scene at NU once was – and where it is now.

September 2019: Parties of the past

Today’s upperclassmen once turned to different places outside Evanston to socialize during their first-year days, as fourth-year McCormick student Haolan Zhan explained.

And while Reza’s might be the latest spot for first-years, Zhan recalls the Mark II Lounge, familiarly known as The Deuce, as one of the main bars where first-years would congregate.

“[The Deuce was] very crowded, sweaty. No one went there for a really comfortable experience per se, but if your friends are there, it’s a lot of fun,” said Zhan of his impression of the bar in West Rogers Park.

Even more appealing for many underclassmen at the time was the bonds of brotherhood or sisterhood offered by Greek life, Zhan added.

“For underclassmen coming into Northwestern, having trouble [finding] a community or feeling like they belong is a very common transitional experience, and fraternity-sorority life just kind of takes advantage of that,” Zhan said.

He engaged in Greek life briefly in Winter Quarter of 2020, participating in mixers with sororities or open parties that his fraternity hosted. But he later became disillusioned with the Greek scene as students exposed the problems of the institution that once dominated campus parties.

March 2020: A pause on parties

In 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the nation reckoned with racial inequality following the death of George Floyd and increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, driving college students across the US to evaluate sources of inequity on campus. Many isolated Greek life, with its traditional exclusivity and engrained discrimination, as one prominent source of inequity on display.

School of Communication third-year Craig Carroll identifies as queer and felt that Greek life posed a threat to marginalized identities.

“A lot of people feel like Greek life fosters a culture of danger, and plenty of people, especially women, especially other minorities, queer people, especially people of color, are at risk,” Carroll said. “When I go to a frat event or something like that, it feels like a much more heteronormative space.”

Zhan chose to deactivate from his fraternity, citing similar feelings.

“It was a very white place, so I don’t think I fully felt comfortable being myself or being aware of my identity in that space,” Zhan said.

The abolish Greek life movement took hold in campuses all over the US and grew to large numbers at Northwestern. Later in September of 2021, students led protests on-campus after Northwestern’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon came under fire for multiple drugging incidents that occurred at their parties.

January 2021: In isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to the bacteria- and sweat-exchanging experiences of party culture across campus as students left Northwestern to go back home. For the Class of 2024, this meant that their first fall quarter happened completely virtually. It was not until Winter Quarter 2021 that they could come to campus, and even then, party culture remained dormant for the next year.

“Last year, a lot of times, I would be like ‘Ok, I’m gonna go out tonight. I’m going to do something fun,’ and then there would be nothing happening,” Carroll said. “And I would feel very lonely.”

Social distancing during the pandemic physically and emotionally isolated many students. Those infected with the coronavirus were required to quarantine in Foster-Walker complex and later in Hinman, a former residence hall and the de facto “Covid dorm” of last school year. There, the quarantine exacerbated already-present feelings of isolation, as Carroll recalled.

Carroll quarantined in Hinman for a total of 17 days after contracting COVID twice.

“It was pretty rough the first time,” he said. “I was doing really badly, and I was really, really excited to get out.”

But as COVID-19 infection rates tick down this year, first-years have gotten to experience a more typical Fall Quarter at NU.

September 2022: The new first-year experience

Alongside the awkwardness of Wildcat Welcome and struggles of adjusting to dorm living, Zhan spoke on the parts of being a first-year that may never change.

“Ace a [first-year] your network isn’t that big, so it’s harder to be just invited to [parties] and plus, none of your friends are going to be off-campus and hosting events of their own,” Zhan said.

For many underclassmen, parties also serve as an opportunity to find a sense of belonging in NU’s social scene. Weinberg first-year student Jaeda Tagoe expressed her appreciation for the (albeit short-lived) bonds she has made with new people on a night out.

“I can meet this random person, like, ‘I don’t even know who you are,’ and then suddenly we’re just friends for the rest of the night,” Tagoe said.

On her weekends, Tagoe turns to the fraternities for parties, in addition to club organizations, other student groups, and Reza’s.

