The 14 Quirkiest College Traditions

The 14 Quirkiest College Traditions
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on December 23, 2020

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College involves much more than just going to classes and cramming for exams. Each generation of students must uphold time-honored traditions such as streaking, eating copious amounts of food, engaging in primitive forms of warfare, and, in general, elevating ridiculous pranks to an art form.

This legendary lunacy is far too vast to fully chronicle here, but let's sample some of the more outrageous antics displayed on America's campuses.

1. Barnard College's Big Sub

For more than a decade, Barnard has hosted an event called Big Sub. No, it's not a corpulent adjunct but a feast featuring an impressively long sandwich. How long? Last year's measured 750 feet, or the length of two and a half football fields. Crammed into the bread were 320 pounds of turkey, 175 pounds of ham, and 120 pounds of chicken salad. Vegans could gorge on 60 feet, while another 48 feet were kosher.

All in all, it took six chefs 48 hours to prepare the heroic hoagie — and students only 15 minutes to devour it.

2. Baylor University's Tortilla Toss

Baylor is home to a Waco sports tradition known as tortilla tossing, in which students attempt to fling a tortilla Frisbee-style off a suspension bridge above the Brazos River and land it safely on a cement platform below. Legend has it that accomplishing this feat guarantees the tosser will graduate in four years.

Environmental science majors might be exempt from this superstition, though, given local angst about littering and the "nutritional deficiencies" experienced by the "ducks and geese that gobble down the tortillas."

3. Columbia University's Orgo Night and Primal Scream

As stressed-out Columbia pre-meds cram for their notoriously difficult organic chemistry final, students in the marching band invade Butler Library to serenade them with fight songs, ribald jokes, and other forms of mayhem and merriment. Designed to lower the curve on the exam, the event evidently provides some band aid for would-be docs and other science wonks.

An equally peculiar Columbia tradition is the primal scream. At midnight on the last Sunday of the semester, Columbia students open their windows and collectively let out blood-curdling shrieks of anguish and despair to voice their anxieties over finals. NPR sleuths, apparently assuming Gozer the Destructor had returned to New York, recorded the hysterical howling in 2005.

4. Cornell University's Dragon Day

Tracing its roots as far back as 1901, Dragon Day at Cornell features first-year students in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning marching a massive dragon float through campus on a journey to the arts quad, where it battles a phoenix representing the rival engineering students.

Held on the Friday before spring break, the tradition began as a celebration of St. Patrick's Day and morphed into its current incarnation in the 1950s. The annual event also includes the Nerd Walk through libraries and engineering buildings — though one assumes that's a regular occurrence on the Ivy League campus.

5. Elon University's Festivus

While it bears little resemblance to the Seinfeldian version, Elon's Festivus celebration pays tribute to the holiday "for the rest of us." Held each spring since 2004, the school event eschews feats of strength, airing of grievances, and the standard aluminum pole for a good old-fashioned mud wrestling pit and plenty of libations. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The only Festivus miracle is the relative lack of broken bones.

All proceeds raised during the event benefit The Human Fund.

6. Emory University's Dooley Week

Emory's unofficial mascot, Claire E. Dooley (formerly known as James W. Dooley) is a mysterious figure whose existence began with an 1899 letter in the school paper. A fixture on campus since the 1940s, Dooley lives on as a skeleton in the university's biology department.

Each spring Dooley appears on campus (in the form of a student dressed in a skeleton costume, accompanied by guards) and dismisses all classes with a wave of her bony hand — a truly gutless gesture. What started as Dooley Day has become a celebratory week honoring the enduring "spirit of Emory."

7. Georgetown University's Healy Howl

Every Halloween, Georgetown students gather to watch the 1973 fright fest "The Exorcist," featuring actress Linda Blair's famous 360-degree head spin and a steady stream of blood, vomit, and expletives (not unlike many campus traditions themselves). The movie is based on Georgetown alum William Peter Blatty's 1971 book of the same name, and several scenes were even shot on campus.

Just before midnight when the film ends, students venture to the cemetery near Healy Hall, where they proceed to howl at the moon in an attempt to "banish the ghosts and ghouls that haunt the campus." Another theory suggests the cathartic baying laments the decline of the school's once-vaunted basketball team.

