Why would bright young people attending the country’s most elite institutions wrestle in mud, run around naked, kiss statue’s derrieres, or howl at the moon? I have one word for it – tradition. Something that takes a bunch of kids and makes a community out of them.
Some college traditions make your raise your eyebrows. Others raise serious questions. However, one thing is certain – students aren’t going to stop. Of course, a university’s unique rituals probably don’t top the list of your considerations when you choose your target school. Still, it’s good to know about some of those beforehand. After all, they make for entertaining reading and give you some sense of the school’s character. Let me present you some of the weirdest US college traditions.
I won’t be the one to deny the stress-relieving qualities of a good heartfelt shriek. In fact, I am a devout practitioner. I’ve been screaming my head off every time my pancake flip failed, I had to listen to yet another round of annoying waiting messages while on the phone, or I just couldn’t get myself to write my essay for tomorrow. That’s why I start with this healthy and rather widespread tradition.
The honor of opening the list goes to the Carleton College Primal Scream. Every year, on the night before the finals, at 10 pm sharp, Carleton students howl and wail as one to blow off some steam. Those who aren’t ready to get back to cramming may join in the Quiet Dance an hour later. The students sync up to a master playlist and press play at 11 pm precisely. Since all of them wear headphones, this massive dance party doesn’t disturb anyone at the library, where it starts, or on campus at large, where it continues.
The Georgetown University Healy Howl is another bloodcurdlingly noisy campus tradition. Each Halloween, The Exorcist, which was partly filmed on campus, is screened to students and is timed to end just before midnight. When the end credits start rolling, the students head to the campus cemetery and howl at the moon (or at the empty sky – that depends).
Streaking and Being Unceremonious to the Statues
The funny thing about college traditions is that they aren’t exactly set in stone. They morph from one thing to another, get modified, canceled, and re-established. That’s what happened to the Primal Scream at Harvard. Back in the 1960s, it was all about the scream – the students would open their windows and yell for 10 minutes straight as a way to unwind. However, now it’s all about primal, with the streaking aspect gradually taking center stage. Twice a year before the finals, over a hundred students strip naked and run around the Yard while the Harvard Band plays. That, along with peeing on the John Harvard statue, is considered among the things that every student must do before they graduate.
The University of Virginia Naked Homer Run puts a sporting spin on the proud college tradition of running around au naturel. According to this version, before one graduates from the University of Virginia, they must run naked from the steps of Rotunda down the Lawn, smooch or smack the Homer statue’s portly backside (whichever their height permits) and run back to the Rotunda.
The Tufts University Naked Quad Run was a very similar decades-long tradition, but it was canceled back in 2011. One reason being that it’s technically illegal – and yes, if you are caught by the police in the act, you can be put on the sex offenders list. No kidding. Another reason is a concern for students’ health, given that early December in New England might not be the best time for being without clothes. However, a modified tradition emerged – the Excessively Overdressed Quad Stroll, which is more fun since it leaves so much room for creativity.
Judging by the number of races traditionally held on campuses, the competitive spirit is alive and well among students. They aren’t repelled even by the sheer ridiculousness of some such competitions.
For example, Carnegie Mellon Sweepstakes is a race between torpedo-shaped student-powered contraptions. Each campus organization puts up a team, which in its turn puts together their own unique sweepstake bolide it then pushes through the relay race. Yeah… that looks about as ridiculous as it sounds, but the rivalry is real.
There are, of course, notable combinations of racing with binging, streaking, and other fun activities. For example, North Caroline State University’s Krispy Kreme Challenge is a combo of dressing up, running, and consuming dozens of donuts – everything under an hour. Running to a local Krispy Kreme store dressed up like a giant crayon might seem pointless. However, it’s all for a good cause – all registration fees go to the children’s hospital.
Another combo-race is Arizona State University BB Run. “BB” stands for “bras and briefs,” and you can make an educated guess from there. Over 15,000 students celebrate the end of classes by undressing and running across the campus in their underwear. The clothes they shed can then be donated to local Goodwill, which is a nice twist on this rather wild rite.
