My hair is blonde. I like to dress up. Many of my T-shirts are oversized, and I love my leggings.

When people catch me casually walking down Pedestrian with a button on my backpack and certain letters on my shirt, they all think the exact same thing.

"Sorority girl."

For many non-Greeks, the sound of Greek letters strung together often generates negative feelings. Popular media and movies perpetuate a particular image of the ideal sorority girl, like Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde." Sorority girls are often portrayed with fake tans, dyed blonde hair and excessive makeup; they live in large houses and party exclusively with fraternity guys most nights of the week.

I knew all the stereotypes — and based on that image, I never imagined myself in a sorority. In high school, I spent much of my free time studying for my rigorous coursework, and traveled often around the Southwest to play in basketball tournaments. I worked for the eventual day when I would be in college, possibly as an athlete, but more than likely as a student at a certain elite academic school.

But if life is anything, it's ironic.

I decided to attend Tennessee for reasons that were unexpected but clear; at the urging of those close to me, I had grudgingly gathered sorority recruitment letters and signed up for rush. In August, I began a process I scarcely understood but decided to try anyway.

Rush is an experience all in itself. The process has many similarities to dating; potential new members spend time at every different house. If both parties enjoy each other, then the girl will likely return and spend more time at the houses that best fit her throughout the week. At the end of rush, each PNM receives a bid card with an offer to join a sorority.

Rush has received much criticism over the years as a practice in exclusivity and elitism. Unfortunately, of the 900 or more girls who go through Tennessee's recruitment annually, not all girls receive bids or get asked back to their favorite sorority. Recruitment is a gamble, and there are no promises the process will work out in ways one expects.

I didn't know what to think as I went through recruitment myself, so I maintained an open mind and realized something.

Girls who join sororities recognize something very important — life cannot be lived alone, and finding a group of consistent women to support and endure with you is a beautiful thing. I have met some absolutely incredible people through my sorority who will not only be with me throughout college, but also on the day I graduate, the day I get married and beyond.

My sisters and I don't have practices or a grade or a paid employment to brings us together; we chose to be a part of a society and allow ourselves to learn and grow together. Creating community can come from many different areas, and making life-long friends certainly does not require a Greek system. However, in a large campus with a constant flux of people, having a group I always know will be there has made all the difference.

I've heard the idea phrased in a million different ways, but essentially, many of my friends say the same thing — I don't fit the stereotype.

I am not the exception – I know countless girls in all chapters and systems who defy every expectation of what a sorority girl "should" be. Perhaps, from the outside — with the letters and the houses and the mixer T-shirts — people decide we are all the same.

We are not. We have decided to share an aspect of our college lives together, but the fact I'm in a sorority for four years does not define every feature of my journey through college and the future.

Every stereotype can contain grains of truth; some interactions will confirm pre-existing beliefs. Don't label a girl, or an entire group of girls, under a negative stereotype founded on scant knowledge and popular media. If girl in Greek letters articulates herself intelligently in class or has incredible athletic skills or spends her weekend nights completely sober, don't be surprised.

Her identity in a sorority is a part of her, but her true identity lies in herself as a human being.

I am more than a blonde girl walking down Pedestrian in leggings and Chacos – I am Sarah Hagaman.

Sarah Hagaman is a sophomore in English. She can be reached at shagama1@utk.edu.