8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Piano Drop

MIT students are legendary pranksters. They once rigged a balloon emblazoned with "MIT" to inflate near midfield during the Harvard-Yale football game. Since 1972, these brainiacs have demonstrated their creativity by hurling a piano off the roof of Baker Hall in honor of Drop Day, the last day in spring you can drop a class — and, presumably, a 500-pound instrument to its untimely demise.

The event even spawned a new unit of measure: the Bruno. Named for Charles Bruno — the prank's original mastermind — it's a precise calculation of the dent resulting from the piano's six-story freefall. All pianos hurled are said to be nonfunctioning before their descent, and experts are on hand to verify their expired status once they land.

9. North Carolina State University's Krispy Kreme Challenge

If you're krazy for kalories, consider participating in NC State's Krispy Kreme Challenge, an annual tradition since 2004. Each winter, students embark on a 2.5-mile run to the local Krispy Kreme where they devour a dozen donuts before lumbering back to campus — all within an hour.

Over the event's 16 years, 85,000 runners have consumed 1 million donuts, jogged 425,000 miles, raised $1.67 million for charity, and clogged 342,000 arteries.

10. Swarthmore College's Pterodactyl Hunt

On an October evening, students at Swarthmore join forces to wage war with the campus scourge, an insidious band of pterodactyls evidently tenured since the Mesozoic Era. Organized by Psi Phi, the school's science fiction club, the hunt features students wearing white or black trash bags, signifying hunters and monsters, respectively, as well as a vicious battle during which combatants pummel one another with foam bats.

While pterodactyls remain the primary targets of such bellicose bumbling, additional miscreants up for the fight include goblins, orcs, kobolds, the jabberwock, and one lonely troll.

11. University of Pennsylvania's Toast Throw

This tradition I experienced myself many times as an undergraduate. Have you ever toasted an occasion with actual toast? Well, that's exactly what they do at Penn. At the end of the third quarter of each home football game, students sing an old ditty called "Drink a Highball," which includes the line, "Here's a toast to dear old Penn."

Back in the day (pre-1970s, before my time), students would raise a glass to honor their alma mater. But when alcohol was banned on campus, rowdy Quakers took a more literal approach and began hurling toast onto the field and surrounding track. Following this cavalcade of crustiness, the world's first and only toast Zamboni sweeps up the mess, saving the nearby cheerleaders from what's no doubt a crumby job.

12. University of Virginia's Naked Homer Run

No, it's not baseball au naturel, but rather one of numerous nude jaunts common on American campuses. At UVA, this event isn't just a fleshy free-for-all, but a journey with a purpose. Students disrobe, race across the Lawn toward one rather imposing statue of Homer, smooch his bronze backside, and return to the Rotunda to pay homage to Thomas Jefferson as they were endowed by their Creator.

While some venerate the tradition, others simply watch bemused as students make Iliads of themselves.

13. Virginia Tech's Snowball Fight

For more than a century, students at Virginia Tech — which was founded as a land-grant military institute — have celebrated winter's first snowfall with a snowball fight pitting the college's cadets against their civilian counterparts.

Tradition has it that a freshman cadet will sound an alarm signifying the start of the battle, at which point a camouflaged throng will advance on the Drillfield to protect their flanks against rowdy opposition.

The fight continues until one side surrenders (or no longer has feeling in their hands). Outnumbered yet valiant, the cadets have won their fair share of frosty brawls, perhaps owing to the unauthorized use of grenade launchers.

14. William & Mary's Haunted House

Plenty of colleges boast legendary paranormal activity, which is why alumni frequently return to their old haunts. A popular tradition at W&M involves the George Wythe House and Lady Ann Skipwith, who one fateful night stormed out of a swanky soiree at the nearby governor's palace after learning of her husband's infidelity, lost a red shoe in her haste, and waddled home only to die mysteriously shortly thereafter and take up residence as an apparition.

For years W&M students have tried to summon her spirit by bringing a red shoe to the door, knocking three times, and chanting, "Lady Ann Skipwith, we've found your red shoe!"


Feature Image: Icon Sportswire / Contributor / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

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