Intimidated and in awe of its grandiosity, my best friend and I spilled into the lobby of the Kohl Center for the Chancellor’s Convocation ceremony. I wasn’t entirely sure why we were there, other than that the ceremony was on the schedule given to us during orientation. Still unaccustomed to the freedoms on college, we went simply out of adherence to the strict high school schedules we were used to.
While on the third level of the arena, sitting amongst the sea of others who were about to begin a similar journey, I took in, for the first time, the giant collective that would be my school for the next four years.
I was excited, terrified, claustrophobic, isolated–and then confused as the speaker asked everyone to rise to take part in the traditional singing of “Varsity.” As everyone sprang to their feet, I looked at my friend in confusion. “Wait–what?”
The guy sitting next to me threw his arm around me and I flinched out of fear for a millisecond, only to notice that thousands of others had also put their arms around strangers. On came a song that I would later recognize as our school’s alma mater. As everyone began to sway and sing the slow “vvvarrrsssiittyy,” I buried my face in my friends hair, whispering, “I feel like we just joined a cult.”
That out-of-place feeling was my first encounter with the alien concept that is school spirit.
In all of my time at UW-Madison, I’ve never owned one piece of Wisconsin-wear. I’ve never been invested in sporting events–I’ve neither rioted in the streets when we were victorious nor been upset when we lost. I was always that one person hanging out at the library or watching Netflix when celebratory cheers echoed from bars and neighboring apartments.
Perhaps it’s because my high school was a small, mainly academic environment and our best sport was ultimate frisbee–which, in reality, wasn’t all that good. It could also be the fact that before I signed that online, “yes, I will attend your school!” form and packed my suitcases, I’d never visited UW-Madison.
The campus felt so foreign. It’s also hard, as a student of color, to adjust at a predominantly white institution when coming from the ultimate metropolis of diversity–New York City. I felt out of place for a long time. When that feeling finally subsided, there was still no inkling of Badger pride.
That was until our last home football game on November 21st.
I planned to go to the game but ended up following my own drummer. I couldn’t see myself standing in the student’s section, cold and sartorially unprepared (I don’t think I even owned anything red). It felt a little phony to stand amongst students who had religiously gone to every game and enjoyed it–win or loss. I didn’t know any of the songs, and the only thing I could remember about game day traditions from attending one game freshman year starts with “eat sh-t.”
As soon as the game was over and the streets became overrun with game-goers drunk and sober alike, I felt like I’d taken my time at UW-Madison for granted. Every game, every rally–heck, every University Housing event–retrospectively seemed 1,000 times more important than it had before. I was suddenly overcome with mounds of Badger pride.
And maybe it was because, like many others, I felt the end of an era coming and some reluctance to move on. I suddenly realized that this is the place where I’ve lost and gained so much. The people I’ve met and those I’ve forgotten have taught me so much about myself. The clubs I’ve joined have guided me more confidently towards my desired career. The walls of nearly every building have encased some of my most memorable academic triumphs and failures.
I’ve cried and laughed and cried again. And at this very institution, I’ve stared stress-induced insanity in the face numerous times and never gave in. Perhaps school spirit is not just about going to every game or boasting about UW. Perhaps it’s about recognizing that UW has been a driving force of positive personal transformation.
Soon, I’ll be moving on “into the real world,” as they say. I’m beginning to process that same cocktail of feelings I had when I first got to UW-Madison. But for now, the place that has helped me flourish so quickly–despite much resistance–deserves all of the spirit I can give. Plus, we still have basketball.