Tradition is a stodgy word to some people, conjuring staid, time-bound rituals passed down from generation to generation. So how does a college campus, where the student population is in continual flux, prevent a long-standing tradition from going stale? The best campus traditions, it seems, engage the community, bring an element of fun and uniquely connect new students with their forebears.
Ranking the best campus traditions is a somewhat subjective exercise. Entire lists could be made covering awesome parties or sports rituals and their attendant superstitions. We’ve tried to incorporate a little variety with our list, highlighting 25 of the most interesting and enduring traditions that help define the community where they take place.
Ultimately though, this list is just a snapshot, a quick glance at a fraction of the campus traditions that make colleges such a special place around the country. Had we made this list a decade ago, our rankings would probably have been entirely different. And if you don’t see your school below, perhaps you should take that as a challenge to begin something wonderful.
Publicized as a “dance performance with painted bodies,” the annual Liquid Latex event at Brandeis has grown into a student-run event that sells out a 700-seat venue each year. Combining mostly-nude painted bodies with student-created choreography, the show is risqué without losing its art-school sensibilities. Liquid Latex has its roots in a student art project called “Body Art Fashion Show.” The event was so popular that the Liquid Latex Club was formed on campus to keep the tradition running smoothly.
What began as a day of seniors ditching classes has evolved into what the school calls “Senior Skip Day meets The Amazing Race.” The Ditch Day tradition dates back almost 100 years and the story goes like this: Seniors would skip classes on a secretly-designated day, but the underclassmen, mad about being left behind, would pull pranks on the seniors’ dorm rooms. To combat this, some seniors blocked their doors with cement blocks. Over the years, the tradition evolved into seniors leaving elaborate puzzles called “Stacks” for the underclassmen to solve. Today these complex Stacks take hours to complete and months to design.
Le Moyne College
For almost 50 years, students, faculty, staff and administrators have planned a secret “day off” in the spring. Each year a senior named “Wizard” works with the administration to plan a fun-filled relaxation day for students. The highlight of the day is a party with free food and music, and after a long, cold Syracuse winter, Dolphy Day is welcomed by all. While LeMoyne’s mascot is a Dolphin, the day is supposedly named for Frank Zappa’s song “Eric Dolphy Barbecue.” In 2010, the school unveiled a statue honoring jazz musician Eric Dolphy as part of the 40th Dolphy Day festivities.
More of a “plunge” than a swim, Dartmouth students celebrate February’s winter carnival by jumping two-by-two into Occom Pond on the north side of campus for the annual Polar Bear Swim. Heading into its 22nd year, safety is remains a top priority: each student is tied to a rope and uses a ladder to climb out of the water. The event also attracts jumping professors and the occasional dean. The freezing cold waters are said to reinvigorate students during the cold winter study sessions.
University of New Hampshire
College sports fans have created and developed hundreds of superstitions and rituals over the years. One of the weirdest is New Hampshire’s “Throwing of the Fish,” which takes place at Wildcats home hockey games. When the Wildcats score their first goal, New Hampshire fans throw fish onto the ice. Though it might have started as an insult to an inferior team, today’s fans say they are reminding the opposing goalie that he has to “fish” the puck out of his goal.
University of Idaho
What do you do with coins you find? If you went to Idaho, you’d add them to the “Found Money Fund.” Started in 1981 with three pennies, the fund currently contains over $340,000! It will be made available on the school’s bicentennial in 2089, at which point it should have accrued several million dollars. The interest from the account will be used to enhance the university’s image.
Murray State University
Many of the best college traditions are unique to a particular campus culture, and that’s certainly true with regards to “The Shoe Tree” at Murray State. Even the school doesn’t know how the tradition began, but couples who fell in love at Murray State are encouraged to nail a shoe to the tree after they marry, for good luck. The current iteration of the tree (the first was burned after a lightning strike) contains over 50 mis-matched pairs of shoes, many marked with anniversary dates. There are also quite a few baby shoes interspersed along the trunk.
The craziest traditions have an “Is this real or not?” quality to them, as is the case with the Hamilton College Streaking Team. In 2004, a few Hamilton students formed a streaking team called “Streak to Win,” which took a tour of 12 other schools in its athletic league. Documented in a 2009 movie, the streaking team “competed” against all 12 schools in five days. The Hamilton Streaking Team still appears occasionally at student events and other gatherings. And why not? They’re still undefeated, you know.
For over 100 years, on the last Friday before Spring Break, first-year architecture students at Cornell have built gigantic dragons and paraded them across campus to the Arts Quad, where they are eventually burned in a bonfire. Dragon Day is a gigantic parade of costumed students; at times, engineering students have built a phoenix to show off their skills and join in on the fun. Occasionally, the phoenix battles the dragon, but for the most part, it’s just a day of partying for all.