But in terms of the level of fun at those parties, “It’s very hit-or-miss,” according to Tagoe.

Medill first-year Jonas Blum also recognized fraternities and club organizations as common destinations on a night out.

“I came in with the expectation that Greek life was dying and it seems to be kind of coming back,” Blum said. “A lot of first-years seem super into it, especially up North.”

Zhan speculated that the rebound in Greek Life is because of the deprivation of social contact following the pandemic.

“I think Greek Life decreased a lot for that one year but kind of made a rebound with students who are coming in after losing their high school experience due to COVID and were more desperate for socialization, especially Classes of 2024 and 2025,” Zhan said .

Blum similarly noted the resurgence of the frat-dominated social scene.

“I think clubs beat Greek life. But I think Greek life is the most consistent source of parties,” Blum agreed.

The struggle with fraternity parties for first-years seems to revolve around the all-conquering “list” that governs who can enter a party and who cannot, Blum stressed. First-years tend to have a harder time getting invited to parties and added to these lists, with the occasional frat president yelling at desperate first-years to get off their lawns.

“Clique-iness was the thing I hated in high school,” Blum said. “I don’t see the reason to do that again, and this time, have it more formalized.”

There’s also the ongoing threat of drugs at fraternity parties that remains for first-years. While the abolish Greek life movement attacked incidents of druggings in fraternities and sought to eliminate them, the memories of these incidents still have a hold on some students.

“I know someone whose roommate has gotten roofied twice,” Tagoe said.

One of the newer staples of the first-year party experience is Reza’s, a popular Mediterranean chain restaurant that operates a small lounge and taproom in downtown Evanston.

“Reza’s literally came out of nowhere. I think it just popped up last year, and it was very shocking,” Zhan said.

He recalled trying out Reza’s for the first time last year, and after immediately sensing the potent underclassmen energy in the room, he turned around.

Although she has not been back to Reza’s since September, Tagoe recognized the popularity of Reza’s at the beginning of the year as this default location for when first-years had nowhere to party. Sweat was the defining characteristic of Reza’s, she added.

“You can only have fun at Reza’s for the first fifteen to thirty minutes and then you’re soaking in sweat,” Tagoe said. “I feel like all the first-years go there just to say that they’re going there.”

Indeed, for Tagoe and other first-years, the feat of shimmying through windows to jump up and down in a sticky room showed much about the length first-years were willing to go to feel social connection on a weekend night.

In the end, Blum believes most first-years are looking for what every other college student seeks: a good time with new friends.

“As the years go on, for me, I want to have a clear set of friends I can just hang out with on the weekends and [not] have to worry about exclusivity,” Blum said.

He echoes the sentiments that many first-years are still trying to find their place at NU, whether they are searching in the thumping basement of a fraternity house or on the quiet couches of a common room.

Advice for first-years, from upperclassmen

The pandemic and the abolish Greek life movement represented an “unprecedented time” (so sorry, we had to) for the Class of 2023 and 2024. But their past struggles are still relatable for first-years.

Primarily, both Zhan and Carroll said they believe in the strength of being a part of a student organization or community of people with shared interests.

“In terms of student organizations, I definitely think this is one of the healthier ways to engage with the social culture, just because, a lot of the organizations, the purpose isn’t to socialize and party, but the purpose is some other shared interest or shared culture or shared identity,” Zhan said.

Meanwhile, Carroll acknowledged the balance one must strike to actually have fun while at a social event.

“Safety is very, very important. If you don’t feel like you feel safe then you’re probably not going to have fun there,” Carroll said. “But, at the same time, it can be exciting to be somewhere where you don’t necessarily belong, like to go to an event where you don’t know a lot of people. So try everything and see what you enjoy.”

Above all, Carroll stressed the importance of disconnecting feelings of belonging and self-worth from an individual’s social life.

“[Party culture] is never a reflection of who you are or if you have enough friends,” Carroll said. “Maybe you do want to make friends with more people but that is something you need to decide for yourself and that is not something you should base on how many parties you’re invited to.”

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