When you see someone wearing a Florida Gators t-shirt, do you reflexively reply, “Go Gators”? If so, you may be a bonafide University of Florida alumnus. Founded back in 1853, UF has been churning out educated Gators for generations. In 1906, UF fielded its first Gator football team, and ever since alumni have had something to cheer about–or scream about–depending on the circumstances. What does it mean to be a Gator graduate? And what makes the college experience at UF so special for so many?
Here are the top 10 ways UF alumni are unique, according to Gator graduates and current UF students.
1. A football game can change a Gator’s life forever.
Mark Sieron graduated with honors from UF’s College of Journalism and Communications in 1981 and UF’s Levin College of Law in 1984. He grew up attending Gator football games and said receiving his acceptance letter was a great honor.
“The University of Florida basically changed my life; I met my wife (Robyn Sieron) there, and our first date was the Florida-Georgia game,” Sieron said. Sports have always been an important part of Sieron’s life and relationship with UF. He put in hours of hard work representing the Gators as a runner on the track team.
“When we go on campus, there’s a special feeling. And games are a great way to go back to your university that you love, so we’ve had season tickets for 35 years in football and basketball. We love going together, and our kids grew up going to games, our parents went, it’s really a family thing,” Sieron said.
2. UF graduates scream at their TV–unless UF is winning by 20 points.
Perhaps this isn’t totally specific to UF, but my unscientific study of the issue has found that Gator fans are only happy when their team is winning by at least 20 points.
I grew up in a divided household: My mom attended UF while my dad graduated from the University of Tennessee. However, out of the pair, it was my mom –the Gator fan–who could be heard shouting and screaming at the TV every time her alma mater was competing, be it a football game, basketball, baseball, gymnastics, etc.
If the Tennessee Volunteers were playing, my Dad would occasionally shout, “Dang it!” Or say, “What were you thinking? Throw the ball!” But most of the time he just enjoyed the game, win or lose. But sports are an entirely different thing for my mother and her fellow Gator fans. Football was–and continues to be–serious business. And unless the Gators are winning by about 20 points, I know I’m going to hear my mom ranting and raving. But hey, school spirit is a great thing–it’s part of what makes UF special –and having that intense school spirit is a sure-fire way to spot a UF graduate.
3. Being a Florida Gator means more than supporting athletics; it means having school spirit.
Na-Yong Shin is a sophomore at UF and an Innovation Academy adviser. While she hasn’t graduated yet, she’s envisioned the moment many times. Na-Yong is originally from South Florida and says UF initially interested her because it had a great biology program.
“I came to UF from a relatively small school–my graduating class had about 50 people–so as a larger school I felt like I would be overwhelmed, but I wasn’t, mainly because I found friends that really aligned with how my personality is,” Shin said. “I knew UF would be fun because it just has, I don’t know how you say it, a really unique school spirit.”
Na-Yung represents the next generation of Florida Gator graduates, and she set her sights on UF because of the school’s ability to compete in the academic realm rather than in athletics. While there does seem to be a generational difference between graduates from previous decades and current students when it comes to athletics and academics, that core Gator spirit has always been there, in part because of the school’s history as a top-notch academic institution.
4. Gator alumni rep their team–even under difficult circumstances.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently changed their stance on the issue of wearing facemasks in public to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus. Previously, the CDC recommended masks only for healthcare workers and people who were sick, but after studies showed many people carrying the SARS-Cov-2 virus are asymptomatic, the CDC recommended everyone wear cloth masks in public–and Gator fans have responded.
Jay Morgan-Schleuning graduated from UF in 1994 with a degree in Telecommunication-Broadcast News. Due to shortages caused by the ongoing pandemic, a friend of his in Tallahassee has been making masks for healthcare workers and offered to send him a few special Gator masks.
“She’s actually a Seminole,” Morgan-Schleuning said about his friend who made the masks. “For a while, they were saying they weren’t sure we needed the masks, so we really hadn’t purchased any…but she said I can make one for you in a Gator print, and she’s a Seminole! So I thought that was kind of a cool thing; it gives you an example of how people are coming together in all of this.”
What better way is there to stay safe and support UF during these trying times? Gator fans know no boundaries when it comes to supporting their school.
5. “The Swamp” is UF’s Colosseum, and it’s a cathedral for UF graduates and students.
College football stadiums are monuments to competition. Anthropologists centuries from now will have a lot of fun trying to figure out why universities spent hundreds of millions of dollars building these arenas. But I’m quite sure they’ll find no better name for one of these colossal structures than, “The Swamp.”
With seating for over 80,000 students, alumni and fans, “The Swamp” is an integral part of the college experience at UF–and it’s one of those spaces that creates shared memories for all who attend the games it hosts. The swamp is just one of the many facilities UF athletes and fans get to enjoy. It’s also an especially important place for UF graduates. While their days of rushing to class are over, tailgating and attending Gator football games is a pastime that can last a lifetime.