Hundreds of athletic programs have devout fanatics, but few can match the intensity and devotion of the Cameron Crazies supporting the Blue Devils men’s basketball team. Built in 1940, Cameron Indoor Stadium is one of basketball’s Meccas. The Crazies coalesced and rose to prominence in the 1980s as the Blue Devils became one of the best basketball programs in the country under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. The area outside the arena is dubbed Krzyzewskiville. Here, students set up tents in late December in order to score front-row seats for big games, particularly rivalry matchups against North Carolina.
Under the light of Fall Quarter’s first full moon, Stanford senior men kiss freshman women. That’s the tradition, anyway. Today, Full Moon on the Quad is a kissing free-for-all with bingo boards and a “Queer Moon on the Quad” section for same-sex kissers. By tradition, The Tree, Stanford’s mascot, kisses everyone and may dole out a thousand in a night. In recent years, the event has drawn costumed students, streakers and everything in between. Mouthwash is provided in advance.
Coming up on its 92nd incarnation, the Middlebury Winter Carnival is a three-day celebration of February snow, fitting for a campus that owns its own ski center. From a winter ball to a comedy show to snow sculptures, bonfires and fireworks, the Winter Carnival is billed as the oldest student-run winter carnival in the country.
University of Virginia
Like most streaking-oriented traditions, Virginia’s developed informally in the 1970s and has grown in legend since. The custom is for students, prior to their graduation, to run naked from the Rotunda steps across the 740-foot Lawn, kiss the buttocks of the statue of Homer, and run back.
Nitrogen might be the only element with an annual party dedicated to its awesomeness. For over 20 years, Reed students have paid annual tribute to the 7th element on Nitrogen Day. In addition to food and music, Reed students compose and recite haikus, with that all-important seven-syllable second line, celebrating nitrogen.
University of California - Berkeley
Many schools have traditions during “Dead Week,” the time between the end of classes and the start of finals. One of the craziest is the Naked Run at Berkeley. During the Naked Run, students gather in the Moffitt Library stairwell to undress, then run whooping through the stacks, treating anyone studying to an impromptu study break.
University of Arizona
Before he died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident, popular Arizona student-athlete John “Button” Salmon gave a message to football coach J.F. “Pop” McKale to relay to his teammates: “Tell them… tell the team to bear down.” The phrase “Bear Down” was made into a song that is played at Wildcats sporting events to this day.
University of Chicago
The winter carnival at Chicago is known as “Kuvia,” and for over 30 years it has ended with the Polar Bear Run. The race is billed as “clothing-discouraged” and about half the runners participate in the nude. The run stretches from the steps of the library across the quad. The male and female winners of the sprint receive a t-shirt to commemorate their run.
Washington University in St Louis
Many schools offer fall and spring concert series, but at Washington, the students did more than just show up: they supplied the name too. WILD, an acronym for “Walk In, Lay Down,” refers to the tradition of students bringing their own couches to the quad for the show. This is no longer commonplace, but WILD still features hot up-and-coming musical acts.
Emory’s unofficial mascot is James W. Dooley, the Spirit of Emory. Each year in the spring, Emory holds Dooley’s Week to celebrate school spirit. Festivities include concerts and parties, but the best part is that a student dons a skeleton costume and becomes Dooley. When Dooley walks into a classroom, he has the power to dismiss the class, to the joy of students across campus.
University of California - Santa Cruz
For over 25 years, students have celebrated the first rain of the fall semester with a naked run across campus. Though its origins are murky, the rules are simple: the run must take place on a school night and the rain must be steady. The run begins at Porter College and may detour into a dip in the pool as it circles around campus.
On the night of winter’s first snowfall, the sound of fire alarms at Virginia Tech signals the start of the traditional snowball fight between cadets and civilians. Virginia Tech was once an all-male Reserve Officer Training Corps school, so the snowball rivalry is infused with the school’s history.
University of Oregon
The Duck mascot at Oregon was once a live duck, but in the 1940’s, he morphed into a costumed Donald Duck look-alike. A licensing agreement with Disney followed, but expired in 2010. Since then, Oregon’s duck has been free of corporate oversight and can be found leading the football team into Autzen Stadium on the back of a Harley-Davidson.
While Oxy Day, the celebration of the school’s founding in 1887, occurs each April 20, the best birthday tradition at Occidental is the dunk in the fountain. Students can expect a refreshing surprise on their birthday. Friends kidnap their “victims” on their special day and toss them into the Lucille Gilman Memorial Fountain.
University of Maryland - College Park
Rubbing the nose of the statue of the school’s mascot Testudo the Terrapin for good luck began almost immediately after the statue’s donation from the Class of 1933. Once subject to kidnapping by rival schools, Testudo was moved to its current location in front of McKeldin Library in 1965.
The Waco Suspension Bridge crosses the Brazos River in downtown Waco and is the inspiration behind Baylor’s Tortilla Toss. Students aim for a cement platform out in the river, a remnant of a demolished bridge, and tradition says that if they can fling their tortilla onto the concrete, they will graduate within four years.