Uga the Bulldog, Handsome Dan and why university spirit matters

Getting into the spirit at Temple University. Aspen Photo/Shutterstock.com

Head to Yale and you’ll meet Handsome Dan. At Boston College, you’ll find Baldwin the Eagle, and at the University of Georgia, Uga the Bulldog. Across American college and university campuses, mascots are used to help create that distinct “spirit” that has become such a fundamental part of a US college education.

In the UK, this sense of university “spirit” is hard to find. But our ongoing research indicates that UK universities could benefit from fostering a stronger sense of spirit: it could improve students’ academic engagement and help improve their overall university experience.

Creating a distinct spirit is deeply rooted in US college education. The sporting reputation of universities is central to this and each institution has its own mascot, representing the traditions, values and beliefs of the school.

Many US universities communicate and cultivate this spirit through initiatives that emphasise the importance of a sense of community and belonging.

Baldwin the Eagle, mascot of Boston College. Lorianne DiSabato/www.flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

At the University of California, the Cal Spirit groups engage students in activities that uphold the university’s traditions and sense of spirit, including “spirit weeks” and fight songs – songs that have become synonymous with sports teams and are sung at games. At other universities, events such as homecoming games, tailgating (where people have a meal round the back of a car near a sports stadium), cheer-leading, parades and proms bind students together and create a strong community feeling.

At Emory University, it is the unofficial mascot, Dooley, the biology lab skeleton, who rules. For one week every spring, students celebrate “Dooley’s Week” and the campus is transformed into a place of fun and games. Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life, explains that “Dooley is our life blood”.

Beware of Dooley.

University-branded merchandise is also central to students expressing their sense of belonging. It is not uncommon to see US students walking around campus dressed head-to-toe in clothing bearing their university’s name or logo. This commitment and loyalty to the university also extends to students’ family members who proudly flash university logo bumper stickers or sweatshirts. In the UK, on the other hand, university merchandise is rarely seen as more than a piece of memorabilia or a gift.

What builds spirit

In our study, we explored the presence and impact of university spirit at a UK and a US university. We conducted observations and focus groups with students who also took photographs capturing what university life meant to them.

To understand what it means for a place to have a spirit, we drew on the Roman concept of genius loci, the “guardian divinity of a place”. Today, the phrase is more commonly translated as “the spirit of the place”, reflecting somewhere’s particular atmosphere, quality and character.

We found that at both universities, the physical environment, including libraries, cafes, sports centres and student clubs, was a crucial part of their students’ experience.

But our research also showed that a strong sense of university belonging is also driven by other, softer factors, including how positively students feel about their institution, whether they want to be associated with it, the value of their relationships with other students and academic staff, the opportunities that exist for them to participate in activities both on and off campus, and their eagerness to stay in touch with the university after graduating.

At the US university, students felt part of the university and expressed a strong sense of belonging: this was their university – now and after graduation.

The UK students, however, saw their university more as an institution to attend, and then eventually leave behind. There was a tendency for them to feel disconnected from their environment; they mainly came to campus to attend classes and did not engage in many extracurricular activities. Many students worked part-time and accessed much of their learning material via the university’s online learning environment.

The US students felt proud to be part of their university and showed it by purchasing merchandise bearing the university’s logo or sporting mascot. They wore these items on campus and especially at sporting events.

For the UK students, merchandise largely was seen as memorabilia. One student said: “I think I would get something before I leave, just like memorabilia, but not for functional use.”

Cultivating a cycle of pride

We argue that having a distinct “spirit” and making students feel they belong is important for all universities. It positively affects students’ academic engagement as they feel more connected across subject areas and programmes. Our research found that where there is a strong sense of university spirit, students are more open to network, learn from each other, and work in cross-discipline teams. These are essential skills in a globally-connected work environment.

In the UK, we found that graduates don’t often express belonging once they leave their university and studies have shown that many are dissatisfied with their university experience. This means that UK universities are losing out on the benefits of the “cycle of pride”, whereby proud graduates turn into proud alumni and continue to give back to their alma mater through shared business connections, time, recruitment, recommendations or funding. UK universities, facing further public funding cuts, could learn something from their US counterparts whose alumni network is a lucrative source of fundraising.

To create pride, belonging and university spirit, UK universities need to go beyond their current focus on the National Student Survey and league table rankings. More attention should be given to cultivating the values, traditions and beliefs that truly will bind students and their universities together – now and in the future.