Still sounds too easy for you? How about Rice University Beer Bike Relay Race? (a bit of a mouthful in more than one sense!) It is precisely what it sounds like: a combination of a bicycle race and drinking competition, where every team has 10 cyclers and 10 chuggers. Before a cycler can ride their three laps, their designated chugger must down 24 ounces of beer (prudently replaced with water for the underage students willing to participate). Then, their turn goes to another pair until everyone does their part. High jinks ensue.
Although martial arts competitions have a place on many campuses across the country, I didn’t mean those noble contests. No, sir. I mean something more savage and primal. Like the Elon University Festivus centering around mud wrestling. It also includes an amount of libation and food that puts any pagan festival of old to shame. Not the pastime I’d personally choose, but according to the participants, Festivus is “magical” and “f***ing awesome.” So, I suppose you have to be there to appreciate it.
Those who don’t like fighting dirty will find Virginia Tech’s Cadets vs. Civilians Snowball Fight a much cleaner alternative. College cadets valiantly fight their civilian counterparts to celebrate the first big snowfall. And they do it on scale – with snow forts, cannons, catapults, and shields. The two teams continue until one of them surrenders, and although cadets are usually outnumbered 5 to 1, they had their share of victories.
Not all ritualistic fights on campuses are so physical. There are some curious fights by proxy, for example, the battle between a dragon and a phoenix during the Cornell University Dragon Day. This one is pretty old, dating back as far as 1901. First-year Architecture, Art, and Planning students build and march a giant dragon float across the campus. The dragon later “fights” the appropriately sized phoenix put forward by engineering students. There’s also a lot of running around in costumes, music, and chanting involved.
Another clear trend in wacky college traditions is jumping into the bodies of water – or dunking of third parties therein. Some of them are fun, like the “Best Campus Tradition” award winner, University of Central Florida Spirit Splash. Students celebrate homecoming weekend by running into the Reflecting Pond situated on campus. Although the tradition started when someone pushed an unsuspecting student president into the pond, now it’s voluntary and pleasant. I mean, it’s Florida.
The Ohio State University Mirror Lake Jump, on the other hand, is for the dauntless because the water in there is frigid. It’s Mirror Lake at the end of November! The tradition began in 1990 and continued every year since despite school officials’ attempts to control it. Why do students do it? Presumably, to celebrate the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game, but I suspect that’s because they all need to cool down.
The Occidental College Birthday Dunk seems like a warm bath compared to that. Still, it’s a bit stressful since you don’t know exactly when you’re going in. That is, it’s on your birthday, obviously. Yet when exactly your friends will dunk you in The Fountain is an anxiety-inducing mystery. They can drag you out of bed or even class – so watch your back!
Vassar College Super Soaker Fight is a combo of singing, fighting, and ablutions. It is a continuation of an honored tradition of first-year classes serenading the seniors. To be sure, the songs were not always full of compliments. Hence, as a form of retaliation, seniors began to splatter the freshmen with messy stuff like ketchup and chocolate syrup, thus making it less about singing and more about food fights. However, after the introduction of the “water only” rule, this whole thing turned into a one big Water-Balloon Battle Royale.
Honoring Your Sports Team in Bizarre Ways
Universities are notorious for worshipping their athletes and hating on their rivals. For example, Ohio State University I’ve mentioned above. Their students not only jump into the freezing lake when their school plays against their arch-enemy Michigan. They also metaphorically obliterate the rival team by observing the No ‘M’s allowed week. They painstakingly remove or cover every letter “M” on the Columbus campus, so there is nothing to remind them of Michigan.
If that seems strong, hold on to your hat. Florida State University boasts one of the weirdest campus sites. For 60 years now, the FSU’s football captains have been charged with the unique task. When they return victorious from a road game, they are to bring home as a trophy… a patch of turf, which is then laid to rest at the Sod Cemetery – with commemorative plaques and everything. The cemetery even has its web page, so you can go and check if you don’t believe me.