6. Whether the Gators win or lose, UF grads hang in there no matter what.
Current UF students haven’t been blessed with the experience of being able to cheer the Gators on to a football national championship. After so much success in the 2000s with Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, the current drought of titles means many students don’t have memories of the Gators’ illustrious footballing past.
Na-Yong Shin admits that she hasn’t been to as many football games as she would have liked, but that’s partly due to her different schedule in the Innovation Academy. She also said many of her friends have only been to a a handful of football or basketball games.
But Gator graduates have been through it all; through the good times and bad times. “I think that the students now… they’ve been through so much mediocrity since Urban Meyer left, that they don’t have memories of winning national championships,” Sieron said. “When you’re upset about a game, you get so upset about it and you say you’re not going to renew your tickets and you’re done with it. But then when the ticket renewal form comes you just fill it out and send it in.”
After all, there’s always next year.
7. UF doesn’t just educate, UF trains graduates for a lifetime of work.
UF graduates can attest that being a Gator often means graduating with more than general education, it means graduating with real work experience. Jay Morgan-Schleuning has vivid memories of working overnight shifts at WRUF AM radio and he also anchored the daily WUFT radio show “Morning Edition.”
That real-world experience is what landed Morgan-Schleuning his first post-college job. At the College of Journalism and Communications, they made a tape containing one story from each of the seniors at the TV station and sent the tapes out to news directors across the country. “I came home one day when I was in the middle of my job search to a message on my answering machine at the time, and there was a news director who called me from Dothan Alabama,” Morgan-Schleuning said. “Now, I had never been to Dothan. And I was very unfamiliar with Alabama, but I knew that I had not sent a tape to that market. But he said we loved the story that was on that (UF) tape and asked would I come up and interview. And that ended up being my first job!”
Morgan-Schleuning thinks the level of real-world experience he got at UF is remarkable, and it’s part of what sets UF apart from other universities.
8. UF graduates connect with their fellow Florida Gators.
The official UF Alumni Association sponsors events throughout the year and across the United States. For alumni interested in Gator athletics, there are message boards and websites dedicated to the conversation surrounding football, basketball and more.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t go on the website and check out what’s going on here with athletics,” Sieron said. “And you know, not much is going on right now because of COVID-19, but people are posting lists like ‘What’s your favorite coach,’ favorite this, favorite that, of all the different sports, not just football. And that’s fun, it gives us something to do!”
Today, alumni have many more opportunities to connect with one another than in generations past. The UF Alumni Association Facebook page has over 86,000 followers, and many graduating classes have created their own Facebook groups where people can connect.
9. Gainesville isn’t just a “college town,” it’s home.
To outsiders, Gainesville may seem like just another mid-size college town, but to those lucky enough to spend four years at UF, it’s much more than that. From UF’s shady campus to the sunbeams raining down on Paynes Prairie, Gainesville has something for everybody. Even Tennessee fans begrudgingly accept that Gainesville hosts a beautiful college campus, full of collegiate gothic-style brick buildings and mossy oak trees.
With the UF campus positioned near the center of town, students can almost imagine they run the city. College can be a strange, even difficult time, but no matter what it’s a unique and formative experience.
Gators–regardless of where they end up living–can always come home to Gainesville and its warm air and blue skies. There’s something about the city and UF’s campus that seems to latch into people; after years of being away from campus, graduates who return often find they’ve been injected with a hefty dose of school spirit.
10. The Gator Nation is everywhere.
Last but certainly not least, UF alumni get to be citizens of a truly unique country: The Gator Nation. Known across the United States and even across the world, the Gator Nation is a kind of symbolic collection of Gators past and present. It’s an informal and occasionally formal network of people who rally behind the Gator flag. There’s even an official app for the Gator Nation. How many universities not only have their own “nation,” but even have an app for it too?
Morgan-Schleuning went to a mid-career graduate program at Syracuse University, and he found that UF had forged an identity and reputation on a national scale.
“Every time a professor would hear that I had gone to the University of Florida, they would make a big deal over it. It’s a very highly regarded school, and I think they’ve done a great job with the Gator Nation branding. Everybody knows that campaign,” Schleuning said. So being a part of the Gator Nation isn’t just fun, it’s also a way for Gator grads to show they’re part of a highly respected institution.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the importance of being a Gator to many UF graduates. Some attach their Florida Gator identity to competition on the football field, while others see their identity relating more to the competition of academics. The one thing UF alumni all seem to agree about is that being a Gator is something that unites all UF graduates, and being a Gator has a special meaning for all who were lucky enough to receive an education at the University of Florida.