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What Exactly is American School Spirit All About?

What is behind all this school spirit?
What is behind all this school spirit?

When I first arrived at the University of Maryland, and for many weeks after, I was bemused by the number of students who walked around dressed from head to toe in clothing with our university’s name on it, and by the volume of merchandise in the university bookstore that features our mascot, Testudo the terrapin.

The weeks went by, and every day you could guarantee that at least 50% of the students on campus would be wearing at least one garment of University of Maryland attire. It wasn’t just the students – I saw their parents sporting large ‘M’ bumper stickers on their cars, and even younger siblings wearing Maryland red.

The university that you choose to attend in England is something to be proud of - most of us worked hard to get there and try to make the most of the experience - but at the end of the day it is just a university: a place to earn a degree, to meet friends, and to introduce you to another way of life.

Here in College Park, going to the University of Maryland is not merely an academic or a social choice – it is a way of life.

I remember one of the first orientation seminars I had when I arrived in Maryland, during which they played us a video showing a sea of red-clad students singing along to the Maryland victory song. They didn’t seem at all reserved or self-conscious to be professing so publicly their love for their educational institution.

At home in Liverpool, although my university sells branded t-shirts and hoodies, they are nowhere near as popular as such items are here. People will generally buy one over the course of their university career – but more as a souvenir than as an actual fashion statement. Indeed, I only bought one to show people here in America where I came from.

Compare that to the average student at the University of Maryland, who by the end of their degree will likely have amassed an entire wardrobe of Maryland goods, not to mention all the other household items with Maryland’s name on them; from clothing to confectionary, garden gnomes to gazebos.

It was all baffling to me at first; but, as my first semester comes to an end, I think I have finally cracked the mystery of this school spirit.

A tailgate party in full swing
A tailgate party in full swing

My revelation came when I went to my first tailgate. A tailgate is the back of a pickup truck (or the trunk of any car where the back door opens downward and lays flat), and in a uniquely American tradition, people go ‘tailgating’before a football game, gathering around the open tailgates of each other’s vehicles to have a party with food, drinks, games and music. The first tailgate party I went to was before Maryland’s Homecoming football match – the biggest football game of the year, which draws alumni back to join the festivities.

As I looked around at the congregation of Terps (or Terrapins – the affectionate nickname for our teams and alumni), one thing bound them all together – pure passion and loyalty to the University of Maryland.

College football is huge in America. Back in England, we had heard whispers of this strange phenomenon, but only when you get here and experience it for yourself can you realize how huge it really is. The Maryland Terrapins are supported not just by students but by local residents too, and games are shown on TV and followed fanatically by the local community. As a student, this feeling of pride is infectious.

A sea of red in the stands at the football game
A sea of red in the stands at the football game

This is the fabled American sense of school spirit. American students have a sense of pride in the heritage and identity of their university that seems lost on my fellow peers at home. Years after graduating, they not only look back fondly on their studies and the memories they share with friends, but also maintain a strong devotion to the vast sports program.

Even when the football team is underperforming, as seems to be the case with the Terps this year, school spirit expresses itself in other ways.

So is this school spirit a good thing? Although it occasionally borders on the obsessive, I say yes it is! It is still a novelty to me to see such spirit and unity among the student body, and having such pride in your university is surely no bad thing.

There are certainly some negative effects to this school spirit. Sometimes the avid support of the Terps can boil over into aggressive chanting and even violence. I know in the past the combination of alcohol during the tailgate and the fanatical sense of school spirit has led to incidents that damaged the profile of the University of Maryland. But such occurrences are few and far between – I’ve only seen jovial and playful school spirit at the sports events I’ve been to.

The marching band takes the field at a football game.
The marching band takes the field at a football game.

The level of devotion to college sports also means athletics make a lot of money for universities, a fact that schools can exploit. At Maryland the big news recently has been the fact that our athletics will move from the ACC conference to the Big 10 conference, a wealthier conference that will eventually allow athletics to bring in more revenue for the university. But to many students, it feels like the university is exploiting their school spirit and abandoning its traditions in pursuit of greater profits. Our independent student paper reported one student as saying that the powers that be went “sneaking around behind our backs.” Another added that “the university is sacrificing those traditions, built over more than 50 years, for financial stability.”

Then again, perhaps the heated reaction from the student body to the moving of conferences symbolizes that true school spirit is alive and well. The passionate reaction from my American friends proves that it is not just about the giant stadiums, the TV contracts and the multi-million dollar coach salaries after all – it is about being invested in a part of this institution forever, and being united as a kind of college family.

A peculiarly American thing though it is, the school spirit at the University of Maryland is definitely something I’ll miss when it’s time to go back to England.