To end this section on a more light-hearted note, how about the University of Pennsylvania Toast Throwing? Akin to Tuft’s Excessively Overdressed Quad Stroll, this one also morphed out of prohibition. In the 1970s, alcohol was banned from Penn’s stadium, so students could no longer raise glasses when they sang their school song “Drink a Highball.” That is why, when getting to the place where the song went, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn,” they started to fling actual toasts slices onto the field. This caught up, and today up to 30,000 pieces are thrown per game. That’s why UPenn also boasts probably the only “toast zamboni” in the world.
Hunting Some Weird Stuff
If mass events give you life, Swarthmore College Pterodactyl Hunt might be your kind of party. Initially started as an inside joke in the Psi Phi science fiction club, the event now has its elaborate rules and characters and unites hundreds of students each year. Two teams of “hunters” and “monsters” clad in “armor” (white and black trashcan liners) and wielding “swords” (foam bats) chase each other around the campus. Now, that’s what I call fun!
For those ready to take silliness to the extreme, there is always the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt, affectionately known as the Scav. During the four days that it lasts, hundreds of students and alumni perform tasks, find and create things, and give new meaning to the word “sportsmanship.” Having started back in 1987 as a typical scavenger hunt, this epic event has been growingly wacky over the decades. The Scavvies reportedly built nuclear reactors, flew planes to unknown destinations, got tattooed upon, circumcised, and married. According to Leila Sales, an author, editor, and Chicago University alumna, “The point of Scav is not to win a big prize, and to some extent, it’s not about winning at all. The point of Scav is to do cool s**t. That’s it.”
Okay, no list of university traditions is complete without a proper ghost story. So here is the one about William & Mary’s Haunted House. The college of William & Mary is the second oldest school in the US after Harvard, so it’s seen its share of tragedies over 300 years of history. However, among its numerous hauntings, only one seems to originate a tradition. The Wythe House is known to be haunted by the ghost of Lady Ann Skipwith. She visited the house together with her husband Payton and accompanied him to a ball at the Governor’s Palace one night. That evening she was seen in tears fighting with Peyton, presumably learning about his infidelity. Distraught, she left the gathering in the middle of the night and ran towards the Wythe House, losing one of her beautiful red shoes along the way. She soon died during childbirth, and Payton married her sister immediately after. Legend has it that her spirit returned to the Wythe House to find her shoe and the peace she had lost after learning about the betrayal. Students try to summon the ghost by bringing a red shoe to the door, knocking three times and repeating, “Lady Ann Skipwith, we’ve found your red shoe!” If they are successful, they will hear the clank-step sound someone wearing just one heel would make going down the stairs… If less successful, they will be chased away by the security guards.
A bit less dark but no less curious is the Murray State University Shoe Tree. According to this tradition, the couples who nail their shoes to the trunk will have a happy marriage. Generations of students left behind their mismatched slippers and boots in hopes of a blissful union – and it worked! At least, in some cases. Many alumni return to add baby shoes to their original pair after they have children together, and all I can say is, “Aww!”
Why are college traditions still so popular, even though we are less superstitious as a society? Behavioral scientists might have an answer to that. In the article Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety, Alison Wood Brooks (professor at Harvard Business School) and Juliana Schroeder (Psychology professor at Berkeley) highlight the importance of framing those wacky behaviors as “rituals.” They write, “Belief that a specific series of behaviors constitute a ritual is a critical ingredient to reduce anxiety and improve performance: engaging in behaviors described as a ‘ritual’ improved performance more than engaging in the same behaviors described as ‘random behaviors.’”
There you have it. When it’s just some silly thing students do for giggles, it does nothing. When it’s ritual, it helps you fight anxiety and stress – and that is something students of all times have aplenty. So find that red shoe, kiss the statue, or let out that lung-shuttering scream – whatever makes you happy. Then, hit the books.